The railway authorities have set a target to implement all five projects by 2030
The government has sent a list of five priority railway projects including the Dhaka-Chattogram high-speed rail line – planned to be implemented under public-private partnerships – to the World Bank after the Washington-based development partner expressed interest in providing technical assistance for these schemes.
The four other projects on the list are Bhanga-Payra Port broad gauge line, Icon Building in Chattogram to offer commercial and leisure space for customers, a multimodal and commercial hub in Dhaka's Tejgaon, and a 1MW solar power plant in the Khulna station area, according to railway officials.
SM Salimullah Bahar, chief planning officer of the Bangladesh Railway, told The Business Standard that although feasibility studies for some of these projects were done earlier, the World Bank will conduct fresh surveys for all of the selected projects to evaluate whether they would be eligible for PPP implementation and financially viable.
If they fit the PPP model, the World Bank will assist the railway authorities in every stage starting from developing the project design to preparing tender documents, he added.
He further said that the multilateral development agency has also hinted at financing some of the economically viable projects.
The railway authorities have set a target to implement all five projects by 2030.
Railway officials said the World Bank had earlier conducted feasibility studies for the Dhaka-Chattogram high-speed railway line project – which will enable trains to run at a top speed of 300 kilometres per hour, and the broad gauge line from Bhanga to Payra Port.
The Economic Relations Division (ERD) had also sent the preliminary development project proposals to a number of development aid agencies seeking finance for these two projects over a year ago, but none of them has yet shown interest in providing loans on easy terms for the projects.
Against such a backdrop, the authorities decided to implement the projects under the PPP arrangement, the officials said.
Dr. Md. Shamsul Haque, professor of the civil engineering department at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), said the chances of success of PPP projects in railways are high in Bangladesh. This is because less land is required for such projects, and there are also enough people to travel by train.
He, however, observed that Bangladesh has to follow the China model in the case of railways – high-speed trains for long distances and metro rail for urban areas.
"There will be a station for high-speed trains where the metro rail lines end. But, high-speed rail lines will not only connect two major cities; there must be stations in all major cities along the route."
A good network of high-speed long-distance trains and metro rails will enable the country to realise its vision of becoming a developed nation by 2041, said the noted transportation specialist.
"Road construction requires a lot of land, and their costs are also high. Again, the prospect of expensive domestic aviation in our country is also low. We need high-speed trains to handle traffic congestion and make the cities livable. This will also slow the urban-bound migration of rural people."
He also stressed ensuring adequate container train service apart from passenger trains similar to India where high-speed trains run on elevated tracks while high-speed container trains run on the track underneath.
This will boost economic activities in the country, he said.
Dhaka-Chattogram high-speed train
In October 2021, the preliminary development project proposal for this project from Bangladesh Railway was sent to various development partners through the ERD.
Chinese firm China Railway Design Corporation and Bangladeshi consulting firm Mazumder Enterprise jointly prepared the survey report under a railway project.
According to the report, $11 billion will be required for launching high-speed trains on the Dhaka-Narayanganj-Cumilla-Chattogram route. This is going to be the costliest communications infrastructure project in the country and the second costliest among all development projects taken up thus far. The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant project is the most expensive project in the country that involves a total cost of Tk12.65 billion.
According to the survey report, the total length of the proposed high-speed elevated rail route will be 224.6km, while there will be five stations in total. The three-storey stations will have modern facilities including access for disabled persons.
The first station in the capital's Kamalapur will be constructed as a multimodal rail hub where there is currently a rail container depot. The government has taken an initiative to move this container depot to Dhirasram in Gazipur.
But the main station on the route will be at Narayanganj with a depot for the rail cars. The other stations will be at Cumilla, Feni, and Chattogram. Rail bridges will be constructed on the Shitalakshya in Narayanganj, the Gomti, the Meghna, and the Feni river enroute.
Railway officials said this high-speed rail route will be extended up to Cox's Bazar as per Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's announcement.
Once the high-speed train begins operation, the journey from the capital to Chattogram will be slashed to less than 1.5 hours. An uninterrupted journey between Dhaka and Chattogram will take only 55 minutes. The trains, which will run at a top speed of 300km/hr, can carry approximately 50,000 passengers each way daily.
A total of 11 sets of trains will be purchased for passenger and goods transportation. These trains will make a total 52 trips a day.
Six power substations will be constructed for the electric trains.
Huge response from foreign firms
According to railway sources, China's state-owned organisation China Railway Design Corporation has recently written to the railways ministry expressing interest in investing in this rail project under the PPP model. The company, however, has sought 80% ownership of the project.
Previously, two other Chinese corporations – China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) and China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) – showed interest in constructing the Dhaka-Chattogram high-speed railway line.
The two corporations said they would form a joint venture to implement the project, which will arrange the necessary loans, and hand over the rail line to the Bangladesh Railway after operating it for five years.
On 9 October 2020, a proposal in this regard was sent to the railways ministry through the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Dhaka and the Public-Private Partnership Authority Bangladesh.
According to the proposal, the loan arranged by the company will cover the implementation cost plus interest, spending for maintenance and operations of trains, and the profit of the company.
The two companies will also arrange bank loans with a 20-year repayment period, which Bangladesh Railway will have to repay in 40 instalments. The finance ministry will be the guarantor for the loans.
Meanwhile, Australia's Providus Investments also has come up with an attractive lending offer for implementing the high-speed rail project.
On 7 October 2020, Providus wrote to the railways ministry, expressing its interest in providing the loan. The multinational lender said it would provide the entire funding for the project – with a 30-year repayment period. It will not charge interest on the loans during the project implementation period and there will not be any hard conditions such as contractor appointment. Moreover, the projects will directly be handed over to the railway upon completion.
Besides, several other companies from China, Japan, and Germany are also interested in constructing and financing the project, railway officials said.
The railway authorities have sent all the proposals to the ERD for its opinion.
Bhanga-Payra broad gauge line
According to the preliminary development project proposal sent to the ERD in September 2021, 214.91km broad gauge rail lines will be constructed from Bhanga to Payra Port and Kuakata via Barishal.
The main objective of the project – estimated to be implemented at $4.92 billion – is to carry containers and goods to and from Payra port by train.
Tejgaon business hub
Railway officials said the authorities have taken an initiative to build a business hub on a 40-acre area around the Tejgaon railway station area in the capital.
This business hub, planned under the PPP arrangement, will be the first Transit Oriented Development (TOD) project, which maximizes the amount of residential, business, and leisure space within walking distance of public transport points.
The railway authorities have estimated a $98.84 million capital expenditure and $0.24 million operational cost for the project.