14 Dec 2017
Primary Bangladeshi BRI Route Set to Secure Final Funding Tranche
Export-Import Bank of China to fund completion of Padma Bridge Rail Link, a key conduit of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Later this month, the Export-Import Bank of China is expected to confirm its willingness to cover the US$300 million funding shortfall that has left the Padma Bridge Rail Link in development limbo over the past few months. As well as being a key element in Bangladesh's bid to radically overhaul its internal transport network, the 6.15km bridge is also seen as a prime conduit for the Belt and Road Initiative, China's massively ambitious international infrastructure development and trade facilitation programme.
First mooted in 1999, but not formally commissioned until 2006, the contract to develop the multi-purpose, 42-pillar, $3.69 billion bridge was awarded to China Railway Group, the Beijing-headquartered, state-owned construction company that is, arguably, the world's largest civil engineering conglomerate. As of October this year, progress on the project was said to be approaching the halfway mark.
Once completed, this multi-purpose, double-decker bridge will span the Padma River – actually the lower course of the Ganges, the world's third-largest river – connecting the Louhajong region, south of Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, with the districts of Munshiganj, Shariatpur and Madaripur. In addition to the rail link on its lower level, the bridge will also house a four-lane highway on its upper deck. When it comes online in late 2018, it will be the largest bridge in Bangladesh and the country's first fixed river crossing open to road traffic.
The bridge is a key component in the far larger Dhaka-Khulna Railway Project, itself an integral part of Bangladesh's grand strategy to improve access to the capital from the southwest of the country. It is also expected to boost Dhaka's ambitions to become a transport hub for passengers and freight in transit from the coastal areas of the country to its northern and eastern regions.
The railway itself is scheduled to be up and running by 2022 and will cut the travel time from Dhaka and Khulna, Bangladesh's third-largest city, to just three and a half hours, a significant reduction on the current journey time of seven hours or more. As well as installing 215km of upgraded track, 66 large and 244 small bridges have been constructed in order to bring the project to fruition, in addition to the building of 14 new stations and the redevelopment of six existing facilities.
The line itself will also feed into the Southern Corridor of the Trans-Asian Railway, a 14,080km rail route that will eventually run from Singapore to Turkey. One of the primary roles of the Dhaka-Khulna link will be to act as a rapid land transport conduit for goods in passage to and from the Mongla Port, the second-busiest marine cargo handling facility in Bangladesh. A further rail project will also see Dhaka linked to Payra, a new deep-sea port facility being developed in the south of the country.
For Bangladesh, the bridge and its subsequent rail links are just one of seven state-initiated mega development projects set to transform the country, broadening its economic base, upping its appeal for overseas investors, creating jobs and helping to alleviate the poverty that blights the lives of many of its citizens. Among the other key projects under way are the construction of a series of nuclear and coal-fired power-generation plants, upgrades to several of the country's sea ports and a new gas processing terminal.
From China's point of view, the Padma Bridge Rail Link forms part of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), a key BRI channel. Once completed, the 2,800km corridor will link Kolkata, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, with Kunming, the largest city in southwest China's Yunnan province, via Assam, Bangladesh, Manipur and Myanmar.
Geoff de Freitas, Special Correspondent, Dhaka