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Kudo goes where it is due

Munima Sultana | December 28, 2022 00:00:00

There is no denying that people engaged in developing the first Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) all deserve some credit when it has reached a stage of inauguration with high hopes to give a different taste to the daily trips of the city commuters. But those who were involved in the maiden metro-rail- corridor development at the initial stage amid belief that its implementation is impossible must get special kudos for taking forward the billion-dollar project in the early 2000s.

They had confronted all initial challenges of mindsets of government, non-government and civil-society members as well as noncooperation from various quarters. Also, they had to go through lack of knowledge and homegrown expertise but continued efforts to claim or convince all concerned of the best possible metro rail for the city.

Among these people, contribution of Prof Jamilur Reza Chowdhury and Prof Abul Mokarram Mohammad Shafiullah must be recalled. They are no more here in celebrating this memorable moment. The FE, however, tried to talk to few others who were involved in the planning stages to understand the level of challenges the project had gone through at initial stages abd also to understand challenges in its successful operation as well as strategy and steps to be taken for upcoming five more MRTs planned for the greater Dhaka city.

Dr SM Saleh Uddin, an engineering-background retired additional secretary who was the in-charge of Dhaka Transport Coordination Board (DTCB) under the then Communications Ministry, was among them. Now the chief coordinator and consultant for MAISHA GROUP, Dr Saleh Uddin is also on the special committee for Bus Route Rationalisation(BRR) as transport expert.

As the Executive Director in-charge, he had taken forward the MRT-6 project since the process of approval for Strategic Transport Plan (STP) started as it proposed to build three MRTs. The STP was approved in July soon after the present government assumed power. During his tenure till end of 2012, feasibility study of the MRT- 6 corridor was done, which initially followed the STP-proposed route from Pallabi to Saidabad. But he had to bear major hurdle in finalizing the alignment and formulating project office when different quarters placed their reservation in allowing the elevated track of 13-metre height to cross places in front of their respective areas.

At this stage, Dr Saleh Uddin had also to take the trouble of convincing some quarters of the need of DTCB as they wanted the board to be abolished. He was involved in converting the DTCB to DTCA (Authority) playing the groundbreaking role in starting implementation of STP--the 25- year transport plan of the city which was formulated in 2005. Though the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) provided all technical support in carrying out groundwork, situation also came during his time when the project's Japanese financier wanted to pull back its support due to development of unwanted big infrastructures along the corridor.

Recalling the days, Dr Saleh Uddin says alignment finalization took quite a long time for not getting clearance from different quarters. But these clearings were necessary to take the elevated metro track in front of respective organisations or institutions to avoid construction-period complication. Not only these, after almost finalization of the route, construction of Hanif Flyover was allowed where the MRT 6 was supposed to end. This made the project totally uncertain as JICA had planned there to build multimodal transport hub to establish link with other modes of transport coming from different suburban districts.

"So many memories… the STP- suggested first alignment could not be followed. It faced objection, protest and sudden development of infrastructures beyond STP. Every time, uncertainty loomed over possibility of the MRT. But efforts were on to communicate authorities concerned like Air Force, Dhaka University, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) which could be resolved after various consultations at the beginning," he adds.

He further says Air Force has their own opinions which are to consider for the sake of overall state interest. Diverting the route from Shaheed Minar was considered to support the country's emotional pride and history. But, sitting with BSMMU and DU authorities over crossing the train track in front of Shahbagh and TSC, helped make them understand the importance of the metro rail and its benefit for the beneficiaries.

"We took the efforts to hold meetings with stakeholders and sat with political leaders, business communities, even pedestrians, to make them aware of the need of metro rail and its benefit in daily life so that construction-stage barriers could be avoided "

The MRT- 6 project was taken under the Ministry of Communications whose rule of business was then over both road and rail. But, after separating rail sector from road by forming dedicated Rail Ministry in 2012, the MRT 6 was included in the MoR as its rule of business due to similarity of some characteristics of rail transports. But, Dr Saleh Uddin says he had moved to all concerned at that time and made them understand that though MRT is like rail system, it is, however, part of the urban transport and its technology is different from that of traditional rail.

