Railway off track in Bangladesh

A whopping Tk 1.22 trillion (US$10.4mil) was poured into Bangladesh Railway for its development over the last 16 years, but the agency still faces a crippling crisis brought by ageing locomotives, carriages, and a shortage of staff due to what experts say are poorly planned and delayed projects.

Tuhin Shubhra Adhikary

Tuhin Shubhra Adhikary

The Daily Star


File photo showing investment and expenditure of the Railway System and the current conditions. PHOTO: THE DAILY STAR

June 3, 2024

DHAKA – Despite Tk 1.22 lakh crore allocation in 16 years, BR struggles to expand services

A whopping Tk 1.22 lakh crore was poured into Bangladesh Railway for its development over the last 16 years, but the agency still faces a crippling crisis brought by ageing locomotives, carriages, and a shortage of staff due to what experts say are poorly planned and delayed projects.

More than half the locomotives, carriages and freight wagons are over 20 years old, which affects railway’s reliability.

Railway’s fleet of 318 locomotives is far smaller than needed and 43 percent percent of it is over 40 years old. The shortage is so severe that the state-run transport agency has not been able to launch two new trains named and approved by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in December last year.

The crisis is only going to deepen because no new locomotive is likely to arrive in at least the next three years, officials said.

The Dhaka-Jashore rail line via the Padma Bridge is set to open in July, but BR is not likely to be able to fully utilise the expensive infrastructure due to lack of staff and carriages.

In 2023, the BR opened four new routes with a combined length of over 250km, but there is not enough trains to operate on the tracks.

Requesting anonymity, several BR officials said the government’s main focus in recent years has been expansion of lines while procurement and maintenance of trains were neglected.

Since most of the BR’s workshops and loco sheds are very old and lack staff, the regular maintenance and repair jobs take longer than usual, and the standard of work is subpar.

Amid Covid-19 pandemic and a few years prior to that, the BR suspended operations of at least 99 local, commuter and mail trains due to shortage of locomotives, carriages and staff. Very few of the services resumed after the pandemic.

Currently BR is implementing 32 projects of which deadline for 22 have been extended at least once. Some of the other 10 projects are also running behind schedule, BR documents show.

Deadlines for some projects were extended by over 10 years.


Between 2008-09 and 2023-24 fiscal years, the BR received Tk 1,22,542 crore under the Annual Development Plan, according to documents.

As of March this year, the BR spent Tk 87,232 crore, meaning the agency could not utilise 27.81 percent of the allocated money.

The economic life of a locomotive is 20 years, officials said. But 167 (53 percent) of its engines are over 20 years old.

Out of 2,017 carriages, 982 are over 20 years old and 934 are over 35 years old.

BR’s workforce size is roughly half of what is needed to ensure proper service. The agency employs 24,403 people against 47,637 authorised posts, according to BR data from March.

Of the 23,234 vacant posts, 20,666 are for third- and fourth-grade employees.

After years, BR began hiring in third- and fourth-grade positions in 2022, and has recruited 5,342 people so far.


The prime minister in December 2023 approved new intercity trains between Dhaka and Noakhali, Lalmonirhat and Sylhet.

The BR launched the Dhaka-Lalmonirhat Burimari Express in March, but the Dhaka-Sylhet Tanguar Express and Dhaka-Noakhali Subarnachar Express services have not been started.

The scarcity of locomotives and carriages was there when the plans were made. But the aim was to launch the new trains ahead of the general election because of the demand from local representatives.

The two new train services on the Dhaka-Cox’s Bazar route following the inauguration of Chattogram-Cox’s Bazar line intensified the scarcity. As a result, the BR could not launch new trains.

Besides, the BR had a plan to introduce three more intercity trains on Dhaka-Cox’s Bazar route, but it could not do that due to the shortage of metre-gauge locomotives.

Rather, the railways suspended operations of commuter trains on Chattogram-Cox’s Bazar route, which was launched just before the Eid in April, on Thursday due to locomotive and manpower crises.

The BR is expected to open Dhaka to Jashore rail line via Padma Bridge next month.

According to a feasibility study on the project, at least 24 pairs of trains can be operated on the line daily once the entire 169km line is ready. But only five pairs of trains are operating on the partially opened line between Dhaka and Bhanga.

The BR wants to introduce new trains or increase frequency of the trains in the south-western region, and operate more freight trains, particularly from India, to effectively utilise the line.

But BR will face a manpower and carriage crisis, officials said.


In the 1969-70 fiscal year, the BR had 486 locomotives. The number came down to 268 in 2019 when 72 percent of the engines were over 20 years old.

The crisis was so serious that BR in April 2019 sought to “hire” or “get as courtesy” 20 locomotives from India.

Between 2019 and 2023, BR added 40 broad-gauge and 30 metre-gauge locomotives under three projects and 30 “little used” Indian broad-gauge ones to its fleet.

But the addition could not give enough respite as BR had to replace many ageing locomotives.

Besides, the authorities have launched around 11 pairs of new intercity trains in the last five years, intensifying the scarcity.

Last year, the BR had to cancel two of its projects — one to buy 70 metre-gauge locomotives and another for overhauling 21 metre-gauge locomotives.

Currently, it has only one project under which 30 metre-gauge locomotives will be procured. The deadline of the project is June 2028, meaning BR may not get those within the next three-four years, an official said.

In the last five years, it collected 350 metre-gauge and 150 broad-gauge carriages under three projects and overhauled 90 carriages, BR document shows.

A project for procuring 200 metre-gauge carriages was cancelled due finance related problems.

Despite the addition of around 600 carriages, the crisis is holding back BR from operating more trains, they said.

Currently, it has one project for procuring 200 broad-gauge carriages. The BR on May 19 signed a contract to procure the carriages, and as per the contract, it would get the carriages in between 20 to 36 months.


Addressing a programme at the Rail Bhaban on May 28, Railways Minister Zillul Hakim said railway service could not be expanded due to shortage of manpower and carriages.

When this correspondent asked why they cannot do this despite receiving a huge allocation, he said, “We are working…We are working fast and cordially.”

The government is going to import 460 carriages soon and existing carriages are being repaired, he added.

The minister said they were building a workshop in Rajbari with a capacity to repair and maintain 2,000 carriages a year.

Recruitment is taking a long time due to many obstacles, and it takes two to three years to complete the procedure, he added.

“We are not sitting idle,” he said.

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