|Volume 6 | Issue 09 | September 2012 ||
The Rail Solution
In order to ease the worsening mass transport system across the country and traffic congestion in bigger cities, the rail routes must be modernised and mobilised, argues ASJADUL KIBRIA.
Mass transportation in Bangladesh is in a mess. The situation is abysmal in Dhaka. People have fallen victim to the unruliness in this sector. Reckless driving of buses and minibuses claims several innocent lives everyday. The bus owners together with the drivers and conductors charge a lot more than the real fare while they provide the worst service in buses that are 15/20 years old. Inadequate number of buses compounds the situation. Rowdy motorcyclists run on the footpaths, making them risky for passers-by. CNG-run auto rickshaws are difficult to ride for exorbitant fares. As taxi services are almost uprooted from the streets of Dhaka, several peculiar vehicles are seen to carry passengers regularly. A large number of people are depending on rickshaws across the streets. Private cars are increasing day by day. In the absence of a well-planned transportation system, all these are causing unbearable sufferings to people, forcing them to waste their valuable time, energy and money.
To overcome the sufferings, a lot of debates and discussions are there for many years. Experts and urban planners are offering series of solutions while policymakers are coming up with hollow promises. Not all solutions, offered by the experts, are acceptable as some of those are based on unrealistic assumptions and don't match with the current reality of the country. However, there have been some substantive solutions which have not been accepted to policymakers. Consequently, chaos and sufferings in public transportations continue. It appears that policymakers and administrations are not interested in coordinated and long-term measures; they are rather busy focusing on some quick-fix and overambitious options. Interestingly, almost all policymakers and the majority of experts have one thing in common. They are highly obsessed with road-based solutions. That's why we frequently find suggestions like enhancing road capacity and building new roads and flyovers. The ongoing construction of three flyovers in different parts of Dhaka clearly reflects the obsession with road-based solutions.
In the midst of such debates, scope to consider some easy alternatives is seriously ignored. Policymakers at large have yet to fully analyze the whole situation within the framework of supply-demand as well as under a comprehensive development planning. These are clearly visible in the policy to ignore the rail-based solution. A deep look into the matter will reveal that adopting the rail-based solution will ease horrendous traffic situation within Dhaka city as well as across the country. In this article, I will try to explore the issue in a simple but realistic way.
Let us start with a puzzle. Everyday, roads and streets of Dhaka are loaded with new private cars. It is said that at least hundred new vehicles, where private cars are dominating, are appearing in the streets of the capital everyday. And these cars are also adding disorder to the already distorted traffic management. Thus, a populist argument is there to curb use of private cars to ease the traffic congestions. This argument, however, is definitely not acceptable to affluent as well as upper middle class people. But before drawing any conclusion, we need to know the reasons behind the rise of private cars.
Bangladesh economy is going ahead by adopting market-oriented capitalist philosophy where higher rate of growth is the ultimate destination to promote more private consumptions. Our policymakers are dreaming for 7 percent growth per year and want to upgrade the status of the country as 'middle-income country' from the existing 'least-developed country' by 2021. And for the last couple of years, economy grew by 6 percent on average, which was 5 percent a decade ago. Higher growth is reflected in many ways: increasing number of motor cars is just one of them. To put it simply, higher growth means rise in income level of people, although disproportionately in many cases. And higher income leads to higher consumption and expenditure for material comfort, which leads to an apartment or house and a car. Expecting higher growth to enjoy the advantage of free-market, it is impossible to curb the rise of private cars in a hasty socialist manner.
At the same time, it is also very true that hundreds and thousands of city dwellers cannot afford a car for movement, so they have to depend on buses, mini-buses, rickshaws, CNG-driven auto rickshaws and some other small and medium vehicles. So there is a huge demand for public transports and there is also no sufficient arrangement to meet that demand. This leads to the present chaotic situation. Without addressing the supply-demand gap properly, no solution can be sustainable. Either we have to go for demand management, or we have to improve the supply side, or we have to adjust both.
Now, huge demand for public transport is already well established. And it is also very difficult to manage the demand side only; therefore, supply side enhancement needs to be addressed seriously. It can be possible by adopting rail-based solution even within the existing infrastructure of the railway. Investing a few billion taka to restructure and improve existing railway facilities will lead to a healthy and long-term social return. Let me elaborate on the issue with practical examples.
Everyday hundreds and thousands of people are commuting from Joydevpur, Tongi and Uttara to central and other parts of Dhaka. At the same time people from other parts of Dhaka are also commuting to Ashulia, Tongi, Uttara and Joydevpur. A rough estimation shows that almost 90 percent of the commuters depend on buses and mini-buses. At least another 5 percent depend on their private vehicles. And less then 5 percent travel or commute by train. But, such traffic pressures on road can be easily reduced by providing some commuter train service from Kamlapur to Joydevpur. At present, Turag express is very popular in this rail route and overcrowded in the morning as it goes to Narayanganj. Adding more and two-way trains in the morning, say between 6 am to 9 am, in this route will obviously bring a great relief to daily commuters. Many people will simply stay away from their own private car; number of buses will also reduce and road traffic will also be easier. This will also make road journey less time-consuming. In a similar vein, frequent train services need to be provided during the evening, say from 5 pm to 8 pm. During these morning and evening rush hours, trains can be run for a 20/30 minutes interval. Besides the rush hours, few trains can also be run on hourly basis. Such an initiative doesn't need huge master plan and a lot of consultants. Just improving the governance and coordination with relevant government agencies by keeping railway at the centre will bring a good result.
