Railway officials admit it is not a standard practice, but are reluctant to remove them from the tracks and bridgesbang
The allocation that Bangladesh Railway gets for yearly upkeep of its 4,300km tracks, has got a big boost over the past three years. The maintenance budget jumped by nearly 50% – from Tk163 crore in 2017-18 fiscal year to over Tk244 crore in 2019-20 fiscal year.
But the higher budget does not translate into better maintenance. And here comes the role of bamboos to buoy up the otherwise poorly maintained tracks loosely fitted with rusted fishplates, and missing bolts.
Recent news and photographs of bamboos being used to jack up train tracks in absence of the necessary iron joints and fishplates have made it to newspaper headlines in the country – causing much worry among train travellers in Bangladesh.
Railway authorities have admitted that nowhere in the world are bamboos used in lieu of iron joints, bolts and fishplates. But they cannot explain why it is happening in Bangladesh.
A Bangladesh Railway official, stationed at the infrastructure wing, said they preferred bamboos to metal sheets or iron rods to keep the sleepers in place.
“This is because metal sheets or iron rods get stolen from the tracks and bridges,” he said, requesting anonymity.
It is to be noted that, on February 13, 2017, the then railways minister Mazibul Haque told parliament that using bamboo to support railway tracks was not risky, as these bamboos did not carry loads of the trains.
Speaking to Dhaka Tribune, Bangladesh Railway Director General Md Shamsuzzaman, too, said it was not essential to use bamboos as they do not bear the main load of passenger and freight trains.
However, he said bamboos provided good support to the sleepers on the tracks since they keep sleepers in their designated slots.
When asked if such a formula is applied anywhere else in the world, he said no.
“Bamboos are not used even in our neighbouring countries including India,” he said.
“This is, of course, not a standard practice. But we have been following this method for ages,” he said, adding that they had no plans to remove the bamboos.
“Why should we take down the bamboos from the railway tracks and bridges when they are not causing any harm?” he asked.
Replying to another query over the use of small pieces of wood to tighten fishplates, Shamsuzzaman, who took charge of Bangladesh Railway on July 4, said: “Why would we do so? Perhaps someone intentionally put small logs in the fishplates – to tarnish our image.
“They could also, possibly do so to take pictures,” he added.
Md Abdul Zalil, chief engineer at the east zone, said they had no choice but to use bamboos due to “special reasons” – something he refused to disclose.
He suggested that this reporter visit railway tracks and bridges to see the reality on the ground instead.
“Nobody wants to willingly use bamboos; we do so because of those reasons,” Zalil said, claiming that they did not support using bamboos on the tracks.
Following the “negative” coverage in news, Zalil said they had started removing the bamboos – contradicting the railway DG’s comment that they had no plans to remove them.
A shocking shortage of manpower
When it comes to manning the job of railway track maintenance, Bangladesh Railway is poorly poised due to a massive shortage of manpower, according to railway statistics.
Under the railway’s east and west zones, there are 2,127 and 1,459 posts of wayman – a fourth-class designation meant for monitoring the tracks – respectively.
Of them, 540 posts are vacant in the east zone, while the west zone has only 940 waymen.
These numbers show why it is not possible to properly monitor the railway tracks across Bangladesh, an official working in Bangladesh Railway’s infrastructure wing said, requesting anonymity.
He could not say why or for how long these posts have been lying vacant.
In June this year, the government recruited 836 waymen, but they have yet to join.
A highly placed railway official, on condition of anonymity, said manpower crisis was hindering regular maintenance and repair services of the train tracks and bridges.
When asked how often the maintenance and repair works are done, he said: “The work continues round the year.”
According to railway authorities, a team comprising a third-class and a maximum of seven fourth-class employees are tasked with monitoring the train tracks and bridges in every railway station in Bangladesh.
Usually, they are tasked with covering 6km of tracks on average every day.
“But due to manpower shortage, it becomes an uphill task to do thorough surveillance on around 4,300km of railway tracks across the country,” he added.
More money needed?
Despite an significant increase in budget, some railway officials said the allocation for Bangladesh Railway was still not enough to cover maintenance expenses.
“We need an even bigger allocation to maintain the railway tracks, but the Ministry of Finance grants a small sum of money,” a finance official of Bangladesh Railway, requesting anonymity, said.
Asked about the recent bump up in budget allocation for the railway, he said even this increase is enough to run maintenance of the entire railway network, adding that if the government wanted, it could look into how the allocation is spent.
“The expected development in this sector will not come until a bigger budget is sanctioned – and on a regular basis,” he further said.
Mahbub Kabir Milon, moderator of Facebook page named Bangladesh Railway Fans' Forum, alleged that a large sum of the budget is misappropriated.
“Can the railway authorities say when they last ran maintenance? Can they show the real documents of maintenance expenses?” Milon asked.
“I think locals and even public representatives of a certain area have little idea about the very last maintenance job and repair work,” he said, terming the use of bamboos a “shameful act.”
Prof Md Mizanur Rahman, director of the Accident Research Institute under the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), said using bamboos on railway tracks was not technically logical.
“I have not worked in the sector, but from what I understand, using bamboos to keep sleepers in place, or pieces of wood on fishplates, is not allowed in ideal engineering practice,” he told Dhaka Tribune.
Seconding Mizanur’s statement, Hasib Mohammed Ahsan, civil engineering professor of Buet, who has been working in the railway sector for several years, said bamboos or wooden logs can only be used in case of emergency.
“This in no way falls under standard engineering practice… I doubt such a method is applied anywhere else in the world,” he added.
Protests by netizens and passenger rights campaigners sparked after four people were killed and around 67 injured as an intercity train service named Upaban Express derailed at Baramchal in the Kulaura upazila, Moulvibazar on June 23.
Following the accident, several media outlets ran reports and published pictures showing bamboos and wooden logs being used on railway tracks and bridges.
In the wake of the protests and media reports, Bangladesh Railway, in late June, issued a statement in support of bamboo use, saying: “In order to keep sleepers from moving out of square and remain attached to each other, bamboo sticks or wooden logs has been used as an additional safety measure for decades.
“Bamboos or logs do not carry the load of trains. They stop sleepers from slipping off their slots. The bamboo sticks and timbers are not at all parts of the main structure of railway bridges, and they do not hamper the safety of the train service,” the statement added.