Cross-Border Rail Link between Bangladesh and India A Step Towards Enhanced Connectivity

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The Akhaura-Agartala Cross-Border Rail Link represents the persistent endeavors of both India and Bangladesh to enhance regional connections and stimulate economic development. This initiative, covering a distance of 12.24 km, with 6.78 km in Bangladesh and 5.46 km in Tripura, has been initiated with substantial financial support from the Indian government. It not only facilitates seamless cross-border trade but also serves as a catalyst for heightened cultural and interpersonal exchanges between the two neighboring nations. The establishment of this cross-border railway link is expected to unlock a multitude of prospects, particularly in the tourism sector, by facilitating smoother travel and accessibility between the regions. With improved connectivity, tourists and travelers from both countries can eagerly anticipate exploring the diverse cultural heritage and natural beauty each nation has to offer.

Furthermore, the enhanced connectivity is poised to encourage deeper sociocultural interactions, fostering better understanding and mutual appreciation of each other’s customs and legacies. Additionally, the established seamless connectivity through the railway link is anticipated to bolster stronger economic relations and pave the way for expanded bilateral trade and commercial activities. The simplified transportation is expected to streamline the movement of goods and services, promoting increased economic integration and elevating the trade volume between the two nations. This initiative perfectly aligns with the shared objective of fostering a robust and sustainable economic partnership that mutually benefits both countries and contributes to the overall advancement and progress of the region. The Akhaura-Agartala Cross-Border Rail Link project has been implemented with the aid of a grant of INR 392.52 crore provided by the Government of India to Bangladesh. After a gap of over seven decades, this cross-border rail link is anticipated to be a game-changer, significantly reducing travel time and fostering increased trade between the two nations ensuring a step towards enhanced connectivity.

The most recent train service is a component of an ongoing initiative to enhance connectivity between Bangladesh and India in recent years. Three trains, namely the Bandhan Express, the Maitree Express, and the Mitali Express, operate between West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Bandhan Express reinstates a former railway connection between Kolkata and Khulna, the third-largest city in Bangladesh. Before the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, this route was served by the Barisal Express. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recommenced the service in 2017. The Bandhan Express utilizes the Petrapole-Benapole border crossing. The Maitree Express, operating between Kolkata and Dhaka Cantonment, commenced in April 2008. The Mitali Express, announced by PM Modi during his visit to Dhaka in March 2021, links Siliguri in North Bengal with the capital of Bangladesh. Hence, the existing project represents a continuation of these endeavors.

The agreement for the cross border rail link project was signed in 2013, commencing with an initial investment of Rs 972.52 crore in 2016, which included Rs 580 crore allocated for the Indian segment and Rs 392.52 crore for the Bangladesh segment. However, the budget underwent two subsequent revisions due to cost increases and additional incidental expenses. The total estimated cost of the project now stands at Rs 1255.10 crore, with Rs 862.58 crore assigned solely for the Indian portion. India is providing full financial support for the entire project. The Ministry for Development of North East Region (DoNER) funded the work on the Indian side, while the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) covered the expenses for the Bangladesh side as ‘Aid to Bangladesh.’ The Indian Railway Construction International Limited (IRCON), a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) under the Indian Railways, oversaw the project on the Indian side, while Texmaco, a private Indian firm, managed the implementation on the Bangladesh side. A total of 86.85 acres of land was acquired for the project on the Indian side and subsequently handed over to IRCON.

Previously, the route from Kolkata to Agartala necessitated a lengthy and indirect trip, guiding travelers through northern West Bengal, the capital city of Assam, Guwahati, and then finally proceeding southward to Tripura. However, with the introduction of this new railway connection, trains can now travel directly from Kolkata to Agartala through Bangladesh, making use of Bangladesh’s strategically advantageous geographical position between India’s northeast and the remainder of the country. Earlier, the sole connecting passage was a narrow corridor located in Siliguri, West Bengal, colloquially known as the “Chicken’s Neck.”

