“MRTs are the only long-term solution for traffic problems in Dhaka”
How did the concept of Dhaka Metro Rail come to be? What is the background of the project?
The first study looking into solution to traffic problems in Dhaka city was carried out in the mid- 1980s. Establishing metro rail was proposed back then, but there was no positive outcome. Following this, the Dhaka Integrated Transportation Study was carried out in 1994, which proposed introducing the metro rail. Later, in 2004, the government approached the World Bank to finance and prepare the Strategic Transport Plan (STP). The estimated timeframe given for the STP was 20 years, covering the period of 2005 to 2025. It was quite a detailed study carried out by an American consulting firm, Louis Berger, along with Bangladesh Consultants Limited.
My involvement in studies related to traffic problems started with this project. I was asked by the Government to chair the advisory committee for the study. The committee was quite broad-based with representatives from relevant government agencies, academics and researchers working in this field, relevant professional bodies (IEB, IAB and BIP) and associations representing stakeholders like bus/truck owners. Our responsibilities were to review the reports which were prepared by consultants, have formal discussions with the consultants and to provide recommendations and observations. The consultants initially suggested that only Bus Rapid Transit systems (BRTs) be introduced, because a poor country like Bangladesh would not be able to afford MRTs. However, our committee differed and recommended the necessity of Mass Rapid Transit systems (MRTs) for a city like Dhaka, whose population is predicted to be around 25 million by 2025. It would have been difficult for BRTs with their limited capacity, to handle the heavy traffic. Given this scenario, the consultants finally changed their recommendations, stating that out of the six BRT lines which they had identified, three would be MRTs and the remaining three would be converted to MRTs in the future. Moreover, the MRTs would be either over-ground or underground.
The final report of the consultants had three major parts. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Communication did not take any action to either accept or reject the recommendations. Finally, the caretaker government gave the seal of approval in January 2008.
The Japanese government showed interest in carrying out further studies and fielded a team of Japanese consultants. They submitted a report (Dhaka Urban Transport Network Study) in 2009, identifying the priority routes for MRTs. Based on a survey of traffic demand, they suggested that the first line should be MRT 6, starting from north Uttara heading towards the city and terminating at Jatrabari. However, after the submission of the report, Bangladesh Air Force objected to the alignment, which included a segment connecting Rokeya Sharani with Airport Road, passing through Bijoy Sharani. They questioned the construction of this elevated rail passing through the south of Tejgaon airport (which was declared earlier as an airport for STOL aircrafts), which they believed would create problems for the take-off and landing of aircrafts. Although it was pointed out during meetings that the top level of the MRT 6 elevated line would be lower than the crown of the dome of Bangabandhu Novo Theatre (which is along the centre-line of the runway), the Air Force maintained its position. The Japanese government was unhappy with the change in alignment, but finally agreed to consider an alternative route at our request. This led to a delay of about one year in the project implementation.
The alternative route was about half a kilometre to the south, passing through the east side of the National Parliament (Khejurbagan) and then turning to the east in front of Khamarbari. The other change was the construction of Mayor Hanif Flyover, previously not in the plan. It was originally selected as the route for MRT 6, terminating at Jatrabari. The revised alignment necessitated a route passing through east of TSC, University of Dhaka, towards Curzon Hall and then turning towards Topkhana Road and terminating in front of Bangladesh Bank. These changes required further studies and subsequent redesigning led to a delay of two years in starting the project. The main reason for using the elevated rail system rather than going underground was financial constraints. In the process, we had to sacrifice the aesthetic aspect of buildings along the route and the environmental degradation underneath the elevated structure. It would also result in many problems for the road users during construction as is reflected currently in stretches of Rokeya Sharani and other places along the alignment.
Given the current scenario of urban transportation in Bangladesh, to what extent can the Dhaka Metro Rail project be effective in meeting our needs?
Constructing just one metro line is not going to have a significant improvement in the traffic congestion we are currently facing. After the STP prepared in 2005, Japanese consultants carried out another study updating previous reports. In 2015, a report was submitted (“Revised STP”) which included five MRT lines and two BRT lines. A detailed feasibility study is being done for two other lines, on MRT Line 1 (Gazipur-Airport-Kamalapur-Jhilmil) and MRT Line 5 (Bulta-Badda-Mirpur Road-Dhanmondi-Bashundhara City-Hatirjheel Link Road).
These would be underground in central Dhaka and possibly over-ground in other parts. Recently, an agreement has been signed between the Bangladesh government and a Spanish firm (TYPSA) to carry out a detailed study for the establishment of a subway system for Dhaka.
I firmly believe that MRTs are the only long-term solution for traffic problems in Dhaka. Over the next 15 years, with all the metro lines in operation, we should be able to have some respite from the traffic chaos and congestion that we are experiencing now.
What are your observations on the implementation process of the Dhaka Metro Rail project?
The first metro line, MRT 6, still has some design issues regarding the interface between stations and local pedestrians. This obstacle needs to be overcome urgently. There are some engineering problems which are quite natural for a project of this sort. However, the implementation authorities, viz. Dhaka Mass Transit Company (DMTC), are trying to solve this problem. The Japanese government recommended an organisational structure for implementing all MRT projects.
In almost all such projects in different cities of the world, the implementation agencies are headed by technical people who are familiar with construction. Unfortunately, the government, without following recommendations, has gone ahead and appointed "generalists" from administrative services to head these organizations and also to be Project Directors.
What are the challenges for the implementation of the project?
In any infrastructure project in a densely populated city, the significant challenges include locating the station and land acquisition. Land acquisition would result in the displacement and resettlement of people, which is both costly and time-consuming.
The second challenge is the relocation of existing utility lines such as water supply, gas, underground and over ground electricity cables, and sewers.
The third challenge is ensuring both safety of road-users and proper management of road traffic during construction.
Since the concept of Dhaka Metro Rail project is new for Bangladesh, what are the key lessons from this project?
During the feasibility study, a more detailed investigation into the geotechnical aspects should have been carried out. Besides, various options for the foundation should have been considered, which would have the least impact on traffic along the routes during construction. Unfortunately, it seems that such options were not explored during the project implementation.
As we know, more projects such as the Dhaka Elevated Expressway (DEE) and Mouchak-Moghbazar flyover are being implemented to improve the traffic situation in the capital. How can we ensure better integration among all these transportation projects including Dhaka Metro Rail?
There are too many agencies trying to tackle the traffic problems of Dhaka city. These include the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC), Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC), Bangladesh Bridge Authority (BBA), RAJUK, Roads and Highways Department and Bangladesh Railway. Unfortunately, the agency which was created to coordinate all these efforts, Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA), has not been able to resolve or reduce the conflict between all these projects. DTCA should be strengthened with technically competent personnel. Sometimes, it appears that many of these agencies are interested in initiating construction projects which may not conform to the STP. Before initiating any such ventures, a detailed study must be carried out so that they do not lead to future conflicts and wastage of financial resources.
The interview is taken by Maisha Zaman, The Daily Star