The nation's first self-financed mega project will be the culmination of a long-held dream of establishing direct connectivity between the heartland and 21 southwestern districts across the mighty Padma River.
But while the final touches are being put on the preparations for the inauguration of Bangladesh's longest bridge, the wait for the two-tier structure to be fully functional is likely to last at least another year.
Work on the single-track railway on the lower deck of the 6.1-km bridge is yet to begin as the gas pipeline that will also pass through the structure is still under construction.
The 169-km-long railway link connecting Dhaka to Jashore via the Padma Bridge could be launched by June 2023 if the gas line can be completed by July, according to its Project Director Md Afzal Hossain.
“We haven't yet had the chance to [set up rail tracks] on the Padma Bridge. The gas connection is being set up on the lower section of the bridge. It’s yet to be complete,” he said.
Once that happens, Afzal is hopeful about laying down the rail tracks on the bridge within six to seven months.
On the progress of the rail link project, he said almost 60 percent of the work has been completed so far.
“We divided the work into three sections, starting with the stretch from Bhanga to Mawa. Trains will get on the bridge via this section. We worked on this earlier to keep the prime minister’s vow intact.
The line to connect the tracks from Bhanga to the Zazira point has also been drawn, according to the project director.
“But as work on the gas line is yet to be completed, the [authorities] could not hand the section over to us and therefore, we couldn’t set up the tracks either. As a result, the rail link could not be opened with the bridge.”
The third and final phase of the work will connect Bhanga to Jashore. Afzal said this part of the railway project is scheduled to be completed in 2024.
SM Salimullah Bahar, chief planning officer of Bangladesh Railway, believes the rail link project will set the southwestern region on the path to significant economic development.
“The project will extend railway services from Jashore to Khulna. So once it is complete, it will take only four hours for goods to arrive in Dhaka from Khulna’s Mongla Port."
Aside from that, he spoke about another project to link Barishal’s Payra Port to Kuakata.
“A pre-project planning proposal has been prepared on the basis of a feasibility study on the Tk 490 million project. We are now scoping out overseas finances for the project.”
During the regime of the military-backed caretaker government in 2007, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council approved the Padma Bridge project with a budget of Tk 101.62 billion.
The following year, the Awami League vowed to undertake the project in their party manifesto for the national election and upon being elected, took up plans to link a railway with the motorway on the bridge.
In January 2009, the cabinet committee on government purchase approved a tender to choose a company to supervise the construction of the project and later called for a tender to appoint a consultancy firm for the bridge in December.
In January 2011, the ECNEC approved a revised budget of Tk 205.07 billion.
Bangladesh eventually decided to build the mega structure with its own resources after the World Bank pulled out of the project citing a “corruption conspiracy” which was never proved.
Bangladesh signed a $2.76 billion credit deal with China’s Exim Bank to implement the Padma Bridge Rail Link Project in 2018. Due to a delay in finalising the loan agreement, work on the project started in July.
After making reasonable adjustments to the timeline for the work, the project's deadline was extended by two years to December 2024.
After construction work began, the project encountered another setback in the form of the coronavirus pandemic.
The motorway on the upper level of the bridge will be operational this year, but it has not been possible to open the rail link simultaneously as the prime minister had hoped.
[Written in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo and Taif Kamal; edited by Turaj Ahmad]