Chugging alongExpanding rail linkages has never been so important
Built almost a century ago, a number of narrow gauge railways connected Nepali towns with railheads across the border in India. They were primarily meant to transport timber, but some also carried passengers. All of them have chugged chugged into history, except one which was creaking along until recently. Amid the hoopla of the development of highways, railways took a backseat. The ancient tracks declined from bad to worse, and train services eventually came to a halt. After the government began making plans to establish a Kathmandu-China railway, work to improve the old cross-border railways has received a boost. The railway track connecting Budhanagar, Biratnagar and Bathnaha, India was recently upgraded, and on Monday, a test run was conducted. It is expected that the railway will be open for passenger service by December.
While this is a good start, much more needs to be done if we want to realise our dream of connecting with India and China, as well as the wider world and make it sustainable too. For years, we believed that railways were not feasible in Nepal, given the mountainous terrain and financial costs until the dream merchant, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, sold aspirations of developing rail networks to ease connectivity, both within the country and with neighbouring countries. Nepal’s history of railways goes back to 1927, when the Amlekhgunj-Raxaul railway was initiated. It was used mainly to export timber to India while connectivity was never the focus. Another railway, the Janakapur-Jaynagar line, was built 80 years ago. A flood severely damaged the track 15 years ago, and the railway was working only partially. Four years ago, the railway service from Janakpur to Jaynagar in India came to a total halt.
Come today, increasing global interconnections, compounded by the geopolitical competition between China and India to woo Nepal, expanding rail linkages has never been so important. Both our neighbours have made significant strides in mass transportation through railways. Hence, developing railway networks has often been a major agenda of every Nepali prime minister visiting India and China. Jostling to wield greater influence over the smaller neighbour, both India and China have devised grand plans of building rail networks in the country. But this is where we need to sit back and reflect. For starters, it is shocking to note that there is not even a single railway engineer in the Department of Railways. The number of civil, mechanical and electric engineers too is not adequate. It’s quite a shameful state of affairs. Our reliance on our neighbours for everything—from technology to wet leasing and expertise in railway operation, and from crew members to ticketing, maintenance and management—will not bode well for us in the long run.
True, our lack of expertise in railway management forces us to seek help from outside. But we have been lulled into complacency. If we are to make sure that our railways are sustainable, the focus should be on developing in-house expertise; outsourcing can only take us so far. Dearth of competent human resources will always put us at the mercy of others. Our lack of knowledge will have a serious bearing on the kind of technology we choose to use for developing the track too, for example, choosing between a broad gauge and a standard gauge track. Standard gauge has a low-turning radius, making it easy for the train to make sharp turns, which is ideal for all kinds of terrain. The standard gauge track is much more advanced as well. What’s more, financing of the projects needs to be pondered upon. Instead of opting for a grant model, perhaps a mixed model comprising grant and loan would work better for us. Only when we invest national money will we be able to feel any liability towards it. Otherwise, our railways too would run the risk of repeating the fate of the trolley bus.
Given the massive strategic importance any railway network has, such overreliance on others, be it technically or financially, will have detrimental effects on our bargaining power compelling us to mutely accept terms and conditions put forward by the neighbours. The government made grandiose promises of building rail networks and enhancing connectivity. But it has allocated only a mere Rs50 million in the budget for it. This amount seems paltry considering the magnitude of the work that needs to be done. Railways have the potential to disrupt the existing transportation networks within and outside Nepal. But for this, the authorities concerned need to collectively think of the role of railway in their strategic planning.