India-Bangladesh train goes off the rails

By Devirupa Mitra, IANS

New Delhi : A proposal to start an India-Bangladesh train service is fast losing steam.

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An Indian official who took part in the two-day inter-governmental railway meeting here last week said that Bangladesh has indicated its disinterest in going ahead with the passenger train service.

“They clearly told us that they are not interested in starting the train service any more,” said the government official.

Bangladesh officials, however deny that they have given up the project, which was named Moitree (friendship) Express. But, they admit, they had not even included the issue in the agenda for last week’s meeting, which was over reforming freight train services.

“We had eleven items on our agenda from our side and Moitree Express was not part of it. There was some discussion on it when Indian officials raised it,” said a senior Bangladesh government official, adding it was not included “as there were no developments”.

But there seems to be dispute on this point too, with Indian Railways officials contending that the Bangladeshi side was the first to raise the issue at the meeting.

“Since it was not part of the agenda, we are very strict about protocol about raising matters outside it. They (Bangladeshis) asked some questions about the train, but we did not answer,” an Indian Railways official told IANS, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The disagreement demonstrates that the level of interest in the train service seems to have petered off. In fact, it was the first time that the Moitree Express was not part of the official agenda of the inter-governmental railway group, which discussed the matter during two earlier meetings in March and July.

The agreement to run a passenger train service between Jamuna Bridge in Bangladesh and Sealdah in Kolkata had been signed in 2001.

But things finally started to move on the ground after External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited Dhaka in February 2007. India and Bangladesh have completed two trial runs in July and it seemed that the service would start in August-September, but movement slowed down over security concerns from the Indian side.

India wants to construct a fence along the track to prevent passengers from jumping in and out of the train as it slows down, but this has been objected to by Bangladesh.

Indian agencies have hardened their stance on what they call “adequate security barriers” following a series of bomb blasts in Hyderabad and Ajmer. Investigators of these deadly blasts have pointed fingers at terrorist groups operating out of Bangladesh.

“Our agencies are still studying the proposal for fencing along the route,” Additional Secretary (railways division), Bangladesh’s Ministry of Communication, A.T.K.M. Ismail told IANS.

He said India was still to respond to the draft agreement submitted by Bangladesh. “In place of the 2001 agreement that expires this year, we had submitted a revised agreement about four months ago to India, but there has been no response,” said Ismail, who had led the Bangladesh rail delegation to India.

Indian officials are also concerned about the infrastructure on the Bangladesh side, especially the immigration and customs point at Darshana.

At the last meeting, India had insisted that the actual travel time should be shortened as far as possible, so Indian officials asked Bangladesh to change the embarkation point from Dhaka to Darshana, closer to the border. Similarly, Gede on the Indian side was marked as the customs point, rather than Sealdah in Kolkata.

According to Indian officials, all formalities for passengers at Gede would be completed in two hours, due to its computerised facilities. But, at Darshana, which does not have any computerised systems installed so far, passengers will have to wait double that time.

“That means, to travel 250 km between Gede and Darshana, it will take 14 hours, including eight hours in the train and six hours on the platforms. Do you think that makes for a comfortable ride?” an Indian official asked.

Claiming that it would only be a 12-hour journey, rather than 14, a senior Bangladesh official pointed out that it would be a “very pleasant ride”. “The air-conditioned coaches have a lot of space, there will be a lot of facilities inside the train,” he said.

Indian officials contend that the train service has become a victim to the troubles surrounding the caretaker government. “They are already been criticised over various fronts. They do not want to open themselves to being labelled pro-India by starting this service,” said one Indian official.