The primary and most notable advantage of this advancement is a significant decrease in travel time. The laborious 38-hour journey will be shortened to a mere 12 hours, rendering it a much more appealing choice for passengers who might have previously shunned this route due to its extensive distance and lengthy duration. The railway connection encompasses a combined distance of 12.24 kilometers, featuring a dual gauge rail line that extends over 6.78 kilometers in Bangladesh and 5.46 kilometers in Tripura. The strategic importance of this recently established link cannot be emphasized enough, representing a crucial milestone in the advancement of transportation infrastructure in the area.

Fostering Regional Connectivity: Enhanced Transport Initiatives between Bangladesh and India

The implications of these concerted efforts to enhance connectivity between Bangladesh and India extend far beyond mere transportation improvements. Bangladesh’s proposal to expand the Chittagong Port to benefit India’s landlocked states of Assam and Tripura through the Akhaura–Agartala rail link signifies a significant stride in facilitating smoother trade and fostering a more robust economic relationship. The addition of new ports of call and protocol routes to the shared inland waterway network further amplifies the potential for seamless trade operations and enhanced regional cooperation.

Moreover, the envisioned connection between the land ports of Bhadrapur-Bairagi Galgalia, Biratnagar-Jogmani, and Birganj-Raxaul with Banglabandha-Fulbari and Birol-Radhikapur via road serves as a testament to the commitment to expanding and strengthening the region’s transportation infrastructure. The recently inaugurated Padma rail-road bridge in Bangladesh is also poised to play a crucial role in improving physical linkages between the two countries, fostering greater ease of movement and trade. The addition of the rail link is the icing on the top, representing a significant leap forward in the quest for comprehensive regional connectivity and seamless cross-border trade.

This transformative development not only solidifies the bond between Bangladesh and India but also serves as a beacon of hope for other nations striving to enhance their transport infrastructure and strengthen economic ties with their neighbors. The seamless integration facilitated by the rail link opens up a world of possibilities, fostering cultural exchange, promoting tourism, and igniting the flame of collaboration in various sectors. Moreover, the streamlined movement of goods and services, as well as the increased efficiency in transporting bulk cargo, holds the promise of a more vibrant and dynamic economic landscape, with both countries reaping the benefits of increased trade and enhanced cooperation.

Furthermore, the broader implications of this rail link extend beyond its immediate impact on transportation, reflecting a deeper commitment to fostering regional unity and cooperation. By fostering greater connectivity and trade facilitation, the rail link serves as a symbol of solidarity and mutual understanding, laying the foundation for a more interconnected and prosperous future for the entire South Asian region. As the infrastructure continues to evolve and integrate with other transportation networks, it is poised to become a key player in shaping the future of regional trade and connectivity, serving as a testament to the power of collaboration and collective growth.

The reduction in travel time from 38 hours to just 12 hours is expected to significantly boost passenger traffic, enabling more individuals to access the route without the previous concerns about prolonged travel. This dramatic improvement is anticipated to not only benefit travelers but also invigorate businesses in the region. The enhanced capacity of the rail link to handle bulkier cargo in large quantities opens up new avenues for commercial growth and economic prosperity, underscoring the link’s pivotal role as a catalyst for regional development and trade enhancement.

Furthermore, the discussions during the India-Bangladesh Summit in Dhaka in March 2021 highlight a concerted effort to explore sub-regional connectivity initiatives that transcend national borders, aiming to strengthen the Indo-Pacific construct.

The intention to operationalize the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement reflects a commitment to fostering greater regional integration and cooperation, facilitating the seamless transport of passengers and goods across borders. Bangladesh’s endeavors to establish rail linkages with Bhutan further underscore the region’s commitment to fostering comprehensive connectivity and solidifying its position within the broader Trans-Asian Railway Network (TARN) project. As these initiatives gain momentum, they hold the potential to revolutionize regional trade, transport, and connectivity, paving the way for a more interconnected and prosperous future for all involved.

– Syed Raiyan Amir is a Research Associate at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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