Resumption of the India-Bangladesh passenger train: an important step in strengthening bilateral relations?

Following the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak, passenger rail services between Bangladesh and India were suspended in March 2020. Prior to the suspension, two trains operated between the two countries: the Maitree Express between Dhaka and Kolkata and the Bandhan Express between Khulna and Kolkata.

But it is good news for Indians and Bangladeshis that passenger train services between India and Bangladesh resumed on Sunday, May 29, 2022, two years after they were suspended due to the outbreak of the pandemic on March 28, 2020 , with the Bandhan Express from Kolkata to Khulna and the Maitree Express from Dhaka to Kolkata. The Mitali Express, a third train has already been welcomed by the railway ministers of the two countries on June 01, 2022.

Mitali Express, the third passenger train service linking Bangladesh and India, started operating on Wednesday morning (June 1, 2022). In nine hours, the train will cover 513 kilometers between New Jalpaiguri and Dhaka (Dhaka Cantonment station).

The Indian Railways headquarters in New Delhi hosted the launching ceremony. The main guests of the event were Bangladesh Railways Minister Nurul Islam Sujan and his Indian counterpart Ashwini Vaishnav. The train will run on the Haldibari (India) – Chilahati (Bangladesh) line from New Jalpaiguri in India to Dhaka Cantonment Station in Bangladesh.

The new train and the resumption of the two rail services would not only improve people-to-people contacts between the two countries, but also aim to boost tourism between them. Shopping malls, hospitals and low-cost hotels are also expected to be built nearby, making it easier for people to get around stations. In the next few days, a hospital, shopping malls and low-cost motels are expected to be available near the station. But both parties need to remove all obstacles and complexities regarding the two-way transportation service. Visa complexities need to be handled properly. The goal should be the welfare of people on both sides. Millions of Indian and Bangladeshi citizens would be grateful to the Indian and Bangladeshi governments for restoring rail services. It would be much better if the procedure could be made more fluid.

This will certainly contribute to strengthening exchanges between the two countries, to making tourism prosper. The rail link will improve rail network access to major ports, dry ports and land borders in the region, supporting the growth of regional trade and encouraging regional economic and social development. The benefits of products and passenger travel will be available to ordinary citizens and business people of both countries. As a result, it will further strengthen interpersonal communication. This will facilitate business activity and allow more people to get in touch with each other.

The two countries are working together to improve and expand rail connectivity. Both sides are working on a number of projects and some historic railway lines are being restored at the same time.

The Bandhan Express has been resurrected by reactivating a long inactive rail link between Kolkata and Khulna, Bangladesh’s third largest city. The Barisal Express served this route until 1965 when it was discontinued due to the Indo-Pakistani War. Bandhan was revived in 2017 by the Narendra Modi government and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s administration.

After the launch of the Maitree Express between Kolkata and Dhaka Cantonment in April 2008, the Bandhan Express was the second train to depart. It covers the distance between Kolkata and Khulna, passing through Petrapole and Benapole to meet the needs of people in both countries.

Since its creation, the Maitree Express has been a huge success. The 90% occupancy rate on the tri-weekly route between Kolkata and Dhaka was the norm. Now the Mitali Express has started running between New Jalpaiguri and Dhaka in North Bengal. Prime Minister Modi announced this train during his March 2021 visit to Dhaka.

The governments of both countries have tried to improve the rail link between them, and not just by passenger trains. In August 2021, the two countries resumed regular freight train service between Haldibari, India and Chilahati, Bangladesh on the newly restored route.

The Haldibari-Chilahati rail link between India and East Pakistan also operated until 1965 when it was closed due to war. At the time of partition, it was part of the broad gauge main line linking Kolkata and Siliguri. On this route, both sides expect at least 20 freight trains to cross the border every month.

Trains continued to run between the two countries after partition as they were once part of a single, seamless rail network under British rule. As a result, the infrastructure to connect the two sides via railways was substantially there.

Policymakers on both sides saw it as an opportunity to strengthen diplomatic relations by allowing goods and passengers to cross borders. Between India and Bangladesh, five railway lines have been restarted so far. Petrapole (India)-Benapole (Bangladesh), Gede (India)-Darshana (Bangladesh), Singhabad (India)-Rohanpur (Bangladesh), Radhikapur (India)-Birol (Bangladesh) and the Haldibari-Chilahati connection are among them.

