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The little locomotive that couldn’t

  • Published at 08:49 pm October 19th, 2014
The little locomotive that couldn’t

The high-tech multi-fuel train system acquired by Bangladesh Railway a year ago, amid much fanfare over modernising the country’s rolling stock and cutting commuter service costs, has turned out to be a lemon.

Bangladesh Railway’s decision to procure the modern-looking Diesel-Electric Multiple Unit (Demu) passenger trains, hyped to raise passenger volumes and lower transit times, has succeeded at doing neither.

The costly trains, which add to economic losses at the loss-making public railway company, offer little advantage in travel times and are notoriously uncomfortable to travel in – and that is when they are running.

In practice, Demu trains carry just one-fourth of the number of passengers that conventional second class trains carry on the Dhaka-Narayanganj and Dhaka-Joydebpur routes. Both the conventional trains and the Demu units take the same amount of time on the Dhaka-Narayanganj route.

Owing to frequent operational problems, BR operates Demu at off-peak hours – 5:40am, 1:40pm and 10:05pm.

Contrast the reality of its performance with the excessively optimistic statements made about the Demu system when the ministry was mulling the Tk460 crore purchase.

The railway ministry rolled out efforts to procure 20 sets of Demu trains in 2011. Each Demu set consists of one dedicated passenger compartment sandwiched between two engines-cum-compartments. A much-touted advantage of the Demu was that it could go in any direction because it is fitted with engines on both sides.

Bangladesh Railway justified the Tk460 crore procurement, saying the trains would carry huge numbers of passengers to and from the capital’s suburbs such as Narayanganj and Joydebpur.

It further said Demus would reduce operating times because the trains do not require time to change the direction of the engines in the way that conventional trains do.

Syed Zahurul Islam, railway director (traffic), told the Dhaka Tribune: “The maximum capacity of one Demu train is 600 passengers. Since the trains run at off-peak hours, the number of passengers on the Demu on the Dhaka-Narayanganj service is low.”

BR’s 13 pairs of conventional trains each carry at least 1,200 passengers during rush hour on one-way trips from Dhaka to Narayanganj. That is twice the Demu’s theoretical maximum, but actual passenger numbers are well below full capacity.

“A conventional train on the Dhaka-Narayanganj service, under private management, carries at least 1,200 passengers. It can bear a huge load as you see during the Eid and Ijtema seasons,” Mahbubur Rahman, divisional commercial officer (Dhaka), told the Dhaka Tribune.

Stock broker Khalilur Rahman, who thinks the Demu was a poor bet, told the Dhaka Tribune: “I once boarded a Demu at Narayanganj bound for Kamalapur, but midway I had to find a bus to get to Dhaka because the train developed engine trouble near Chashara. My boss was pretty upset at me for being late.”

He said compartments on conventional trains were dirty, but at least they got travellers to their destination on time.

Railway officials involved in the operation of Demus say the train faces mid-journey interruptions at least twice a week.

“Many commuters, especially students from Narayanganj, hope for quick service on the sleek trains. When it breaks down, the angry passengers attack the on-duty staff,” an operator told the Dhaka Tribune.

Conventional trains versus Demu

Demus offer commuters no appreciable advantage. 

Take the claim that Demus save time, for instance. The first Demu starts at 5:40am from Kamalapur and reaches Narayanganj at 6:20am, a 40-minute journey, according to the current 50th timetable of the BR. The same train starts at 6:35am and returns to Kamalapur at 7:15am (40 minutes) after taking a 15-minute break.

A conventional train (no 218) starts from Dhaka at 9:20am and reaches Narayanganj at 10:05am taking forty-five minutes one-way, says the timetable. The same train (no 217) starts for Dhaka at 10:20am and reaches Kamalapur at 11:00am, changing the direction of the engine during a 15-minute stay at the station.

In other words, the two services take the same amount of time, give or take five minutes. But the conventional train is more dependable.

A closer look at the proposition that the purchase of Demus has made train travel more comfortable and convenient for passengers, reveals that too is a hollow claim.

For example, the made-in-China Demu has narrow ventilator-type windows that let precious little air into the cabins. When the train runs, the heat in the cabin rises dramatically, making it nearly unbearable for passengers. On sunny days, the trains are like moving furnaces.

On the day Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the Demu, April 24, 2013, many passengers fell sick due to the intense heat inside the compartment. Many people fainted.

To make matters worse, Demu trains do not have hand rails on the door-frame for passengers to grab as they get on or off the train. Since the difference in height between the train floor and the station platform is around three feet, it is very difficult to get into or out of the trains, especially for the elderly, women and infants.

Nur Ahmed, divisional superintendent engineer in charge of the railway’s Syedpur workshop, told the Dhaka Tribune that the metre gauge second-class passenger carriages – the conventional trains used on the Narayanganj-Kamalapur service –  cost around Tk4 crore each.

“This means the BR could have procured at least six traditional coaches with the money spent on one Demu train,” Quazi Asadullah, a retired additional director general of the BR, told the Dhaka Tribune.

He said Demu trains were not fit for Bangladeshi conditions.