First News
Volume:7, Number:29
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COVER STORY
THIS WEEK

The Bangladesh Railway

| Khondoker Tazuddin |

Railway has been around for more than 150 years in Bangladesh, but lost its popularity over the years due to corruption, irregularities and poor management

Shackled with irregularities, corruption, and mismanagement, Bangladesh Railway (BR) has been struggling to move ahead for years. A proud part of the 150-yearold history of railways in the subcontinent, Bangladesh Railway has largely fallen off track. Corruption in the last few decades has virtually crippled the rail administration. Even with the change of multiple governments, the corruption and irregularities remained the same, if not got worse. Railway resources are being stolen on a regular basis, which is further slowing down the pace of this already beaten down sector.

Current scenario

Since assuming power in 2009, the Awami League-led grand alliance government has given maximum emphasis on the development of rail communication system. Along with establishing a separate ministry, budget allotments in the rail sector are being increased every year. However, despite spending over BDT210 billion in the last five years,the length of railroads could not be expanded as per the expected level. Nowadays, it takes 7-8 hours to reach Chittagong from Dhaka by the intercity trains.

The travel time on this route used to be around 5 hours in the 90s. The reason behind this situation is the rapid increase of rail stoppages on this route. Because of these stoppages, these intercity trains have been turned into somewhat of a local train service. Once known as a safe mode of transportation, the railway has been plagued with frequent accidents in the recent years. In the last fiscal year, 177 train accidents occurred. The numbers were 151 and 154 in the previous two fiscal years respectively. Delayed schedule has become a persistent problem in rail communication. Currently, the trains maintain a 78-percent punctuality rate in their schedule. The rate was 82 percent last year and 81 percent the year before. Even in the FY 2013-2014, the railway maintained an average timeliness of 83 percent.

The Quota system and blackmarket ticket sale could not be stopped either. Due to these two problems, most first class and AC compartments remain unoccupied. In the last two fiscal years, these two types of compartments had only 42 and 66 percent occupancy rates respectively. Although most of the rail bridges are in a hazardous state, very little attempts have been taken to renovate or reconstruct them. Recently, a train derailed, and two of its oil wagons fell into a canal when the bridge underneath gave way, spilling oil into the water body in the Boalkhali Upazila of Chittagong.

In the 2015-16 FY, finance minister AMA Muhith proposed a BDT53.28-billion reversed Annual Development Program (ADP) allocation for the development of railway's infrastructures. Following the establishment of the railway ministry, this is the first time this sector has received such a high amount of ADP allocation. Previously, BDT48.41 billion in FY 2013-14, BDT38.67 billion in FY 2011-12, and BDT27.16 billion in FY 2010-11 were spent for the development of railway. Almost 85 percent of this allocation went to the developmental sector.

Despite spending around BDT212.14 billion in the last five fiscal years, very little progress has been made in terms of adding new rail tracks to the existing length. The much-hyped ‘double lines’ across the entire Dhaka-Chittagong railway route and Tongi-Bhairab Bazar to Laksham-Chinki Astana route were supposed to be completed by 2021. However, both projects are likely to miss their deadlines due to the slow pace of construction work. The construction work of Pabna-Ishwardi rail track remains unfinished as well.

Yet, an additional BDT77.17 billion has been allocated to this sector for the upcoming fiscal year.

According to a 2005 estimate, the total length of railroad in Bangladesh is 2,855 kilometers. Of that, 660 kilometers are broad gauge tracks (mostly in the western region), 1,830 kilometers are meter gauge tracks (mostly in the central and eastern regions) and 365 kilometers are dual gauge tracks. Some of the meter gauge rail tracks have been converted into dual gauge tracks, but it didn’t increase the overall areas covered by railway.

With the aim of speeding up the development of railway, a separate ministry was founded in December 2011. However, the ministry has been accused of irregularities and corruption since the very beginning. The first railway minister Suranjit Sengupta resigned over allegations of corruption only four months into his job. Although his successor, Mujibul Haque, has so far maintained a clean image, the ministry is still accused of widespread corruption and wastefulness. Allegedly, one-third of the overall government allocation to this sector has been either wasted or grabbed by unscrupulous officials. There are plenty of proofs to substantiate some of the allegations, but no effective steps have been taken so far to address or prevent them.

According to the railway development report, 26 out of 53 government projects have seen virtually no progress so far. While all of these projects were supposed to be completed by June 2015, their deadlines had to be extended. Only 11 projects have been completed so far. The ongoing projects are riddled with allegations of corruption as well. With the increase of passengers and ticket price, the overall income of the railway has increased. However, its overall expenses have shot up as well. As a result, this sector is facing huge financial losses.

