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Myanmar-Bangladesh railway connection to provide benefits to the entire region

By Sufian Siddique* 

In 1918, work began on a railway that the British hoped would provide a trade link between the subcontinent and China and its remains are rich with history. The British had some grand plans for Burma under colonial rule and they included an ambitious project to build a railway aimed at promoting trade between India and China and carrying labour from the subcontinent to Arakan, now Rakhine State.
The proposed railway was to link Chittagong and Mandalay, via Sittwe, then known as Akyab. It was to connect with a line linking Mandalay with Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province via Bhamo, but the project never went ahead. Until alternative routes opened recently, the rail tunnels were used by cars travelling between Maungdaw and Buthidaung. (Teza Hlaing / Frontier)
The Eastern Bengal Railway, linking Kolkata, the capital of British India until 1911, with Chittagong via Dhaka, had been completed in 1865. Work on a section of the railway in the then Arakan Division began in 1918 but it did not get very far, linking Kanyinchaung village in Maungdaw Township, with Buthidaung Township, a distance of about 25 kilometres.
Crushed rock used as ballast for the railway can still be found at Shwezar village, near downtown Maungdaw. The route of the railway is now a road linking Maungdaw with Kanyinchaung and Shwezar villages. Elderly residents of Kanyinchaung, which is on the Naf River that forms the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh and is being developed as a small economic zone, say the road was built in the 1960s. Asked about the origin of the road they said: “It was a railway once, but that’s all we know.”
Other relics of the railway include the rusting piers of a bridge over a creek between Maungdaw town and Shwezar that flows into the Naf and two tunnels, built in 1918. One of the tunnels, about 12km east of Maungdaw town, was built by Kolkata-based Martin & Co, renowned for some of the finest buildings in the then capital of British India. They include the grand Victoria Memorial, completed in 1921 and built in honour of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, who had died in 1901.
The tunnel is about 240 metres long and was lined with concrete. It was used by cars until early this year when it was closed and has since been replaced by a new road paralleling the railway that opened a few months ago. About 5km away is another tunnel, also built by Martin & Co, which merged in 1946 with another prominent Kolkata construction firm Burn & Co to form Martin Burn Ltd, which continues to operate in the city.
The 110m tunnel has been used as a shortcut by pedestrians and small cars but has also been replaced by a parallel road built by the regional government that opened in July. Another 1.5km from the tunnel is a big gully containing what seems to be the remains of bridge, including a pier, and nearby are girders bearing the name, Westwood, Baillie & Co, Engineers, London, 1883. The company was established in 1856 and specialised in making iron and steel work for bridges.
In 1887, it made the girders for the Lansdowne Bridge over the Indus River in what is now Pakistan. An impressive feat of engineering, the bridge was the longest rigid girder bridge in the world when it was completed. Some older Maungdaw residents believe that the railway went bankrupt to Burma could not afford the fare and instead walked to Maungdaw from Chittagong.
This would have been a major setback for those who backed the railway because one of the reasons for building it was to carry workers from India to Burma. They say that work on the railway stopped in 1926 when a ferry crashed into the bridge over the creek at Shwezar village during a storm, causing serious damage.
Now, Bangladesh and Myanmar should finally take the decision to get connected to the Trans-Asian railway, one of the most comprehensive networks of rail lines that connect Europe with Asia. The 129 km rail track will span from Dohazari to Gundum near Myanmar border via Cox’s Bazaar. The original project was supposed to start in 2010. The delays we have faced in land acquisition and access to funding has meant inordinate delay, with the project cost shooting up from Tk1,852 to Tk18,034 crore. The feasibility study carried out by the Asian Development Bank necessitated changes in the original plan, for instance the move from metre gauge to broad gauge, all contributed to project delay.
Bangladesh and Myanmar should consider the Trans Asian Railway (TAR) from its priority as bilateral relations with Myanmar closes to Bangladesh day by day. The railway connectivity to carry goods between Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Malaysia through Myanmar may be for now put its cards on the table.
To facilitate the travel of tourists from home and abroad to Cox's Bazar, a rail communication network was supposed to develop along with air and road. The railway line from Dhaka to Chittagong is 320 kilometers long and 102 kilometers from Chittagong's Dohazari to Cox's Bazar. Now, a mixed-gauge railway line is being constructed from Dohazari to Cox's Bazar. If the railway line is completed on this route, high-speed rail traffic will be possible from Dhaka. It is a new addition to Bangladesh's transportation sector's development progress.
Although the project is scheduled to be completed in June 2024, the target date for running experimental trains on the Dohazari-Cox's Bazar railway line has been set for August 23. The project saw 80 percent progress until December 22. After its completion, high-speed trains will run from Dhaka to the tourist city of Cox's Bazar via Chittagong. 54 high-quality tourist coaches are being imported for the new railway in Cox's Bazar, the world's longest coastal city. They will run at a speed of 150 kilometers per hour. Every day, approximately 1 lakh tourists can travel. Cox's Bazar can be reached from Dhaka in just four hours by high-speed train and will add a new dimension to the tourism industry of Bangladesh.
To create a tourism-friendly environment, the government is working on 191 development projects around the tourist city of Cox's Bazar. The Dohazari-Cox's Bazar railway infrastructure development will bring fresh air to the tourism economy as well as initiate multi-dimensional economic activities.
The construction of the country's first state-of-the-art oyster-shaped railway station is nearing completion in the Chanderpara area of Jhilongjha Union in Cox's Bazar. The beautiful iconic station will have all the facilities, including a "luggage station," a reception hall, a children's entertainment area, a passenger lounge, a shopping mall, restaurants, and a conference hall. During the construction of this station, the facilities of various modern stations around the world, including those in China, Belgium, England, and Italy, have been taken into consideration. A total of 250 engineers, including 110 foreigners, were engaged in the entire project. At this station, tourists can leave their luggage at the station and visit the beach or go sightseeing all day, then return to their destination by night train.
Nine stations are under construction at Dohazari, Satkania, Lohagra, Harbang, Chakria, Dulahazra, Islamabad, Ramu, and Cox's Bazar. These stations will have a computer-based interlock signal system and a digital telecommunications system. Three big bridges will be constructed on the Sangu, Matamuhuri, and Bakkhali rivers. Apart from this, 43 small bridges, 201 culverts, and 144 level crossings will be constructed on the entire railway.
It is hoped that when the railway is launched, a new field of multi-directional communication will be created with Cox's Bazar. The city will become a smart city. There are modern traffic facilities with separate drop zones for general and VIP passengers. There is a separate parking area for buses, private cars, microbuses, and three-wheelers. There are supermarkets, pharmacies, ATM booths, post offices, tourist information booths, forex services, and various daily service centers. A 50-meter-long overpass and three underpasses are being made for normal and comfortable movement of elephants and other wild animals by cutting and leveling the hill during the construction of the railway.
Regardless of the hold-up in coming to a decision on this most strategic of connectivity issues, the construction of this rail line will facilitate massive cross border trade between the country with Myanmar and China. The movement of bulk goods from China to Bangladesh and vice versa by rail should shorten lead times significantly and open up new areas of business such as tourism. That we have lost valuable time which has raised the cost of this project manifold is not the question to ponder upon at this stage. We understand that the railway ministry has been given three years to complete building of the rail line. While we applaud the government to make it a high priority project, we cannot but stress that our rate of implementation on mega projects has not been particularly impressive. And this is one area where all the good intentions of the government go to waste unless we can speed up the rate at which projects get off the ground.
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*Independent researcher and freelance columnist, Dhaka

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