Abdur Rahman Chowdhury
One of the biggest achievements of the colonial power in our subcontinent is the establishment of the railways. It became the communication life line. The network was so extensive that neither in India nor in Pakistan railways went through much of extension after independence. In Bangladesh there was hardly any extension of the railways in the past forty years. Until recently the railways enjoyed the confidence of the people and it remained the principal mode of transportation of the passengers as well as of the cargo. It was in the sixties that the road network started to grow and people began using the trucks for transportation of the cargo including petroleum products from one district to another. It was a healthy development. In one hand the railways found a competitor and thus tried to improve its performance. On the other hand, part of the load taken away by the road transportation, the railways could focus on the transportation of the passengers. In the sixties better equipped medium size motor boats appeared in the waterways and gradually became the principal link between Dhaka and the southern districts. Thus with effect from mid sixties along with the railways, roads and waterways started to take substantial load of the passengers as well as of the cargo. The railways however retained its dominant role and government used to attach high priority to it. The Railway Board was well equipped. It used to enjoy considerable autonomy. At one stage a separate railway ministry was created and the Minister responsible for the railways used to present a separate budget for the railways in the parliament. This trend continued even after the birth of Bangladesh. Captain Monsur Ali, one of the senior members of cabinet, was made the Minister for railways. The Railway board continued to function under the ministry.
The railways being the dominant communication system received priority in budget allocation during the Ershad regime. New bogies were imported and fast moving inter-city express trains were introduced during this period. This gave a new life to the railways. After the restoration of parliamentary government, for very strange reasons, the railways became a victim of neglect, apathy and corruption. Quality of services deteriorated, not much attention was paid for maintenance of time schedule. People began to shift to the road transportation. Railways became a choice of last resort.
I used to travel by train from Dhaka to Sylhet every time I would visit Bangladesh. I used to find train journey pleasant and safe. Even in January 2010 I travelled to and from Sylhet and my experience was not bad. Now the situation seems to have changed. I had the opportunity to travel by train on the third week of February. Getting a ticket became a problem. The newly appointed Railway Minister made a new rule. Tickets are not sold three days prior to the journey but tickets become available two days before the journey. What a ridiculous system! Luckily I was able to buy a ticket for the first class in the Upobon Express. It cost me Tk. 475 only. I reached Kamalapur station half an hour before the train was due to leave. The train was brought on the platform on time and along with other passengers I boarded the train. The seat numbers were not visible and the sleeping berths were torn. An employee came to our compartment with bed sheets and pillows. I drew his attention to the miserable conditions of the berths. He felt embarrassed and left the compartment as quickly as possible. Toilet was not far away but its door was not in its best condition. One would be scared to get the door locked. Luckily water was available in the toilet. There were four lights and equal number of fans in the compartment. At mid night we felt cold but it was not easy to turn the fans off. The journey lasted for nine hours and I had to spend a sleepless night. The train was shaking so much that one could compare it with a boat passing under a severe storm. The train reached Sylhet in the early morning. I decided not to avail the train on my return journey. I always used to advise my friends to travel by train as it appeared much safer and reasonably comfortable. Now I have decided not to make advocacy in favor of the railways and allow my friends to make a choice of their own.
I relayed my ordeals to my friends in Dhaka but they were not surprised. They are of the view that the railways has been subjected to neglect for years and different vested groups have, in the meantime, surfaced to thwart any attempt to overhaul this vital mode of transportation. The creation of the railway ministry and the appointment of a new minister raised some expectation but the recent scandal involving the officials of the railway ministry, the personal staff of the Minister and the Minister himself has disappointed the people. Even colleagues from his own party are suggesting that the Railway Bhavan should not be turned into notorious Hawa Bhavan. The Minister is a well known parliamentarian and in recent months (until became a minister) he used to highlight the lapses of ministers responsible for different ministries. But he himself has failed in the very first test. A Judicial inquiry would be most appropriate.
The dismal situation in the railways made me to remember the fate of the railways met in Kenya and Uganda. British had left behind well established railways in these two countries. After independence big business began to invest on the roads and road transportation. Several companies grew up with large fleet of trucks, lorries and buses. They began to compete with the railways. Over the time the owners of these companies made inroads in politics and came into power. They took the opportunity to destroy their major competitor, railways by providing very little support. Now the railways in Kenya and Uganda have become dysfunctional. Road transportation has grabbed the transportation sector completely. In Bangladesh this should not happen. We had a population of 75 million at the time of our liberation and in the past forty years it has increased to 150 million. Neither the railways nor the roads nor the waterways have the capacity to singlehandedly take the load of the passengers and cargo. These three modes of transportation must receive full support from the government in order to meet the requirement of our huge population. One cannot be patronized by neglecting the other.
The government must take serious steps to revitalise the railways. The creation of the Railway Ministry has been a step in the right direction but it is not enough. The entire sector needs to be overhauled. Corruption has to be eliminated at any cost. If necessary a task force comprising of technical staff from the railways, mid level army personnel and senior bureaucrats should be formed to clean up the mess. The government has the experience of undertaking cleanup operation. It had taken almost similar actions when the Directorate of Passport became a hostage of the brokers and the criminals who used to blackmail people in need of travel document. This experiment paid good dividend and now people can access to the directorate and obtain passport without much hassle.
The cost of tickets should be reviewed. Ticket in a luxury coach for travel from Dhaka to Sylhet costs Tk. 800/- while a ticket in the first class in the train costs Tk. 475/-. Train fair is unreasonably low. It should be no less than Tk. 1200/-. It should be borne in mind that people travelling in the first class or in other classes are willi