Tourists are not likely to be able to visit Bangladesh's south eastern beach town Cox's Bazar by rail next year, as the authorities have sought an extension of the deadline for the Chattogram-Cox's Bazar train track project till June 2024.
"The ongoing Covid lockdown in Shanghai has raised fresh concerns for us. Around 25% of our project raw materials are now stuck there," Project Director Md Mofizur Rahman told The Business Standard.
He said if the lockdown does not end anytime soon, there will be "problems".
Railways Minister Nurul Islam Sujan recently announced that the under-construction rail line would be opened by June next year. But rail officials said the opening would not be possible in 2024, let alone next year, owing to sluggish progress of the project in the Dohazari-Chakaria patch.
The government approved the around 100km rail line installation project in 2010 to link Chattogram with Cox's Bazar. After the first revision in 2016, the deadline was set at June 2022, as construction began in March 2018. This is a fast-track project of the government, jointly funded by the government and the Asian Development Bank.
Shanghai – the biggest city of China and a global financial hub – was placed under a virus lockdown in the first week of April this year in the wake of an Omicron surge.
Mofizur Rahman said that railroad trucks, loops, angles, train station glass and oyster-shaped structures of an iconic train station in Cox's Bazar have remained stuck in Shanghai.
"Only four construction components – soil, sand, rods and cement – are available in Bangladesh. The country has to depend on China and India for the rest of the construction materials required for development projects," commented the project director.
45% work yet to be completed
The rail line is being installed in two patches – Dohazari to Chakaria, and Chakaria to Cox's Bazar's Ramu.
China Railway Engineering Corporation and Bangladesh's Toma Construction Ltd are responsible for the 52km Dohazari-Chakaria stretch, which has lodged 55% progress so far. The stretch has 19 bridges, while as many as 15 of those are still under construction.
A number of areas in this portion are yet to have even the land developed.
"We could not manage to register better project progress as Toma had land handed over to it late," said Bimal Saha, project manager of Toma Construction.
He claimed the company got the land in 2020, though work began in 2018.
China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation and Bangladesh's Max Infrastructure Ltd are jointly working on the second patch from Chakaria to Cox's Bazar. The 52km stretch, compared to the first patch, has lodged better project progress with 70% of rail tracks installed. Construction work on the oyster-shaped station in Cox's Bazar has also posted visible progress.
"Some equipment of the iconic railway station is yet to arrive from Shanghai. I am afraid the project might be delayed on our side for around two and a half months due to the late arrival," Farhad Hossain, an engineer at Max Infrastructure, told TBS.
However, project director Mofizur Rahman remains optimistic about the inauguration of the project in June 2023.
"If the track is ready, it will be possible to run the trains. We have sought one more year, till 2024, for other works. Although the work is now a bit slow due to the monsoon, we hope it will gain momentum subsequently," he added.
Urban & Regional Planning teacher at the Chittagong University of Engineering & Technology Muhammad Rashidul Hasan said if the project were implemented in due time, the benefits would have already been available, while the work would not face a cost overrun.
An outdated bridge in the way
Bangladesh Railway wants to run a Dhaka-Cox's Bazar train through the 90-year-old Kalurghat Bridge until a new railway bridge is constructed on the River Karnaphuli.
At the invitation of the railways, a Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) team last year inspected the bridge that was labelled risky in 2011.
During the inspection, the BUET team found cracks on the bridge wall at Janali Haat part. It also identified six major risk factors.
One of the major risks identified by BUET was two brick-made piers of the bridge, which the team said could collapse after being hit by any water vessel. Besides, the girders, decks, angles, gasket plates, rivets and other parts of the bridge had already been severely damaged – causing the carrying capacity to decay gradually.
BUET proposed a Tk12.65 crore bill to the railways for a feasibility study on how the bridge could be readied for Cox's Bazar-bound trains. But no agreement has been reached yet.
The dual gauge dilemma
The government initially approved a single metre gauge line in 2010, but shifted to dual gauge construction in 2014. The prime minister also instructed the authorities to acquire land for a double line in future.
But the existing Dhaka-Chattogram and Chattogram-Dohazari rail network is metre gauge, which means the new route to Cox's Bazar cannot have dual gauge rail engines.
"Initially there will be metre gauge engines from Dhaka to Cox's Bazar via Chattogram," said Mofizur Rahman.
The plan to expand the rail network up to Cox's Bazar is around 100 years old. The main goal of the current Dohazari-Cox's Bazar dual gauge railway project is to facilitate travel to the tourist city of Cox's Bazar. Besides, the project aims at connecting Bangladesh with Trans-Asian Railways, including Myanmar.
But the railways shelved the Ramu-Ghundhum patch of the project later, citing a fund crunch amid the current Rohingya crisis in that region.