The Dhaka-Panchagarh express train, also called an inter-city one, was inaugurated on May 25 last, raising hopes for a comfortable journey to the northernmost tip of the country. Barely one month later, derailment of some carriages and deaths of four passengers as well as several injuries at Kulaura in Moulvibzar district made many railway passengers edgy. Their hopes about further progress in the country's railway service may have faded out for some time. The accident involved the Dhaka-Sylhet Upaban Express which skidded off the rail tracks on a bridge at night. The bridge collapsed and several carriages fell into a canal. The train was speeding towards Dhaka. In an immediate reaction, the railway authorities and experts blamed fault in the lines and disorientation of the coach wheels' alignment. Probe committees are engaged in further investigation.
During the 157 years after its launch, the railway in the then East Bengal has undergone many ups and downs. As a popular and relatively cheap mode of communication, it once enjoyed a stellar position among the passengers intent on speedy and safe travelling. The railway accidents had for long been out of the peripheries of dread that normally plagued inland travels. Much-feared waterway mishaps involving motor-launches and steamers in those days kept many away from undertaking frequent river travels, especially during the seasons of storm. Unfortunately, it took less than a century for the railway to start losing its shine and dependability. In spite of its auspicious start, in the period from the 1960s onwards the general passengers found the railway service becoming increasingly unable to cater to the travellers' basic requirements. Apart from the frequent delays in the trains' arrival and departure, different types of discomforts and inconveniences while on travel weaned scores of passengers off railway journeys. At one time they began preferring buses to trains for travel to the eastern, southwestern and the northern regions of the country. Except a handful of express trains like Ulka, Green Arrow, Chittagong Mail, Sylhet Mail etc, the services offered by the so-called mixed trains remained unimpressive, and, at times, highly inconvenient.
The situation did not change much after the independence of the country in 1971. But yet to the relief of regular passengers, in the last 10/15 years the Bangladesh Railway (BR) under the Ministry of Railways has undergone a number of overhauling in its service. Although the condition of the rail tracks, both broad gauge and meter gauge, bridges and the allied infrastructure, continued to deteriorate, the authorities undertook a few encouraging steps. Those included introduction of several state-of-the art railway services. Apart from the inter-city trains, mostly on Dhaka-Chattogram routes, it pressed into service around ten express trains and a few commuter trains. The inter-city trains, however, began in the pre-independence days --the first one travelling between Dhaka and Chattogram. In recent years, the BR has laid emphasis on this route connecting the capital with the port city. The trains include Sonar Bangla Express, Suborno Express, Turna Express, Mohanagar Provati Express and Mohanagar Godhuli Express. A remarkable aspect of the new inter-city trains is their shorter travel time. In the 1960s, Ulka would take eight hours to cover the Dhaka-Chattogram distance. In 2019, the Sonar Bangla Express moves on Dhaka-Ctg and Ctg-Dhaka routes in a little over 5 hours. Similar inter-city and express trains have been launched on Dhaka-Rajshahi, Dhaka-Khulna, Dhaka-Sylhet and Dhaka-Panchagarh routes. The introduction of the Dhaka-Benapole train service is expected to reduce the discomforts of the India-bound bus passengers. Dhaka-Kolkata travellers feel the service will remarkably cut down on the inordinately longer journey time taken currently by the 2-country non-stop Maitree Express. The Bangladesh Railway introduced the second Bangladesh-India train service last March. The service connects Khulna with Kolkata.
In order to make effective use of the 2,855km rail line and 489 railway stations covering the country, the BR is mulling a lot of projects to serve rail passengers. According to experts, the present state in which the countrywide rail service provider is mired, many such plans might remain stuck on paper only. Mere introduction of more inter-city and express trains may not take it to the desired goal. Besides overused rail tracks and bridges and culverts and terribly undermanned and ill-equipped stations, the railway network lacks some basic perquisites. The foremost of them is that the majority of the country's routes operate on single-line track. So far, only 323km rail tracks out of the total have been upgraded to double-track lines. The authorities are learnt to have put special stress on this major drawback. Single-track lines impede the trains' speedy movement, not to speak of the risk of accidents due to the plying of more than one train along a single track. A large number of the one-and-half-century-old smaller bridges have long deteriorated to a dilapidated state. Few can rule out the fact that bridge-collapse-related fatal accidents will not occur in the near future.
Established by the British rulers in 1862 by putting into operation a train on a 53.11km broad gauge line in Chuadanga, the Bengal Railway has passed through a lot of memorable phases. Before being known as Bangladesh Railway after independence, it had operated under the supervision of Pakistan Eastern Railway, Bengal Assam Railway and Bengal Assam Railway Company. Besides being run by different authorities, Bangladesh Railway has witnessed both its heyday and the phases of bad times. A section of long-route bus operators, allegedly in collusion with a section of the higher authorities, have desperately tried to stop further expansions and improvements of the railway. Ironically, like in the earlier days, many of the passengers still prefer railway to buses. In spite of delays and other deficiencies, the railway travels are much safer, smooth and provide washroom facilities. With adequate policy support ensuring strong maintenance, the railway sector is set to embrace an invigoration. Materialisation of that goal warrants continuity of policies and their execution. Last but not least, graft and irregularities which have detracted a lot from the rail sector's strength should also be dealt with unsparingly.