India, Bangladesh to pilot freight train service in August

| Updated on: Jul 13, 2017
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$6-b bilateral trade is now dominated by non-containerised road cargo

Come August, India and Bangladesh will run a container train on pilot basis between Dhaka and Kolkata to assess the feasibility of extending the services on commercial basis. Bangladesh is the ninth-largest importer of Indian goods.

In April, State-owned Container Corporation (CONCOR) had signed an MoU with Container Company of Bangladesh Ltd (CCBL) in this regard, during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to New Delhi.

According to sources in the Railways, a full rake of empty containers will go to Dhaka through the only broad-gauge connection through Gede(India)-Darshana(Bangladesh) border gates in West Bengal. Bangladesh will send the rake loaded with their export cargo.

The broad-gauge connection is currently used for running a passenger train, Maitree Express, between Dhaka and Kolkata.

A welcome move

The effort, if successful, may have a major cost impact on the $6-billion bilateral trade, which is currently dominated by non-containerised road cargo — mostly through the Petrapole border in West Bengal.

Road transport is distinctly costlier than rail. A 2010 BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) trade logistics study pointed out that rail movement can be 30 per cent cheaper than even sea-freight (which is normally considered the cheapest) between the two neighbours.

To add to the problem, India-Bangladesh road cargo is subjected to heavy rent-seeking and delay, especially in the 70-km congested stretch between Kolkata and Petrapole.

As the trade is heavily tilted in favour of India, the road movement eats into the competitiveness of Indian exports ($5.4 billion). Loading and unloading of non-containerised road cargo at the border further makes the trade costly and unsafe.

Direct movement of containerised cargo by train may, therefore, reduce trade costs significantly. Also, containerisation will make the trade more organised and safer.

Feasibility a concern

But the proposal is not free from concerns. To reach Dhaka, the train has to cross the 5-km long Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge, connecting Eastern and Western Bangladesh.

Opened in 1998, the bridge developed cracks by 2008, leading to load restrictions. It is therefore yet to be established if a loaded container train can reach Dhaka.

Sources say Bangladesh authorities now claim that the bridge is fit for container movement. To further allay Indian fears, Dhaka has decided to run the loaded train from their end.

Iswardi project dumped

Meanwhile, the freight train proposal seems to have sealed the fate of the proposed inter-modal transhipment facility at Iswardi in Western Bangladesh.

Considering the load restrictions on Jamuna bridge and the inadequacy of rail network in Bangladesh, India had previously proposed setting up a rail-connected dry port facility, right across the border.

The aim was to promote rail movement for the Indian leg of the journey, while offering wide logistics choice for movement of goods in Bangladesh. The proposal was discussed by the Bangladesh-India Joint Working Group in 2013 and 2014.

A source told BusinessLine that the proposed facility wouldn’t be required if the rail freight services are opened between Dhaka and Kolkata.

Published on January 11, 2018

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