The Bangladesh government is set to reopen the disused and defunct transborder rail routes to India, Nepal and Bhutan in a major boost to cross-border trade and tourism.
The restoration of two of the planned routes has already been completed in time for their inauguration during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s four-day official visit to India, which begins on Friday.
The routes connecting Bangladesh with Nepal and Bhutan are also part of the proposed Trans-Asian Railway network.
“We believe that if the old rail connectivity can be restored and reopened, including the sealed rail links, we will gain a lot more in trade, business and tourism,” Railway Minister Mujibul Huq told the Dhaka Tribune.
The rail links that will be restored pass through the crossing points on the Bangladesh-India border: Chilahati to Haldibari, Biral to Radhikapur, Benapole to Petrapole, Rohanpur to Singhabad, Shahbazpur to Mahisasan, and Burimari to Changrabandha.
Of them, the Benapole-Petrapole and Biral-Radhikapur corridors will be inaugurated during the prime minister’s India visit.
Bangladesh already operates one transborder train service with India, linking Dhaka to Kolkata in West Bengal. The “Maitree Express” was relaunched in 2008 after a 43-year hiatus and now runs three times a week in each direction through the Darsana-Gede interchange point.
Industry experts expect the improved cross-border rail links to boost the country’s business sector.
“Train services are more comfortable and cheaper than maritime or road transport,” international relations professor at Dhaka University, Prof Lailufar Yasmin, told the Dhaka Tribune.
“If the transborder rail connectivity is restored between Bangladesh and its neighbouring countries, it will be a landmark achievement for us. However, the governments should resolve the issues regarding immigration to make the travelling hassle-free,” she added.
Most of the old rail corridors were severed during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, when Bangladesh was still a part of Pakistan. The rest were abandoned in the past two decades when India converted all of its metre-gauge tracks to broad-gauge tracks.
The two governments have already run a trial passenger train service between Khulna and Kolkata via the Benapole-Petrapole corridor.
This corridor connects Biral station in Dinajpur district – which was officially shut down on April 1, 2005 when India converted their rail tracks - with Radikapur station in West Bengal’s Uttar Dinajpur district.
The Siliguri and Kolkata rail lines will also be connected via this interchange point.
Although these routes will be launched by the premiers of Bangladesh and India this week, they will only become fully operational in June.
Among the rest of the rail links, repair work of the Chilahati-Haldibari link is already underway and is slated for completion by 2020.
This corridor will connect Chilahati station in Nilphamari with Haldibari station in Cooch Behar, West Bengal, allowing passenger and cargo trains to go to Darjeeling via Siliguri.
Bangladesh Railway is constructing a 3km rail line at a cost of Tk78.13 crore.
This rail link will also connect Hasimara station in Bhutan with Mongla and Chittagong seaports via a transit link between Chilahati and Syedpur, which is also under construction.
The 10km Rohanpur-Singhabad link will connect Chapainawabganj in northern Bangladesh with West Bengal’s Malda district. Bangladesh Railway plans to use this link as a transit route in the rail link between Nepal and Mongla seaport in Bagerhat district.
The Shahbazpur-Mahisasan route will link Shahbazpur station in Sylhet with Mahisasan station in Assam, India. Restoration of the 11km rail track on the Bangladesh side, which was closed down in 2002, will begin soon.
“A construction firm will be appointed for this project on April 20,” a Bangladesh Railway official said anonymously.
“The track will extend between Moulvibazar and Kulaura and is projected to cost Tk678 crore. It will also connect to stations in Shillong and the Guwahati tourist spots in India. The Bangladesh government will pay around Tk122 crore of the cost, and the rest will be paid through the second Indian line of credit,” he said.
The 3km Burimari-Changrabandha corridor, connecting Lalmonirhat district with West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district, was closed off during the Liberation War in 1971. Bangladesh Railway plans to restore this link to connect Bhutan with Chittagong seaport.
The government is also planning to install a new rail route between Akhaura in Brahmanbaria and Agartala in Tripura. It is now acquiring land for the 15km rail track construction project, which was approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) on August 16, 2016.