One of the prime examples of corruption and waste of money is the procurement of 20 sets of Diesel-Electric Multiple Unit (DEMU) trains from China. These trains were bought at the cost of BDT 6.84 billion, but over BDT2 billion has been spent already on their maintenance. The DEMU trains have been found unfit for Bangladesh's rail service system as they were frequently facing technical faults during operations. As a result, these hugely expensive trains have proved to be a drain on the public exchequer.

An investigative report of the railway ministry recommended punitive measures against eight officials in charge of this project for the negligence of duty and buying faulty DEMU trains. The project director has been assigned as the Officer on Special Duty (OSD). Currently, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is investigating the irregularities that took place in this project. Meanwhile, 165 broad gauge and 81 meter gauge oil tankers, purchased with state loans from India, are lying useless due to faulty features. As the oil insertion and emission holes of these tankers have a narrow opening, the state-owned Padma, Meghna and Jamuna oil companies are not willing to transport their fuel oil in these tank wagons. Bangladesh railway spent BDT2.09 billion to buy these wagons with the sole motive of increasing the transport capacity of fuel.

BR bought 10 broad gauge engines from India with BDT3.664 billion, VAT included. The cost was over BDT1.58 billion higher than the international market price of these engines. BR went ahead to buy 16 additional engines from India for BDT2.086 billion, which once again was way higher than the international market price. By doing so, they ended up losing over BDT2.85 billion. BR also bought 11 meter gauge engines financed by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). While the international market price of these engines was BDT3 billion, BR ended up spending BDT4.80 billion, thus suffering a loss of BDT1.80 billion.

Large-scale corruption has been found in three projects completed by BR. Engineers associated with the BDT2.16-billion Bangabandhu Bridge-Tarakandi rail route project (35.12 kilometers) ended up embezzling more than BDT287 million from the project budget. Moreover, a project tender worth BDT742 million was approved without the acknowledgment of the proper authority. These anomalies were detected in the special inquiry conducted by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (OCAG). In 2011, the Dhaka-Narayanganj railway restoration project was declared finished even though the simpliwork was largely left incomplete. The motive behind the renovation work was to increase the speed of trains on that route. However, the incomplete project did nothing to increase the speed. OCAG is currently investigating the irregularities in this project as well. A similar situation was seen with the Dhaka-Joydebpur metergauge- to-dual-gauge conversion project. The incomplete project was abruptly declared finished in 2011. Almost BDT80 million was shown as project expenditure even though it was not spent on the project at all. Substandard building materials were purchased at high prices. The irregularities came up in an inquiry conducted by the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) of the Planning ministry.

History of rail

The journey of railways in British India began in 1853. The country's first railway, built by the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR) in 1850, was officially inaugurated on April 16, 1853. The first railway in the territory that forms present-day Bangladesh was established in 1862 by Eastern Bengal Railway Company. Since the British period, railway is considered to be one of the safest sources of long distance communication in our country. BR, the state-owned rail transport agency of Bangladesh, operates and maintains the entire railway network of the country. Established in 1990, this organization is conducting its activities under the Ministry of Railways. While the rail sector is one of the highest revenue generating sources in many countries, in our country it has been essentially turned into a profitless, money-guzzling one.

First News

Mohammad Firoze Salauddin Secretary, Railway Ministry of Bangladesh

Despite facing a multitude of problems and obstacles, Bangladesh Railway is moving forward. Currently, manpower crisis is the biggest challenge for this sector. Faulty rail lines and risky bridges are also raising red flags. We are trying to identify the problems in order to solve them properly. Railway property worth over billions of taka is currently illegally occupied. We have identified all the lands and are trying to recover them. However, the land grabbers are using legal loopholes to slow down the land recovery process. There is no way to deny that there were corruption and irregularities in this sector in the past. We have conducted an investigation through our parliamentary committee to determine the exact amount of illegally occupied railway property. A railway execution committee and a rail board are much needed to increase the strength of railway. BR should be given the power of taking decisions about railway. I think the rail sector should not be confined by bureaucratic complications.

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Mujibul Haque Railway minister of Bangladesh

There are many opinions about the supposed sorry state of Bangladesh Railway, a proud partner of the 150-years-old rail heritage in the subcontinent. None of the problems BR is facing today are incurable. The government is trying its best to develop this mass transportation system. The irregularities and corruption of the past have bogged down this sector. Before the current government assumed power, no increase was seen in the investments for the railway. No recruitment, infrastructural renovation or addition occurred either. Even though the population kept growing, this safe, cost-efficient and environment-friendly mode of transportation system was neither modernized nor expanded. The sector was incurring regular losses. However, the current government has taken a lot of initiatives to build this sector from the ground up. Our aim is to transform railway into a passenger-friendly mode of transportation. In order to do so, a number of renovation works are currently underway. We are also trying to increase the standard of service as well. Along with building new rail tracks, we are buying new engines and coaches. As a result, the quality of service in the rail sector is going to improve significantly in the future.

