Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

New stations for new generations

How the metro rail is laying the tracks to a truly modern Dhaka

Update : 03 Apr 2024, 01:14 AM

As each year ends, newspapers recall those that have passed and welcome new beginnings.

 

I have a tingle of excitement from afar at the initial phase of the first ever Metro Rail service in Bangladesh opening between Uttara and Agargaon. Whilst this is slightly premature -- completion of the line's southern half to Motijheel is about a year away and the extension to Kamalapur a further one after that -- it is nonetheless a new birth for Dhaka to celebrate. 

 

Hopefully the initial phase can help put the Liberation War Museum in Agargaon on the mind maps of more of the city's residents -- it is well worth seeing but seemed to be lacking visitors when I was there last. Once the full line is open, that station will have to compete in the civic imagination with Dhaka's better-known landmarks along the southern section of this route like Kawran Bazar, DU, and Shahbag (and all before the extension to Kamalapur railway station which is planned to be the terminus of two other MRT lines, one coming from the airport and another going on to Narayanganj).

 

Being a male of a certain age and living in a city which has had underground railways operating since 1863, I accumulate a lot of public transport facts without trying very hard. For those that do, their often-disparaged pastime of being a “trainspotter” or transit nerd, seems less eccentric in a world with many more megacities keenly striving to cut congestion (a look at the high prices for becoming a patron of or buying some of the pricier merchandise at the London Transport Museum, also indicates more mainstream popularity).

 

Whenever a city gets an efficient train-based mass transit network, it swiftly becomes part of its identity, as the default option for journeys to central areas. It is well established that the overall economic, social, and environmental gains heavily outweigh negatives like high costs and building delays. If you build it well, people will come, and it does not matter that very few systems -- typically outliers like Hong Kong's MTR -- are consistently highly profitable on both their running costs and in accumulating capital for expansion. 

 

The high cost of construction usually incites controversy and delay even for established networks. London's recently opened Elizabeth line (also called Crossrail) took half a century to approve and around 18 billion GBP and 23 years to build. You can imagine the moans, but in just a few months it has gone from a costly novelty to part of daily life, clocking up more than 70 million passenger journeys since May, some 20 million more than projected. 

 

A fully-fledged mass transit network is decades away from Dhaka, but MRT-6 brings a bright glint of hope amid the capital's chronic gridlock and pollution. 

 

From what I have seen of the Uttara North terminus, it includes lifts and escalators and has platform screen doors. It is right to expect such features on new train services, but most stations on older metro and subway networks were built without them and often find the cost of retrofitting prohibitively expensive. 

 

It is vital for the future of public transport and train travel in Bangladesh that every aspect of the Metro Rail project sets a good example and is accessible to all. From guaranteeing a safe comfortable ride for passengers to improving the capacity and training of the nation's railway engineers, this is essential to help the country make serious progress in bringing electrification for intercity train services and building up suburban commuter railroads. Not all improvements to public transport require big capital outlays -- bus lanes and clean, well-signposted bus stops are cheap to implement, they just need civic and political will.

 

For a city like Dhaka, with relatively few parks and public places, each new metro station will add to its civic space and offer a landmark for their neighbourhoods. A good reason to feel optimistic about Dhaka's Metro Rail is that it is closely supported by Japan.

 

Tokyo's 37 million people benefit from, what by many metrics, is the world's best public transport system. Tokyo Metro, its original (but not only) subway, is a fraction of the length and size of systems in New York and Seoul -- but manages to serve more passengers and just by itself -- and is only rivalled by Shanghai for the title of world's busiest. 

 

Tokyo excels further still in how efficiently the metro integrates itself with other subway, regional, and longer distance bullet train services within its metropolitan region. It exemplifies Enrique Peñalosa's dictum that “an advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it's where even the rich use public transportation,” with Japan's lowest ownership rate for private cars.

 

It is not only the wealthiest of nations that invest in new train services. Morocco has high speed (300km per hour) inter-city trains and several tram-based metro networks in cities like Casablanca. It achieves this modernity while also being renowned for restoring and enhancing the prestige of its old towns and souks, which are home to some of the world's most expensive hotels.

 

So, where's the downside? Only half of one out of six planned Metro lines is opening now -- less than a tenth of the full network. That's plenty more cost and disruption to come and the people paying for it now may not get to see the final benefits.

 

But one day, no doubt, their descendants will be grateful.

 

Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.

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