A tale of two trains 11 Jan 2017

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 11 January 2017
China to Barking versus the Maitree so-called Express

The first day of 2017 saw a 34-carriage train set off from Yiwu railway station in China’s Zhejiang province, bound for a container terminal at Barking on the eastern fringe of London.Estimated time to travel between a third and half an equator’s worth of track?

Around two weeks.

No one doubts this new route, the first of its type between China and the UK, will see its first shipment arrive on time within 18 days. China Railway already runs a host of services overcoming the differing gauges of Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Poland into the heartlands of Western Europe.

London will merely be the 15th European city to join the new Silk Routes being promoted by the Chinese government, thanks to the pre-existing Channel Tunnel.

It is both literally and metaphorically a world away from what Bangladesh has to show in terms of international rail links.

Sadly last Sunday’s fatal collision between a train and car in Gazipur which killed five people has brought the Dhaka-Kolkata Maitree Express route into the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

But safety issues alone can and must be quickly addressed and fixed. After all, the current government has acknowledged the need to reverse decades of underinvestment in Bangladesh Railway and is, for example, pledged to work with the ADB to build a new line to Cox’s Bazar.

What is more important in the long run, however, is the wider global picture.

It is the paucity of ambition and vision inherent in the Dhaka-Kolkata “service” which passengers should be getting angry about.

Compare and contrast. Thanks to the Chinese state rail company, the east London freight terminal will attract plenty of customers wanting to ship goods across Eurasia in less than half the time taken by sea, for less than half the price of air freight.

Not to mention its Western capitalist counterpart, German railway giant DB (Deutsche Bahn), which runs the actual London hub, and while structured as a private profit-making company itself, remains a wholly state-owned enterprise.

For China and Germany then, the Zhejiang-London rail link represents a highly symbolic yet concrete vote of confidence in the business of globalisation during the age of impending Brexit and Trump.

Make the rail network work for Bangladeshis properly, and added economic growth and FDI will follow. Make the system modern and comfortable enough to attract international praise, and in future it may even be India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Thailand wanting to plug into Bangladesh’s transport networks

Meanwhile in South Asia, the Maitree Express route, eight years old but still not running seven days a week, continues to make a mockery of its name. 10 scheduled hours to traverse the flat 390km route between Dhaka Cantonment and Kolkata, speaks for itself. The mind boggles further at the opportunity cost of running so few and so slow trains between two cities containing so many millions of people.

As for the roughly two-hour journey time on offer over a dozen times a day between London and Paris, (a roughly comparable distance), is there even any point in noting that contrast?

Well yes. Of course there is, in this day and age, it is not easy to gloss over what world class looks like. And the Maitree Express is anything but. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen the requisite BBC documentary and still desperately want a ride. (Provided it’s sold as a heritage service — 1970s state socialist cassette player experience edition).

But there’s no getting away from the fact that India, given its mighty railway capacity and know-how, has rather dropped the ball on what its newspapers and government hail as a milestone in connectivity. Whilst China is actively competing with Japan for tenders to take some of the bullet train technologies they use  at home to parts of Indonesia and Singapore, the supposedly prestige Maitree express route languishes amid bureaucratic inertia and outdated track.

It’s not as if Indian Railways lacks engineers or technology. And it clearly copes well with demand unlike Bangladesh Railways; while the whole of BR struggles to transport 200,000 passengers on any given day, the Mumbai commuter railroad alone daily handles over 7.5 million people.

Obviously, amid the behemoth of conflicting priorities faced by India’s railway system, the Maitree route is not going to pace up the agenda any time soon.

Unless and until, that is, Bangladesh starts to take its own railway infrastructure far more seriously.

Fortunately, and this is the good news for once, Bangladesh’s geography gives it huge potential to quickly benefit from updating its railway network.

Bangladesh will not need Elon Musk’s mooted hyperloop to bring all corners of the nation within a few hours of each other. Electrification and new track will do the trick for most of the nation’s relatively short distances and small land area. Flat landscapes and high population density equals a uniquely valuable opportunity at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia.

The economic and environmental benefits from having faster, safer, more reliable railways are well-proven around the world. Be it speeding up commerce and development, encouraging decentralisation, or reducing the need for lorries on congested roads, first and foremost, the biggest benefits from investing in railways will be gained by Bangladesh’s own people and economy.

Make the rail network work for Bangladeshis properly, and added economic growth and FDI will follow. Make the system modern and comfortable enough to attract international praise, and in future it may even be India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Thailand wanting to plug into Bangladesh’s transport networks and ports, rather than the other way round.

Vision is of course the missing ingredient.

But the potential public benefit and profit is such that it is worth planners starting anew with their maps of Bangladesh. After making adjustments for rivers, and getting up to date economic and population projections, it should be easy enough to work out the optimum angle for planting a big X across the nation centred on Dhaka.

Add a smaller O in the middle around the capital and then you can make the resulting circle and four corridors the priority routes for Bangladesh Railways to speed up train times.

Invest accordingly in modern train lines raising funds as needed. (Also, use the map to plan land swaps, sales, and profit sharing development agreements to ensure long-term gains for the railways as landowner/developer.)  You get the idea.

Of course, so long as people accept low expectations and limited aspirations for the nation, it will be easy for naysayers to suggest that 21st century railway projects are or should only be the preserve of economic superpowers.

To which the only necessary and accurate response is take a proper look around the world.

Morocco, for instance, which already has a French built 20th century rail network between its major cities, is investing some 3 billion dollars on upgrades between Casablanca–Marrakech and Tangier. Its current projects promise TGV style top operating speeds of 320km an hour.

Bangladesh should get a move on.