Improve railway logistics to ease trade in the Bay of Bengal region
While railway is considered an economical and efficient mode of transportation, cross-border railway connectivity in the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) region is constrained by varying track gauges, among other factors. Therefore, it is crucial for the BIMSTEC members to upgrade their railway logistics, particularly for transshipment at border points, to make the movements of goods and passengers easy and efficient in respect to time and cost.
In this context, we need to look at the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, which includes a comprehensive list of railway projects to strengthen this mode of cross-border transportation. They fall under two categories to: a) enhance rail connectivity between ports, dry ports, border areas, and hinterlands, and b) provide rail connectivity for landlocked members. Many of them are part of the Trans-Asian Railway project of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific
There are five projects each to boost rail connectivity between India and Bhutan, and India and Nepal. Many of them, such as the one linking Phuntsholing in Bhutan with Hasimara in India, that linking New Jalpaiguri in India with Kakarvitta in Nepal are cross-border in nature, including their proximity with either land custom stations or integrated check posts. Similar railway connectivity projects linking the border areas of India and Bangladesh, including reviving some old connections, are being implemented.
The one linking Haldibari in India with Chilahati in Bangladesh has been completed and commercial services commenced in 2021. The commencement of this service will ensure a shorter route for trade and transit of goods and passengers into Bangladesh and vice-versa both from India (Assam, West Bengal states) and neighboring Bhutan and Nepal.
Similarly, for establishing railways connectivity between India and Myanmar, three projects are under implementation. They include the 111 kilometres long Jiribam-Imphal line in Manipur, India and further extending that to Moreh in the India-Myanmar border. In future, it will be extended to Tamu in Myanmar and then to Kale, linking it with the Asian Highway-1. Completion of these projects will ensure better connectivity between India’s land-locked Northeast region and the Greater Mekong Sub-region of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, another BIMSTEC member.
Furthermore, the old railway link between India and Sri Lanka is under revival. This will not only link the southern parts of India with the north and north-eastern parts of India but also will help traders of both countries to access each other’s internal railway networks for faster movement of goods and passengers.
Challenges to railway connectivity
While, other than facilitating cross-border connectivity, many of these projects will ensure better railway links between the hinterlands and border areas of these countries, several challenges remain.
Optimal rail connectivity in the BIMSTEC region requires a coordinated approach among the member states. As of now, they are yet to develop a system for coordinated planning and implementation of railway projects. Here railway planning is primarily done with national interest in mind. In general, they do not make any reference to the plans of neighboring countries. Thus, in many cases we found that while rail connectivity exists up to border points, gaps across the border, often just a few kilometres, are there.
Next, it is observed that BIMSTEC members use different track gauges in their railway lines. This hinders cross-border transshipment and transportation. Thirdly, the electrification of railway networks is another issue that further constrains the compatibility of cross-border railway connections.
First is an imperative for coordinated planning among the relevant authorities for holistic railway connectivity in the BIMSTEC region. This calls for raising awareness of ongoing and proposed railway development plans and projects. The BIMSTEC Secretariat should facilitate it.
As mentioned in the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, the BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Working Group will establish a database to facilitate the member states to exchange railway planning data for coordinated investments. This could go a long way for better implementation of connectivity initiatives and should also be juxtaposed with investments in other modes of transportation.
BIMSTEC members could also think of adopting a variable gauge system, which will enable railway rakes to run on tracks of different gauges. Under this system, as a train passes through the wheels are unlocked and are moved closer or further with subsequent re-locking. Such systems exist between Spain and France, Sweden and Finland, Poland and Lithuania, Ukraine and Poland, and many others. This will require the establishment of a coordinated system involving border clearance agencies, particularly for ensuring transshipment capacity and its execution, at specific border points.