Poor upgrades of two vital rail routes, agreed to by the premiers of Bangladesh and India, might fail to help the free flow of goods between three South Asian countries.
The two routes – Rajshahi-Rohanpur-Singhabad and the Parbatipur-Birol-Radhikapur – could open up huge cross-boundary trade opportunities involving Bangladesh, India and Nepal.
The Bangladesh Railway has decided to use 90-pound rail (one metre of rail weighing 90 pounds) on the two routes, which is not fit to carry heavier Indian wagons with 22.9-tonne axle load, experts say.
The 90-pound rail can carry a maximum of 22.5-tonne axle load. The load on two connected wheels on two sides is called one axle load.
Railway engineers fear that the rehabilitated routes with 90-pound rail can give in any time if the heavier Indian wagons frequently move on the Rajshahi-Rohanpur-Singhabad route and the Parbotipur-Birol-Radhikapur track in Dinajpur district.
In a letter to the railway headquarters, the railway’s general manager has suggested that the Indian wagons should carry 18-tonne axle load—4.9 tonnes below the Indian wagon capacity—for the safety of the tracks. Dhaka Tribune has obtained a letter in this regard.
Md Amzad Hossain, the additional director general (infrastructure), admitted the problem. “We will set condition for lower loads and put speed restriction on the Indian wagons,” Amzad told Dhaka Tribune.
He said making the track uniform with the Indian railway that uses 120-pound rail track involves a “huge cost”. “Ideally, we should use 100-pound rail in the routes having the prospect of international trade,” TA Chowdhury, an ex-director general of railway, told the Dhaka Tribune.
Chowdhury said he initiated replacement of the 90-pound rail with heavier 100-pound track in some sections of Bangladesh Railway.
“Use of 120-pound track would be better, but the 90-pound rail can bear Indian wagons if they travel less frequently,” Mozammel Hoque, railway’s general manager (project), said.
Bangladesh has already rehabilitated the track from Rajshahi to bordering station Rohanpur in Chapai Nawabganj to connect it with the Indian railway system through Singhabad, the frontier station, costing over Tk1.55bn.
This route stretches up to the India-Nepal bordering stations of Raxaul and Jogobani through Indian railway network, which is connected with most of the South Asian railway links.
Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh in the joint communiqués have agreed upgrading the Rohanpur-Singhabad and the Birol-Radhikapur railway routes for sub-regional trades.
The two links will ultimately give India and landlocked Nepal and Bhutan the access to the South-western Mongla port for sub-regional trade and cross-boundary investment.
New Delhi has already granted over Tk17.12bn as loan to build a 53-kilometre track from Khulna to Mongla port.
The railway authorities are converting over 150 kilometres of metre gauge track into broad gauge at a cost greater than Tk10bn, officials say.
Japan debt cancellation fund is providing the money to rehabilitate the Parbatipur-Birol-Radhikapur, and the tracks up to Panchagarh.
This route was in use until 2004 when India converted its metre gauge track into broad gauge, suspending the Bangladesh-Nepal trade through Indian territories.
Official figures show Bangladeshi businesses import more than they export. According to the trans-boundary railway movement, a receiving country must accept the same load sent by the forwarding countries.
In that case, one Indian wagon will carry 91.6 tonnes while the Bangladesh Railway will allow 72 tonnes – less than 19.6 tonnes.
Businesses pay the Indian railway authorities the charge for 91.6 tonnes.
“The businessmen will certainly feel discouraged to carry lesser amount of goods by paying maximum charge,” Abdul Halim Mia, the former chief engineer of Bangladesh Railway, said.
“It will increase cost of business,” he noted.