High-speed rail network: China seeks MoU as soon as possible

“I would not say that such a project should not be started. But it depends. Such a project can be undertaken if economic growth continues for the next six to seven years. But if the economy slips, then this sum of money itself could be a huge burden on the country.”

Transport expert Prof Moazzem Hossain

Following Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s instructions in October 2014, Bangladesh Railway carried out a feasibility study for the construction of a high-speed rail network between Dhaka and Chattogram.

However, the project has apparently been put on the back burner considering the huge sum of money – Tk 93,35,0.93 crore ($1 = Tk 84) – required for its implementation.

In a recent development, China has offered to carry out the project under the government-to-government public-private partnership (PPP), bringing it back up for discussion.

The country has also selected China Railway Group Ltd (CREC), a state-owned enterprise, to implement the project, which will cost more than three times the expenditure of the Padma Bridge (Tk30,193 crore).

Li Jiming, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, wrote in April to Minister of Railways Nurul Islam Sujan for the signing of a memorandum of understanding between CREC and BR “as soon as possible”.

Moreover, the ambassador expected a memorandum of understanding to be signed between the two governments in the “near future” to embark on the high-speed train project under the G2G-PPP.

Under the G2G-PPP agreement, Bangladesh can request other governments to provide financial support and select public or private entities to act as investors.

No project under the G2G-PPP arrangement has yet been implemented in Bangladesh. Discussions with several countries, including Japan and South Korea, are underway to implement certain projects according to this model.

The Chinese proposal came at a time when leading transport experts questioned the viability of such a huge investment project. Some of them said that BR did not have the capacity to carry out this “very ambitious” project.

Even, the railways minister himself told the Daily Star last year that the government would “go slow” with the project due to the huge costs involved.

“Instead of investing the huge sum of money for the high-speed railway, we have found that investing in other projects is more crucial… We are focusing on other projects infrastructure,” Sujan said Oct. 31.

In March this year the project assessment committee headed by the Secretary of Railways decided to seek the advice of the Minister of Railways on whether BR will send the DPP of the proposed project to the Economic Relations Division to obtain funds.

The Daily Star could not confirm whether the committee had taken the action because the minister, secretary and additional secretary (development and planning) were unavailable for comment.

According to the International Union of Railways, the speed of the high-speed train would be at least 200 km/h for upgraded tracks and 250 km/h or more for new tracks.

The world’s fastest public train connects Shanghai Pudong Airport in Shanghai, China with Longyang Bus Station in the city center and has a maximum commercial speed of 460 km/h, according to a December CNN report. from last year.

The 10 fastest trains in the world run between 300 and 460 km/h in China, Japan, Germany, France, Japan, Morocco, Spain, South Korea, Italy and Saudi Arabia, according to The report.

Work for India’s first high-speed train project is underway between Mumbai and Ahmedabad and the high-speed train will operate at a speed of 320 km/h, according to Indian newspapers.

In Bangladesh, once the high-speed rail project is implemented, the journey on the 224.64 km route between Dhaka and Chattogram via Narayanganj-Cumilla-Feni will take 55 minutes continuously and 73 minutes with layovers. Travel time is currently over six hours.

It won’t be cheap though. The fare is expected to be over Tk 2,000, more than three times the fare for an AC seat on existing Bangladeshi intercity trains. The minimum airfare from Dhaka to Chattogram is Tk 3500.

About 50,000 passengers will be transported daily in each direction while the high-speed train will run at up to 300 km/h.

THE PROJECT

Sheikh Hasina, during his visit to the Ministry of Railways on October 23, 2014, issued several instructions, including taking action to operate a bullet train (bullet train) between Dhaka and Chattogram.

More than 90% of the country’s maritime trade is handled by the Port of Chattogram.

The Dhaka-Chattogram highway is considered the lifeline of the economy as it carries more than 80% of foreign trade, but the contribution of the railways is very small compared to this.

Following the Prime Minister’s instructions, BR has already completed a feasibility study and detailed design of the project, spending Tk 110.16 crore. A joint venture led by a Chinese company carried out the study and estimated that the project would be economically viable with an international economic rate of return of 15.18%.

If implemented, it will be the second costliest infrastructure project in the country after the construction of Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant at Tk 113,092 crore.

In addition to CREC, two other Chinese companies – China Railway Construction Corporation and China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation – have expressed interest in forming a joint venture to construct, operate and fund manage the high-speed railway project under a PPP model.

BR held a meeting on the joint venture proposal in March last year and decided to seek the advice of the Economic Relations Division in this regard. However, no visible movement followed.

Transport expert Professor Moazzem Hossain thinks it is an “ambitious project” with a certain amount of risk, given the country’s current economic situation.

“I would not say that such a project should not be started. But it depends. Such a project can be undertaken if economic growth continues for the next six to seven years. But if the economy slips, then this sum of money itself could be a huge burden on the country,” he said.

“In that sense, it’s a risky project,” he told the Daily Star on May 21.

Responding to another question, he said: “The consequence would be the same – whether it is an investment project with [foreign] loan or PPP. Ultimately, the government must take responsibility.”

SIGN THE PROTOCOL AS SOON AS POSSIBLE: CHINESE ENVOYER

In his letter to the Minister of Railways, the Chinese Ambassador mentioned a virtual meeting held between them on October 14, 2020, when a “preliminary agreement” for the implementation of the project through G2G-PPP was was concluded between the two parties.

He said CREC had recently submitted its “letter of interest” to the ministry to develop the high-speed train project.

CREC is involved in the Padma Bridge Rail Link Project and the Bazar Chattogram-Cox Rail Link Project, two accelerated projects implemented by BR.

The Padma Bridge contractor is also a subsidiary of CREC.

CREC is the leading railway design and construction company in the world and the company has been active in Bangladesh since the 1990s, the ambassador said.

The Ambassador described CREC as an “ideal partner” of the Ministry of Railways for the implementation of the project and suggested that a Memorandum of Understanding be signed for cooperation on the project between BR and CREC as soon as possible. as possible. »

He asked the ministry to provide “the necessary support” to CREC to facilitate the feasibility study, the financing of the construction and the operation of the project.

The Ambassador also wrote that with the upcoming signing of the G2G-PPP MoU between China and Bangladesh, “we can definitely expect” the project to be developed under the G2G-PPP. .

BR sources said that if CREC is in charge of the implementation of the project, it will prepare a plan to use the high-speed corridor for the operation of freight trains, in addition to passenger trains, by lowering the speed around 200 km/h.

After receiving the letter, the railways minister sought BR’s opinion on the matter and BR recently sent its opinion, sources said.

Contacted, Habibur Rahman, deputy secretary (development and planning), asks this correspondent to speak with a BR official.

The official said he informed the ministry that no such MoU should be signed with the company, as the Public-Private Partnership Authority (PPPA) has specific procedures regarding the G2G-PPP framework.

This correspondent attempted to speak with Railways Secretary Humayun Kabir on his way to his office on May 25 but was unable to secure an appointment. The secretary could not be reached by phone either.

He attempted to meet the Minister of Railways in his office the following day, but to no avail. The minister could not be reached by telephone either.

Jose P. Rogers