Again, at present 13 pairs of train are running between Kamlapur and Narayanganj daily (except Friday and government holidays when a single train operates five times a day). These trains are immensely popular and always overcrowded. Unfortunately, there are only seven bogies, each with the sitting capacity of 70 passengers. Due to over-crowding, each train carries around 1500 passengers - mostly standing, compressing and even hanging. And at least, 25,000 people commute regularly in this route. The time-schedule of train is also not very favourable. For example, in the morning rush hour, between 7am and 10.30 am, there are only 4 trains, including Turag express, available from Narayanganj. The first train from Narayanganj starts at 7 am followed by others at 7.50 am, 9.30 am and 10.30 am (Turag). Thus most of the office-bound people, students and workers from Narayanganj have to depend on buses in the rush hours. Three or four more two-way commuter trains in these rush hours are very essential. Moreover, two or three additional bogies can be added in rush hours and removed when the rush is over. In fact, there are always crowds in the Dhaka-Narayanganj rail route and there is little scope that any train will move without enough passengers. The most important thing is a proper time schedule for the trains' departure and arrival in line with commuters' demand.
Both Dhaka-Narayanganj and Dhaka-Joydevpur rail routes are well planned. As rail connectivity between other parts of the country and Dhaka fully depends on Dhaka-Joydevpur rail route, some attention, however, has been paid to this route. Still, condition of Dhaka-Narayanganj route is vulnerable. Although last year some restructuring was completed, a lot more needs to be done immediately. For one, introducing double track in this route will be very effective and highly beneficial in the long run. Already huge chunks of lands belonging to the railway have been grabbed by different influential quarters; considerable chunks of lands have also been illegally leased by some unscrupulous railway officers. These lands need to be recovered so that construction of double track can be facilitated. In a similar vein, Dhaka-Joydevpur double track should be transformed to triple track by recovering lands. And from Joydevpur to Jamuna Bridge (East side) route, the existing single track needs to be transformed in a double track. Doing this and introducing commuter train between Joydevpur and Tangail will bring more mobility and comfort to the commuters. Such schemes will, however, take long-term investment.
Problem is that there is an overemphasis on elevated expressway. The expressway route starts from the Shahjalal International Airport and runs along the rail alignment through Mohakhali, Tejgaon, Moghbazar and Kamlapur Railway Station. This is really a threat to the existing rail route and may ultimately restrict the scope of a third rail track. Already Mohakhali flyover has reduced the opportunity to run any double-decker passenger train or double-stack cargo train to and from Kamlapur. The construction of Jatrabari-Gulistan flyover will also reduce the same opportunity in Dhaka-Narayanganj rail route. When our neighbouring country India introduces double-decker train, the first one is Delhi-Joypur route, we are narrowing down the opportunity. It appears that our policymakers don't want to pay heed to the fact that flyovers are for motor cars while the rail is for people.
Some immediate steps with small investment are also required to increase and make the train services in Narayanganj-Dhaka-Joydevpur more effective. Existing stations and flag stations need to be improved in this route. For example, between Dhaka and Joydevpur, there is a flag station in Banani where currently Turag express and few other local mail trains make a few-minutes stoppage. But there is no platform and so it becomes very difficult as well as risky for the passengers to get on board and get down safely. So, a platform is required here.
Again, rail stations need to be effectively linked with dedicated bus services. People who want to go to Dhanmondi from Baridhara now fully depends on road and have to spend more time and money. If there are buses from Baridhara and adjoined areas to Banani rail station, it will be easier for them to take train and get down at Tejgoan station and then take a bus for Dhanmondi, Mirpur or Mohammadpur. Farmgate bus stoppage is close to Tejgoan rail station. So, some connecting bus service can easily be introduced. BRTC can provide such services. Even private-run buses can be there on a competitive basis.
Access to rail stations is also very important. Although there are sufficient entry-exit roads and spaces, in most cases, these entry-exit points of roads are blocked by buses and other vehicles. These points become stoppage points for buses and make it very difficult for passengers to enter into the station premises smoothly. Such obstacles should be removed. The stations need to be protected from anti-social activities to ensure safety and security of the passengers and employees of the railway.
The railway and communications minister has declared to raise the railway fare by 50 percent. In fact, fare hike is overdue. There is no justification to charge Tk 6 only in one way train travel to Narayanganj where bus ride requires Tk 30. The rail fare in this route should be at least Tk 15. Even commuters are ready to pay the higher fare. They only want timely and sufficient train service. But fare hike by 50 percent across the board will not be a rationale step. It should be up to 50 percent considering the routes and distance. This will make people understand that safe and comfortable journey is not very cheap as they perceived.
Another problem which needs serious attention is rail accident. If anyone watches the accidents closely, most of which are caused by derailment, it will be clear that these are not all due to technical problem; some are rather caused by management problem. There are also strong allegations that bus owners sometime play a role behind such accidents.
In fact, it is well known that the country's transport sector, dominated by bus-truck owners-workers, is hugely criminalized. They are so united and powerful, thanks to strong political backing with muscle and money that they can virtually bring vehicular movement across the country to a halt by calling strike. People of the country have such bitter experiences and regularly face such problems in different parts of the country. Needless to say, this gang is also a big obstacle to thrive the railway. Thus, addressing the long-lingering problems in the area is quite difficult.
Finally, it is the strong political will that can bring about substantive changes in this context and make the rail-based solution feasible. Unfortunately, the sixth five year plan, the core development planning document of the country prepared and adopted by the incumbent government, has sidelined the railway. This reflects the lack of political will to revive railway in a comprehensive manner.
Asjadul Kibria is the business-page editor of Prothom Alo and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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