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Mohammad Amjad Hossain Director general of Bangladesh Railway

Various sectors of the railway had rampant corruption, and, to some degree, it still exists. However, the government is earnestly trying to reduce the level of corruption and irregularities. Initiatives are being taken to bring speed and transparency to the development projects. All the necessary steps are being taken to improve the standard of service. If the government initiatives continue, BR will make a huge comeback within the next five years. Manpower crisis is the main problem in this sector. We have to shut down 46 stations permanently and 53 temporarily due to the lack of loco masters. Over 1,000 workers are retiring every year. Without quick recruitment of an adequate number of skilled people, this sector will fall further behind. Over 5,500 recruitments have been pending due to official complications, which should be resolved quickly. The cases regarding recruitment have to be settled soon, too. The Finance Ministry has to start the recruitment process in the lower positions instead of outsourcing. By doing so, BR will be able to overcome its challenges.

Frequent fare hike, substandard service

The government raised fares for passenger and container trains by 7.23 percent on February 20, 2016. This move aims to cut down the annual losses incurred by BR and increase its annual income by BDT480 million. Still, there will be a shortage worth over BDT8.50 billion, said the railway authority. The decision to increase the train fare will not improve the current condition of BR in any way. Rather, it will increase the burden on the commuters, who are mostly from the country’s lower income group.

The passengers are already suffering on their journey via rail due to its awful services. The compartments are dirty, shabby and congested. In most of the compartments, there is no toilet and light. The seats are torn, uncomfortable and often broken. Due to insufficient seats, many passengers have to remain standing throughout the journey.

Considering the low standard of service and lack of initiatives by the BR authority to make improvements, the decision of raising train fare has generated a negative response from the passengers. In a survey conducted by the Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity (Bangladesh Passenger Welfare Association), 72 percent passengers expressed their dissatisfaction with the standard of rail service, overall environment in the station, cleanliness and hygiene and security. Of the rest, 2 percent declined to comment and 26 percent expressed moderate satisfaction. The survey also found that 70 percent passengers have to buy black market tickets. Only 27 percent passengers said they always buy from the counter while 3 percent use their political or social influence to get tickets.

The current system of selling ticket is unnecessarily complicated and hard, according to 88 percent of the train passengers. While 12 percent think the current system is alright, 94 percent have said that the system should be more simplistic fied. At the same time, 65 percent of the passengers are not happy with the attitudes of various rail officials/ workers such as booking assistant, inquiry officer, station master, etc. Five percent are somewhat satisfied and 30 percent have no issues with it. Many passengers also expressed their dissatisfaction about the unhygienic condition of the compartments, torn-down seats and lack of security in the trains.

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Barrister Nazmul Huda Former roads and highway minister of Bangladesh

With the excuse of reducing losses and improving the quality of service, the government has increased train fares twice in 3.5 years. However, neither did the losses stop nor did the quality of service improve. The continued loss is being shown as the sole reason behind the fare hike. However, the main reasons behind the losses were left unexplored. Without addressing the problems, only increasing train fare time after time will not bring any positive results. No medicine will work if the symptoms of a disease are not identified first. Similarly, the railway authority must look at the root of the problems first.

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Dr. Akbar Ali Khan Former advisor of caretaker government

The main reason behind railway’s losses is irresponsible management. Traveling without tickets is another reason behind the financial losses. In both cases, the BR employees have a lot of responsibilities. The railway authority took no initiative to reduce the stealing of fuel. Over 63,000 acres of railway lands are lying unused throughout the country. By leasing these lands, BR can earn a substantial amount of money. However, the authority is not paying attention to it either. If such irregularities and mismanagement persist, BR will never be able to get over the losses. With the change of time, living expenses have increased. So did the cost of almost all essentials. So, we cannot say that increasing train fare is completely illogical. However, the standard of passenger service has not increased much, which raises question about the validity of the fare hike. Railway is a relatively safer mode of communication. If issues like cleanliness and passenger service, etc., can be taken more seriously, this sector has the potential to do very well. To bring down the losses, mismanagement has to go first. Commuting without tickets must to be brought down to zero. Train communication has to be increased on the routes with more number of passengers. If BR authority can move ahead strategically, it is bound to become a profitable organization once again.

