Resumption of India-Bangladesh passenger train: A milestone in the strengthening of bilateral ties?

Following the commencement of the Covid-19 epidemic, passenger rail services between Bangladesh and India were discontinued in March 2020. Before the suspension, two trains ran between the two countries: the Maitree Express between Dhaka and Kolkata and the Bandhan Express between Khulna and Kolkata.

But it’s a piece of good news for both Indian and Bangladeshi people that passenger train services between India and Bangladesh resumed Sunday (May 29, 2022), two years after they were suspended owing to the outbreak of the pandemic on March 28, 2020, with the Bandhan Express departing Kolkata for Khulna and the Maitree Express departing Dhaka for Kolkata. The Mitali Express, a third train has been already hailed by the two countries’ railway ministers on June 01, 2022.

Mitali Express, the third passenger train service connecting Bangladesh and India, began operating on Wednesday morning (June 01, 2022). In nine hours, the train will travel 513 kilometers between New Jalpaiguri and Dhaka (Dhaka Cantonment station).

The Indian Railways Headquarters in New Delhi hosted the flag-off ceremony. The event’s main guests were Bangladesh’s Railway Minister Nurul Islam Sujan and his Indian counterpart Ashwini Vaishnav. The train will run on the Haldibari (India) – Chilahati (Bangladesh) line from New Jalpaiguri in India to Dhaka Cantonment Station in Bangladesh.

The new train and resumption of the two train services would not only improve people-to-people contacts between the two countries, but it is also intended to boost tourism between them. Shopping malls, hospitals, and low-cost hotels are also expected to be built in the vicinity, allowing people to move around the stations more easily. In the next days, a hospital, shopping malls, and low-cost motels must be available near the station. But both parties must remove all hurdles and complexities regarding the bilateral trans service. Visa- related complexities should be addressed properly. The Target should be the welfare of the people from both sides.  Millions of Indian and Bangladeshi citizens would be grateful to the Indian and Bangladeshi governments for restoring the train services. It would be much better if the procedure could be made more fluid.

This will help definitely enhance trade between the two countries, flourish tourism. The rail link will improve rail network access to the region’s key ports, dry ports, and land borders, supporting regional trade growth and encouraging regional economic and social development. The benefits of both products and passenger travel will be available to ordinary citizens and businesspeople in both countries. As a result, it will strengthen people-to-people communication even more. It will facilitate commercial activity and allowing more people to contact with one another.

The two countries have been collaborating in an effort to improve and expand rail connectivity. Both sides are working on a number of projects, and some historic railway lines are being restored at the same time.

The Bandhan Express was resurrected by reactivating a long-dormant rail link between Kolkata and Khulna, Bangladesh’s third-largest city. The Barisal Express served this route until 1965, when it was halted due to the India-Pakistan war. Bandhan was revived in 2017 by Narendra Modi government and PM Sheikh Hasina administration.

Following the launch of the Maitree Express between Kolkata and Dhaka Cantonment in April 2008, the Bandhan Express was the second train to depart. It spans the distance between Kolkata and Khulna, passing through Petrapole and Benapole on the way to meet the needs of people from both countries.

Since its inception, the Maitree Express has been a huge success. The 90 percent occupancy rate on the tri-weekly route between Kolkata and Dhaka used to be the norm.  Now, the Mitali Express has been started to run between New Jalpaiguri and Dhaka in North Bengal. PM Modi announced this train during his March 2021 visit to Dhaka.

Both countries’ governments have been attempting to improve the rail link between them, and not simply through passenger trains. In August 2021, the two countries resumed regular freight train service between Haldibari, India, and Chilahati, Bangladesh, on the newly restored link.

The Haldibari-Chilahati train link between India and East Pakistan was also operating until 1965, when it was shut down owing to the war. At the time of Partition, this was part of the broad-gauge major line connecting Kolkata and Siliguri. On this route, the two sides expect at least 20 freight trains to cross the border each month.

Trains continued to run between the two countries after the Partition because they were once part of a single, seamless railway network under British authority. As a result, the infrastructure to connect the two sides via railways was substantially there.

Policymakers on both sides saw this as an opportunity to strengthen diplomatic ties by allowing products and passengers to traverse borders. Between India and Bangladesh, five rail routes have been restarted thus far. Petrapole (India)-Benapole (Bangladesh), Gede (India)-Darshana (Bangladesh), Singhabad (India)-Rohanpur (Bangladesh), Radhikapur (India)-Birol (Bangladesh), and the Haldibari-Chilahati connection are among them.