Asked how he assesses the MRT 6 now, transport expert Saleh Uddin says MRT success depends on connectivity which is yet to establish in the first metro rail. He also notes that centering MRT, some development of road, in particularly in Uttara side, must be maintained and usable for the overall benefit of city commuters.

M Anisur Rahman, also an engineering-background Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges, who then worked in the DTCB on deputation as the Project Director of both MRT and BRT, recalls that when JICA pulled back from the project due to the start of Jatrabari flyover, the DTCB conducted its own survey and made it understand the viability of diverting the route towards Motijheel to tap the commuters of business district.

It was also not easy to form a dedicated company for MRT following the JICA recommendations. Selecting the depot site of MRT is also big problem for the DTCB as it requires vast land which was difficult to manage in the congested capital city.

The first-proposed land in Pallabi was low-lying but the JICA proposed to design the depot in floating style. But due to not getting clearance from the cantonment authority for using the land, DTCA had to move further north where two more college- related authorities created obstruction. Ultimately, the DTCB lobbied for the land of RAJUK under its 3rd-phase project.

"DTCA studied at its own cost to find alternative depot land to shift from Pallabi. But resistance, threat, including setting fire to the project- site office- like incidents, occurred initially," he recounts.

Apart from these, as the RAJUK was not ready to give its land for the MRT-6 depot, high-up intervention finally solved the problem.

When the MRT alignment was diverted from Bijoy Sarani due to objection from the Air Force, Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury and Professor M Shamsul Hoque played a significant role in holding meetings with the Prime Minister, the then Finance Minister as well as the chiefs of all armed forces to highlight various aspects of the metro rail.

When asked how he would assess the success of the MRT when its first phase is set to be inaugurated, Dr Shamsul Hoque said it must be considered a learning case for all concerned. The MRT 6 will certainly give a dimension in the mobility of commuters and create a new culture in the transport sector.

But he said the problems that the MRT-6 project faced from finalisation of alignment to construction stages could be avoided or lessened in the case of other metro-rail developments if every step of the MRT- 6 project is reviewed and studied from now professionally.

It is needed to carry out study, planning, construction etc at every step of other metro rails accordingly to save time, cost and ensure better services to commuters.

Professor Hoque said, "When we see the MRT 6 construction reach almost end, many permanent shortcomings are found from alignment selection to civil works."

The BUET professor of Civil Engineering says the MRT 6 is the best among all MRT corridors planned in city for having straight road with high passenger demand, including bus facilities. But the corridor development had gone through various problems and obstruction from different quarters.

Citing more examples, he says the train speed of 100 kms per hour in train operation of the MRT 6 would be possible due to short distance between stations. Footpath could not be designed as per passenger- demand assessment due to lack of adequate space, delay in planning the business model including transit-oriented development, non-operational cash injection to reduce MRT fare could not be possible. It will not be desirable if metro-rail operational cost is more focused from passenger fares than other sources of earning,

From professional point of view, it is clear from the MRT 6 that Dhaka city has severe lack in taking the load of a big development work like metro rail due to not having correct right of way,station accommodation, land- use integration, transfer facility, feeder- service development which are considered foundation of development of MRT.

Besides, third train operation instead of catenary-system train, driverless metro rail-like modern technology and concept must be considered in the upcoming MRTs.

The safety and security issues in the MRT 6 also need to be given due focus as its accident situation is quite different from existing train operation which is carried in open space and at grade level.

M Mofazzel Hossain, a retired rail secretary, was the first Managing Director in charge of Dhaka Mass Transit Company Limited (DMTCL. He joined as the ED of DTCA and carried out the responsibility of Project Director of MRT 6 and MD of DMTCL in addition. He had to take various decisions like the DMTCL office setup and managing manpower for MRT 6 not only to make vibrant the project office but also finalise every step of stations, train, depot facilities.

Sharing his experience, Mr Mofazzel says readying the DMTCL with selecting office place, decorating office and starting recruiting officials from deputation and outsourcing for the project were carried during his tenure.

Many details of the project were finalised during his time, including getting the huge land of depot from RAJUK after initially planned depot site at Pallabi was to change.

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