Strengthening Regional Connectivity Through Railways: What Does the Recent Bangladesh-India Initiative Mean?

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According to a recently signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Bangladesh and Indian Railway on June 22, 2024, during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, both countries have agreed to enhance their railway connectivity. This agreement allows India to utilize Bangladesh’s railway network to transport goods and passengers across its territory. Similarly, Bangladesh gains the ability to transport goods and passengers to Nepal, Bhutan, and India via Indian railway lines. This strategic collaboration aims to bolster regional connectivity and facilitate smoother cross-border transportation, benefiting trade and travel between these neighboring countries. The MoU marks a significant step towards strengthening the economic and logistical ties in the region.

Railway data reveals that in the 2022-23 fiscal year, 982 Indian trains transported goods within Bangladesh, generating Tk117 crore for Bangladesh Railway solely from wagon charges. Bangladesh Railway anticipates that an increase in the number of Indian trains operating will lead to even higher earnings.

The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding has heralded the resumption of international train service between Rajshahi and Kolkata after 77 years. This new service will be the fourth international train connection between Bangladesh and India. One significant aspect of this memorandum is the initiative to shorten the distance and travel time for the 12 routes of the seven Indian states known as the Seven Sisters from Kolkata by utilizing Bangladesh’s railway network. This development promises substantial benefits for passenger and goods transportation. According to Google Maps, the current railway distance from Kolkata to Agartala via the ‘chicken neck’ corridor within Indian territory is approximately 1,600 km, requiring 31 to 36 hours of travel. By rerouting through Dhaka in Bangladesh, the distance will be reduced to about 500 to 550 km, cutting the travel time to approximately 11.5 to 12 hours. This significant reduction in both distance and travel time will facilitate faster and more efficient transportation, benefiting both countries economically and logistically. The agreement represents a pivotal advancement in regional connectivity, streamlining routes, and enhancing the movement of passengers and goods between the neighboring nations.

Under the new agreement, India is permitted to use Bangladesh’s existing rail lines to transport goods and passengers between its states. Conversely, Bangladesh can utilize Indian rail lines to move goods and passengers to neighboring countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, and India.

Currently, there are five active interchange points linking Bangladesh Railways with the Indian Railway network: Benapole in Bangladesh to Petrapole in India, Darshana in Bangladesh to Gede in India, Rohanpur in Bangladesh to Singhabad in India, Birol in Bangladesh to Radhikapur in India, and Chilahati in Bangladesh to Haldibari in India. Trial runs have also been carried out between Akhaura in Bangladesh and Agartala in India, with commercial services expected to start soon. Two more rail connectivity projects are in the survey stage: Belonia in India to Feni in Bangladesh, and Mahisasan in India to Shahbazpur in Bangladesh. Under the new rail connectivity agreement between Bangladesh and India, Indian trains will be able to operate on these routes using Bangladesh’s rail tracks, for which Bangladesh will receive compensation from Indian Railways. These developments aim to enhance cross-border railway connectivity, providing more efficient and convenient transportation for both passengers and goods. The new routes and agreements promise to significantly boost trade and travel between the two countries, further strengthening their economic ties. The initiative underscores the ongoing efforts to improve regional connectivity and facilitate smoother and quicker transit, benefiting both nations economically and logistically as mentioned earlier.

Boosting Regional Connectivity

Bangladesh has existing transit agreements with Nepal and Bhutan, established in 1976 and 1984 respectively. These agreements are anticipated to gain renewed momentum with the recent rail connectivity agreement between Bangladesh and India. This new agreement with India is designed to facilitate easier access for Bangladesh to Nepal and Bhutan, enhancing regional connectivity and trade.

The agreement aims to provide Bangladesh with streamlined access routes to Nepal and Bhutan. In the near future, Nepal and Bhutan are expected to use Bangladesh’s existing ports to boost their trade and commerce activities. Under the new agreement, Bangladeshi trains will have two main routes to enter Nepal: one route spans 529 kilometers from Rohanpur-Singabad-Roksol-Birganj, and the other covers 220 kilometers from Birol-Radhikapur-Jogobani-Bhiratnagar.