According to the media reports, stone chips, ballasts, grains, and other items are commonly transported to Bangladesh. CONCOR, a railway PSU, has begun container shipping with private clients’ Fast Moving Consumer Goods. Typically, the goal is to develop a speedier and more cost-effective freight link by weaning them off of the sea route. The Eastern Railway of India made it easier to import de-oiled soya cakes from Bangladesh last year.

Around 1.2 million tonnes of the cargo were transported via train in October of last year, rather than the customary route between the Nhava Sheva port and the Land Customs Stations, Petrapole Port.

“India would never go back on its word in this endeavor,” stated the Indian rail minister recently, assuring Bangladesh of full assistance in improving the latter’s rail system. It is true that India can help Bangladesh enhance its railway infrastructure, particularly in the conversion of the entire train network to broad gauze. He called the Mitali Express “another another milestone” in the strengthening of India-Bangladesh ties.

According to the media reports, the 17 railway projects in Bangladesh that India is funding are the largest component of India’s three separate lines of credit given since 2011, accounting for 25% of the total soft loans.

Dhaka and New Delhi have agreed to work out the details of India utilising rail transit through Bangladesh after receiving a proposal from Indian Railways (IR).

Indian trains will pass through Bangladesh between Sealdah and Haldibari in West Bengal, as part of the proposal. Trains will enter Bangladesh via the Gede-Darshana (Chuadanga) border and exit via the Chilahati (Nilphamari)-Haldibari border to reach Siliguri in this instance.

At the moment, India has access to Bangladesh’s road network. The proposed route will be the first rail transit infrastructure linking the two countries in more than half a century if both governments approve it.

There were eight railway interchanges between India and Pakistan before the 1947 division. Only five of them are currently operational: Benapole-Petropole, Darshana-Gede, Rohanpur-Singabadh, Biral-Radhikarpur, and Chilahati-Haldibari.

 According to the media reports, in April this year, the IR presented the plan to Bangladesh Railway (BR). The infrastructure of the route from Gede-Darshana-Ishwardi-Abdullpur-Parbatipur-Chilahati-Haldibari.

The IR delegation also aimed to enhance the number of trains departing from India and passing through various places in order to facilitate freight transfer from one carrier to another.

Apart from freight trains, India and Bangladesh have been operating two passenger trains for numerous years. Now, third train has been added in this list. The Gede-Darshana junction is currently used by the Maitree Express between Dhaka and Kolkata. Between Khulna and Kolkata, the Bandhan Express runs. After a 55-year absence, rail communication between the two countries via the Chilahati-Haldibari route resumed in December 2020. Today, the Mitali Express, a third passenger train, resumes service.

The IR now has the opportunity to reestablish the ancient Siliguri-Sealdah route via Bangladesh, thanks to the resumption of train service on the Chilahati-Haldibari route.

According to the media reports, the proposed transit facility will save nearly three hours of journey time. At the moment, Indian trains must travel 573 kilometers from Sealdah in Kolkata to reach Siliguri. If the new route can be used, the distance will be reduced to merely 200 kilometers. Trains from Siliguri passed through Haldibari and entered Chilahati in the former East Pakistan en route to Kolkata before 1965. This line was permanently closed after the Indo-Pak conflict in 1965.But the Resumption of India-Bangladesh passenger and freight train services will provide benefits for both Bangladesh and India.

Transit of IR trains through Bangladesh may be a win-win situation for BR, IR, and the people and trade of the two nations. But there must have communication between the Northeast and Bangladesh, and the Akhaura-Agartala railway link must be resumed for both freight train and passenger tarin as soon as possible which can mark yet another significant milestone for the two countries. The increased connectivity between the Northeast and Bangladesh is intended to boost trade between the two countries.

This will strengthen not just people-to-people ties, but also trade and tourism between the two countries, particularly in the North East. In the future, it might be a link in an ambitious Asian Railway network that opens up Asean countries for trade while also serving as a success route

Because Dhaka and Kolkata are already connected by rail, there is a possibility of connecting this network to Kolkata. This was the road from Kolkata to Siliguri before 1965, but it was closed after the 1965 war. Once the route is open, the distance between Kolkata and Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri will be cut in half. People can benefit from that. Thus, the Resumption of India-Bangladesh passenger train services is a milestone in the strengthening of bilateral ties.

Dr.Shakuntala Bhabani
Dr.Shakuntala Bhabani
Dr. Shakuntala Bhabani is a Kolkata-based educator ( Assistant Professor) and Southasian affairs researcher in the 'Political Science department at a Kolkata Honors College which is affiliated to the University of Calcutta. Her expertise areas include foreign relations in South Asia and Southeast Asia.