A project undertaken more than five years ago to convert the metre gauge railway line into dual gauge from Akhaura to Sylhet is likely to see further delay as questions have been raised over its rationale and high cost.
All necessary procedures — Ecnec approval, managing Chinese concurrence for funding and selection of contractor — have already been completed over the years, but the “huge cost” of the China-funded project now appears to be another obstacle.
Against the backdrop, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is going to hold a high-profile meeting today to determine the fate of the project aimed at ensuring better rail communications between Dhaka and Sylhet, officials of Bangladesh Railway said.
In September 2015, the rail authorities signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with a Chinese company for the project.
The Planning Commission approved the preliminary development project proposal in March 2016 and the Economic Relations Division in November that year sent a proposal to the Chinese government for funding the project on a government to government basis.
The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs the same year gave the go ahead for implementing it under direct procurement method.
Two committees were formed — one for negotiation with the state-run Chinese company for signing commercial contracts, and another for determining technical aspects.
Dozens of meetings were held and the Chinese government agreed to fund the project. The Ecnec finally approved it in April last year at the cost of Tk 16,104.45 crore.
After the Ecnec approval, four ministers from Sylhet region wrote to the railways ministry, suggesting establishment of double line instead of converting the existing single line for better upgradation of the corridor, which is a part of Trans-Asia Railway Network.
Some railways officials also asked why the government would convert the existing track when it was possible to construct a new dual gauge line with some extra money added to the project cost.
In July this year, the PMO raised questions about turning the metre gauge track into dual gauge instead of double line. It wanted to know the reason for the high cost per kilometre for the conversion work.
As a result, the physical work could not be started though it was supposed to be implemented between April 2019 and June 2025. Even no project director has yet been assigned.
“Although four projects will be discussed in the meeting [today], the main issue would be the Akhaura-Sylhet rail line project. And the main focus can be the huge cost of this project,” a railway official, who is very much aware of the developments, told this correspondent.
Railway Director General Md Shamsuzzaman told The Daily Star yesterday, “Questions have been raised over the negotiated value for the project.
“Besides, there is a demand for constructing a double line. Discussion will be held on the matter [at the meeting]. We will move forward following whatever instruction the PMO gives.”
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Akhaura-Sylhet section of railway — which links the capital with Sylhet divisional headquarters — is an important route for economy, tourism and internal and external connectivity. Akhaura-Kulaura-Shahbazpur section is a sub-route of Trans Asian Railway Network.
The project titled “Conversion of metre gauge rail into dual gauge in Akhaura-Sylhet Section of Bangladesh Railway” aims to convert 225km metre gauge line into 239km dual gauge.
Out of Tk 16,104.45 crore, China will finance 66.16 percent.
But the project cost is much higher than that of similar rail projects, at least three railway officials told The Daily Star.
As per the proposed contract cost of the project, it would be Tk 60.59 crore per kilometre, which is the highest among all ongoing railway projects, except for Padma Bridge Rail Link Project (PBRLP), one of them said.
A 169km new rail line is being constructed to connect the capital with Jashore under PBRLP, which has a 23.37km viaduct. So the cost is supposed to be higher than other projects, the official said wishing not to be named.
“But why would the cost of Akhaura-Sylhet Project be so high when no new line would be constructed here?” he questioned.
While the cost-per-km of the project would be Tk 60.59km, it would only Tk 18.94 crore per kilometre under the ongoing project titled “Construction of Dual Gauge Double Rail Line and Conversion of Existing Rail Line into Dual Gauge between Akhaura and Laksham”, another official said.
On the other hand, to convert the existing single gauge into dual gauge, the contractor would have to build a bypass line to keep rail services operational. After completion of the conversion work, the bypass line would be removed.
“Operation of the train through the bypass line would create problems and increase operational cost,” a railway official said, adding, “We can build another line with some additional money.
“And in that case, we can operate trains through the existing line when the new line will be constructed. After construction of the new line, we would be able to convert the existing line into dual gauge, if necessary.”
Meanwhile, the planning, foreign, environment, forest and climate change, and expatriate welfare and overseas employment ministers separately wrote to the railways ministry last year for constructing a double line, sources said.
Director General of PMO Azizur Rahman held a meeting over the project on July 2 and following the meeting the PMO sought answers to several questions about the project, the sources said.
The questions include what is the rationale of converting metre gauge line into dual gauge, logic of converting the road by constructing bypass line and what is the cost of bypass line; how they would manage if the operation of trains through bypass line faces problems; what is the problem of constructing another dual gauge line beside the existing one and how much it would cost.
The PMO, in its letter to railways ministry, also said when it would cost Tk 8,808.88 crore for constructing dual gauge line on Joydebpur-Mymensingh-Jamalpur section, why Akhaura-Sylhet section would cost double though the length is almost the same and the cost would be less for soil-related works in the hilly area.
The PMO asked the rail authorities to give comparative analysis of cost between Joydebpur-Mymensingh-Jamalpur, Kulaura-Shabazpur and Akhaura-Sylhet sections.
When journalists had asked Planning Minister MA Mannan about the cost on the day Ecnec approved the project, the minister said he is not in a position to ascertain it; rather it is the engineers and planners who will set the cost.
A railway official, who was a member of the technical committee, said as per their study, a double line on Akhaura-Sylhet route would not be financially viable.
Bangladesh Railway now operates 13 pairs of trains on this route daily and it is possible to operate 35 pairs of trains daily by converting the existing meter gauge to dual gauge, and that would meet the future demand, he said, wishing not to be named.
“So, we didn’t recommend a double line,” he added.