Bangladesh Railways is moving to establish rail routes from Chattogram to Rangamati's Kaptai, which will connect Chattogram Hill Tracts (CHT) to the country's existing rail network.
The new route connecting Raozan to Kaptai via Rangunia will increase tourism to the hilly districts, draw new investment there, and eventually ramp up regional trade and businesses, say businessmen.
A preliminary project proposal recently arrived at the Planning Commission for approval in principle. In the meantime, the railway ministry has sent a letter to the Economic Relations Division (ERD), seeking sourcing of funds.
The 42 kilometres of railroad tracks will cost Tk8,926 crore as the railway has proposed the Economic Relations Division (ERD) source Tk7,141 crore in foreign aid for the project. ERD officials say they are now in talks with multiple global lenders such as the World Bank (WB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and others.
Rail authorities say the feasibility study of the project was completed in 2019, and a plan design of the double-gauge rail tracks has also been prepared.
Mahbubul Alam, president of Chattogram Chamber of Commerce and Industries, said, "Rail connectivity to the hill tracts will substantially improve tourism. Agricultural goods grown in the region will also get better market access across the country."
AM Mahbub Chowdhury, vice-president of Chattogram Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, added that, "Although the Chattogram Hill Tracts is well known for its forest resources, the country has not been able to tap the full potential there, thanks to poor connectivity. The rail network expansion now could be the game changer."
"The rail route will enable hill tracts farmers to send their fruits and agro items across Bangladesh, and this eventually will bring a major change to the hill district economy," Mansur Ali, director of Rangamati Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told The Business Standard.
Rail authorities noted in their preliminary project proposal that the new rail routes will ease road traffic pressure on metropolitan Chattogram as people from the upazilas will be able to commute to the city by train.
Implementation awaits funding
The railway master plan (2016-2045) includes establishing rail tracts to Kaptai by 2022. However, Bangladesh Railway plans to launch the project this year and to complete it within 2026. But, now it seems implementing the project may take more time as project funding is still uncertain.
Railway officials said they asked the ERD in June to source the foreign aid and the ERD is now in talks with the WB, ADB, Jica, and AIIB, to team up for the project.
In a letter to Rail Minister Nurul Islam Sujon, Indian Railway Construction Limited recently proposed ensuring the funding if it gets the work. The proposal came at a time when China has walked back from the funding of at least two railway projects.
Railway officials say they are not interested in implementing the project with Indian credit since Indian loans have "tough terms" attached to them and have other issues in the course of implementation.
They prefer global lenders such as WB, ADB, or AIIB, for the project.
SM Salimullah Bahar, chief planning officer of Bangladesh Railways, said, "We are yet to finalise the Indian credit proposal as the ERD is in talks with several development partners."
He said government funding the project entirely would be challenging.