Risky rail tracks raise concern

There are serious concerns about the safety factor in the country’s rail communication system because of the faulty and dangerously damaged rail tracks. Of the 2,835 kilometer rail tracks of the country, 1,100 kilometer lines are in a seriously dangerous condition. As a result, incidents of derailment are becoming more frequent day by day.

According to a recent estimate, 162 trains were derailed last year. To avert the risk of serious accident, most trains are moving at a snail’s pace. In some areas, it takes 4-5 hours to cross only 50 kilometers of distance due to the slow pace of trains.Slippers underneath almost 1100 kilometer rail lines have wasted away over the years. Many of these slippers are either broken or do not have the bolts or clamps to keep them in place. Generally, a six-inch layer of stones should be underneath the slippers. However, in many places, the stones underneath the slippers are either missing or have been moved. Trains shake dangerously in various routes due to the absence of slippers and stones in between the tracks. Most rail tracks in Dhaka, Chittagong, Sylhet, Rajshahi, Khulna, Mymensingh, Panchagar, and Dinajpur areas are in a dilapidated condition, raising the risk of massive accidents at any moment.

Lack of maintenance and frequent stealing of railway resources are further intensifying the risk factors in railway. Instead of using strong wood such as garjan, shegun or shaal, low-strength wood is being painted with tar and used as railway slippers. Even in places where wooden slippers have been replaced by concrete slippers, stealing of clamps has made the slippers almost useless.

Outdated engine is another major safety concern for BR. The service life of 144 engines out of the 286 existing ones has already expired. Even though these engines no longer have the ability to pull more than 5-6 compartments, they are being used to carry the weight of 24-25 compartments. The faulty rail lines and expired engines are raising serious concerns about fatal accidents.

Multifaceted problems

The hard conditions imposed by the donors and lack of funding due to the indecisiveness of the government have held back the modernization and renovation of railway for years. As a result, the once reliable rail service has been turned into a weak vessel. Manpower crisis, risky and expired rail engines, etc., are slowing down the normal pace of service. Over 70 percent of the existing rail engines have long expired, but still inching ahead somehow.

The rail service has long been struggling with the shortage of skilled manpower. Once overstaffed with 60,000 employees during the Pakistan era, the railway lost half its manpower by the year 2000. It suspended recruitment in 1985 and sent 10,000 workers into retirement through golden handshake in 1992. The total workforce came down to 23,624 in 2012 as a number of fresh hiring processes later were marred by corruption and irregularities. Meanwhile, over 1,000 employees are retiring every year, continuing to deplete the already meager workforce.

Although the recruitment of 159 loco masters has been finalized, the process is still pending. Meanwhile, 86 loco masters are about to retire within this year, creating a further shortage in manpower. The government- granted manpower for the rail sector is 40,264. Currently, the manpower stands around 27,000. The gap between demand and availability is around 13,000. The rail division is riddled with corruption, irregularities, plundering, stealing and various other problems. Over the years, railway land, allotted by the government, has been illegally occupied by various groups, politicians, local influentials and even BR officials. Irregularities worth billions of taka have occurred in the international tenders during the regular purchase process of BR. In addition, stealing of railway resources has become a regular incident.

International purchase opens a wide window for corruption in the railway sector. The people involved in the purchase often show a much higher figure than the actual price of the equipment and pocket the extra money. No matter who is in power, illegal occupation of land is a regular occurrence in the rail sector. Throughout the country, thousands of acres of land adjacent to the rail stations, rail junctions, and rail lines are remaining unutilized. Many a time, people use their political connections to take out leases on those railway lands for their personal use. In many areas, illegal structures, slums, markets, etc., have been set up on valuable railway lands.

Over 2,500 acres of railway lands are currently illegally occupied. In the last 60 years, the overall highways in the country have increased from 400 kilometers to over 50,000 kilometers.In contrast, the railway has lost over 90 kilometers. Right after the liberation war, Bangladesh had a total of 2,855 km railways. Today, we only have around 2765 km railways left. Along with railways, the number of rail stations has decreased as well. In 1972, Bangladesh had 470 rail stations. Over the years, 98 stations were shut down.

The number of railway passengers is in a decline, too. In the 70s, railway was the main mode of long-haul transportation for over 70 percent commuters. In the last 4 decades, the percentage has been declining steadily, and currently, it stands at only 7 percent. Over 43 percent of cargo used to be transported via trains, which has dropped to 13 percent. The annual number of passengers in trains is less than 45 million now. To reduce the recurring losses in the rail sector, some aspects of management have been handed over to the private sector. As a result, huge job cuts occurred. The 56 trains under private management earn around BDT190 million a year. Under BR’s own management, the amount was around BDT120 million.