According to media reports, stone chips, ballast, grain and other items are commonly transported in Bangladesh. CONCOR, a railway PSU, started container transport with fast moving consumer goods from private customers. Generally, the aim is to develop a faster and more cost effective freight link by weaning them off the sea route. The Eastern Railway of India facilitated the import of de-oiled soybean meal from Bangladesh last year.

About 1.2 million tonnes of goods were transported by rail in October last year, rather than by the usual route between the port of Nhava Sheva and the land customs posts at the port of Petrapole.

“India would never go back on its word in this endeavour,” India’s Minister of Railways recently declared, assuring Bangladesh of its full assistance in improving its railway system. It is true that India can help Bangladesh to improve its rail infrastructure, especially in converting the entire rail network to offshore gas. He called the Mitali Express “another milestone” in strengthening ties between India and Bangladesh.

According to media reports, the 17 railway projects in Bangladesh that India is financing are the largest component of India’s three separate credit lines since 2011, accounting for 25% of total concessional loans.

Dhaka and New Delhi have agreed to work out the details of India’s use of rail transit through Bangladesh after receiving a proposal from Indian Railways (IR).

Indian trains will cross Bangladesh between Sealdah and Haldibari in West Bengal, under the proposal. Trains will enter Bangladesh through the Gede-Darshana (Chuadanga) border and exit through the Chilahati (Nilphamari)-Haldibari border to reach Siliguri in this case.

Currently, India has access to the road network of Bangladesh. The proposed route will be the first rail transport infrastructure linking the two countries in more than half a century if both governments approve it.

There were eight rail interchanges between India and Pakistan before the 1947 division. Only five of them are currently operational: Benapole-Petropole, Darshana-Gede, Rohanpur-Singabadh, Biral-Radhikarpur and Chilahati-Haldibari.

According to media reports, in April this year, the IR presented the plan to Bangladesh Railway (BR). Gede-Darshana-Ishwardi-Abdullpur-Parbatipur-Chilahati-Haldibari road infrastructure.

The delegation of the IR also aimed to increase the number of trains departing from India and passing through various places to facilitate the transfer of freight from one carrier to another.

Apart from freight trains, India and Bangladesh have been operating two passenger trains for many years. Now the third train has been added in this list. The Gede-Darshana Junction is currently used by the Maitree Express between Dhaka and Kolkata. Between Khulna and Kolkata, the Bandhan Express runs. After 55 years of absence, rail communication between the two countries via the Chilahati-Haldibari route resumed in December 2020. Today, the Mitali Express, a third passenger train, resumes service.

The IR now has the option of re-establishing the old Siliguri-Sealdah route via Bangladesh, with the resumption of rail service on the Chilahati-Haldibari route.

According to media reports, the proposed transit facility will save nearly three hours of travel time. At present, Indian trains have to travel 573 kilometers from Sealdah in Kolkata to reach Siliguri. If the new route can be used, the distance will be reduced to just 200 kilometers. Siliguri trains passed through Haldibari and entered Chilahati in former East Pakistan en route to Kolkata before 1965. This line was permanently closed after the Indo-Pakistani conflict in 1965. But the resumption of passenger train services and India-Bangladesh goods will bring benefits for Bangladesh and India.

The transit of IR trains through Bangladesh can be a win-win situation for BR, IR, and the people and commerce of both nations. But there must be communication between the Northeast and Bangladesh, and the Akhaura-Agartala rail link must be resumed as soon as possible for the freight train and the passenger train, which can mark another milestone for the two countries. The increased connectivity between the North East and Bangladesh aims to boost trade between the two countries.

This will not only strengthen people-to-people ties, but also trade and tourism between the two countries, especially in the Northeast. In the future, it could be a link in an ambitious Asian rail network that would open ASEAN countries to trade while serving as a route to success.

Since Dhaka and Kolkata are already connected by railway, it is possible to connect this network to Kolkata. It was the road from Kolkata to Siliguri before 1965, but it was closed after the 1965 war. Once the road is opened, the distance between Kolkata and Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri will be cut in half. People can take advantage of it. Thus, the resumption of India-Bangladesh passenger train services is an important step in strengthening bilateral relations.

Jose P. Rogers