For Bhutan, Bangladesh will connect via a 231-kilometer rail track from Chilahati-New Jalpaiguri-Hasimara. While Bhutan currently lacks a railway network, Bangladesh and India can reach the Bhutanese border through the Hasimara rail station, which is located approximately 20 kilometers from Bhutan’s border city. Moreover, as part of the recent rail connectivity agreement, Bangladesh has been granted permission to use the Kokrajhar rail track in Assam and the Gelephu rail track in Bhutan once they become operational between India and Bhutan.

This enhanced connectivity is expected to significantly benefit the region by promoting more efficient and integrated transport networks. It will facilitate smoother and quicker transit of goods and passengers, thereby boosting economic ties and fostering stronger regional cooperation among Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

Enhancing Railway Revenue Through Freight Services

On June 10, Railway Minister Md. Zillul Hakim highlighted the crucial role of freight train revenue in the global railway industry. He pointed out that in many countries, the primary income for railways comes from freight services. In comparison, while the average revenue generated by a passenger train is between Tk 3 lakh and Tk 3.5 lakh, a freight train generates significantly more, averaging around Tk 7 lakh to Tk 8 lakh.

Currently, Bangladesh Railway’s passenger trains operate at about 100-120 percent capacity, indicating a high demand for passenger transport. There are 20 to 25 freight trains in operation. Despite this limited number, the higher revenue potential of freight services presents a substantial opportunity for Bangladesh Railway to increase its income.

Minister Hakim emphasized that enhancing the freight train operations could be highly beneficial for Bangladesh. By increasing the number of freight trains, Bangladesh Railway can tap into the lucrative freight market, thereby boosting its overall revenue. The implementation of the new rail connectivity agreement with India, which allows for increased cross-border transport, is expected to further enhance this potential.

Expanding freight services will not only improve revenue but also optimize the use of Bangladesh’s railway infrastructure. As the demand for freight transport grows, the railway network can play a vital role in supporting the country’s economic development. Efficient and increased freight operations will facilitate smoother and quicker transportation of goods, bolstering trade and commerce.

Focusing on freight services and leveraging international agreements can significantly enhance the financial sustainability of Bangladesh Railway, contributing to the broader economic growth and regional connectivity.

Dealing with Misinformation

In Bangladesh, there has been speculation that the Indian government might transport military weapons or ammunition through Bangladeshi rail lines, particularly from Delhi or Kolkata to its northeastern states, known as the Seven Sisters. However, officials from the Bangladesh Railway ministry, who are well-versed in the recent agreement, have dismissed these speculations. They emphasized that the contract was carefully drafted to prohibit the transportation of any destructive goods or products in Indian rail wagons passing through Bangladeshi territory.

Rumors have been circulating in Bangladesh suggesting that Indian soldiers might be allowed to guard their rail wagons once the rail route becomes operational. The Bangladeshi railway authorities have firmly refuted these claims. They clarified that the security of Indian rail wagons traveling through Bangladesh will be managed by Bangladesh’s domestic law enforcement agencies, just as they currently do for Bangladeshi rail wagons. The authorities assured that no foreign personnel would be permitted to take over security duties within Bangladesh.

These reassurances from the railway ministry officials aim to dispel any misunderstandings and ensure the public that the agreement strictly adheres to Bangladesh’s sovereignty and security protocols. The focus of the agreement is to enhance regional connectivity and economic cooperation, not to facilitate the transport of military equipment or foreign military presence within Bangladesh.

By maintaining strict control over the types of goods transported and the security measures in place, Bangladesh Railway aims to uphold its national security while fostering beneficial cross-border trade and connectivity. This approach underscores the importance of transparent and well-regulated international agreements in promoting mutual economic interests without compromising national security.

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

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