Railway property under illegal occupation

In 2010, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Communication began its investigation to determine the amount and value of the illegally occupied railway property. According to the findings of the committee, railway property worth over BDT500 billion was illegally occupied. The BR had 63,372 acres of land, of which 23,900 acres were unutilized. Of that unutilized land, 12,100 acres were occupied by land grabbers. The investigation also found that various influential quarters and developer companies have grabbed railway lands with the help of the unscrupulous officials of two organizations under BR: The Railway Men’s Stores and Bangladesh Railway Welfare (worker) Trust.

Despite having clear orders form the ministry to recover the occupied lands, BR has failed to do so, mostly because of the fact that some top officials of BR were associated with the Railway Men’s Stores and Bangladesh Railway Welfare (worker) Trust. The then-chairman of the Railway Men’s stores was also the director general of BR during the time of the inquiry. On the other hand, the president of Bangladesh Railway Welfare (worker) Trust was the additional director general (infrastructure). Moreover, the BR general manager (East) was allegedly involved in illegal occupation of railway land in Chittagong. So, those who were in the position of recovering the occupied lands were also accused of having those lands illegally occupied.

As for 2016, very little progress has been made in recovering the occupied railway lands. BR ended up losing more lands within the last six years. In 2016, BR had 61,820.97 acres of land, of which 4,391.39 acres were grabbed by various persons/organizations. Some 12,960.41 acres of land owned by the railway remained unused. Bangladesh Railway recovered 83.25 acres of land in both zones between July 2015 and May 2016 and constructed 5.564 kilometers of fence in the eastern zone and 0.702 kilometers in the western zone.

Loco master and station master shortage

Lingering shortage of train loco masters, station masters, and other essential staff members has significantly impaired BR services. Currently, the railway has 1,000 loco masters and assistant loco masters in place of 1,782 and only 700 station masters in the place of 1,235 it needs, according to the railway's official data. As per BR data, 130 of the 430 rail stations had to shut down their operation due to the shortage of station masters. A large number of experienced loco masters have retired last year. As a result, assistant loco masters had to take up the responsibility of running the trains. It takes a long time for a train driver to be competent. Some 230 assistant drivers were recruited last year but they would only qualify to run trains after seven years of training. One loco master, who did not want his name to be disclosed, said, “Before running a train, a loco master is supposed to take rest for 8-12 hours. However, due to the shortage of loco masters, we are not getting any time to have rest. As a result, keeping up concentration while driving a train has become quite difficult.”

Mega plans for railway development

To transform the rail sector into a reliable source of transportation, the government has taken up several mega plans. The plans include almost 235 short, medium and longterm projects. In addition, two other big projects are underway. All the ports and districts in the county are being brought under this mega plans. Moreover, the government is planning to build a circular rail network around the capital, an underground rail project on Dhaka-Joydebpur route, and bullet train on Dhaka-Chittagong route. If these projects are properly implemented, railway will become the most favorite means of transportation for the city dwellers.

To recover from the losses due to rapid job cuts and shutdown of rail stations during the previous governments’ tenure, the incumbent government is trying to rebuild the railway sector from the ground up. Over 132 kilometers of new lines have been established so far. Initiatives are underway to upgrade all the rail routes across the country to double track ones to improve its services. Moreover, 35 kilometers of new railways from Tarakandi to Bangabandhu Bridge, Pakuria to Bhanga and Akhaura to Agartala were established. Land acquisition is underway to set up new rail tracks.

A mega plan has been undertaken to connect Bangladesh railway to the SAARC corridor. The BDT339.44-billion projects under this plan will be conducted in three phases. The projects are estimated to be completed within 2020, 2025 and 2030 respectively. To make railway a modern and up-to-date public transportation system, 106 new intercity and mail trains have been purchased in the last seven years. Over 350 coaches are currently commuting passengers. A total of 67 new stations have been established and 46 locomotives have been collected. Of them, 20 are meter gauge and 26 broad gauge locomotives.

The government has also taken up 43 projects for the development of the railway sector. The combined cost of these projects is approximately BDT40 billion. Some of the projects have been completed already, while others are currently underway. The rail sector has been given maximum priority in the national budget. A number of donor organizations/countries including ADB, JICA, China, and India are providing necessary assistance to the government as well. Some of the important projects include the construction and reconstruction of Dohazari- Cox’s Bazar-Gundum, Kalukhali- Bhatiapara-Gopalganj-Tungipara, Pachuria-Faridpur-Bhannga, Ishwardi- Pabna-Dhalarchar and Khulna-Mongla rail lines.

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