Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is to cut the ribbon and become the Japan-backed metro’s first passenger, an official with the prime minister’s office told . A day later, it will open to the public.
Home to around 22.5 million residents, Dhaka is one of the world’s most jampacked capitals, and it lacks anything close to the public transport system needed to accommodate so many people. Until now, commuters have been forced to rely on a fleet of rundown buses, or brave the roads in their own vehicles.
Wednesday’s launch marks the culmination of a decadeslong effort by successive governments, based on a strategic transport plan laid out in 2005 to ease the traffic woes. Khaled Mahedi, a resident of Mirpur — the city’s most populous area — has high hopes that his life is about to get a little easier, though experts warn the line is only a partial solution.
“I work in a bank in Motijheel and I have to remain stuck inside old and super-crowded buses for an hour and a half every day to reach the office,” Mahedi said. “Now they say it will take just 30 minutes to reach Motijheel from Mirpur. It seems too good to be true.”
The 20.1-kilometer elevated line, known as MRT-6, will ferry about 60,000 passengers per hour from Uttara, the city’s largest suburb, to Motijheel, its commercial center. It will stop at 16 stations. The metro rail authorities say it will reduce travel time between the terminals from at least two hours to 40 minutes, and will save an estimated $350 million annually in terms of travel time and vehicle operation costs.
The cash-strapped South Asian nation has been constructing the nearly $3.3 billion project with financial support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which is bearing about 75% of the total cost in the form of a loan with a 0.01% interest rate. The Bangladesh government is funding the rest.
The World Bank helped prepare the plans back in 2005 and JICA took part in revising them in 2016. Under the latest blueprint, the city will eventually have a network of five MRT lines, including MRT-6, as well as two rapid bus lines by 2035. A line known as MRT-3 was in the original strategic plan but was scrapped in the revised version.
Man Siddique, managing director of Dhaka Mass Transit Company Limited (DMTCL) — the operating body of the MRT network — told Nikkei Asia that MRT-6 was picked to be built first because the route has the heaviest traffic.
In addition, Uttara is the adjacent neighborhood of Dhaka’s lone international airport.
Siddique said the construction of MRT-1, Dhaka’s first underground metro, will start from the beginning of next year. “With 31.24 km and an estimated budget of $5.1 billion, it will be the largest infrastructure project in Dhaka,” he said, adding that JICA has already pledged to finance about 75% of that megaproject as a soft loan.
He stressed that while MRT-6 will help, the only way to really ease the congestion is to complete the whole MRT network. “Only then the city dwellers will get the full benefit,” he said.
Transportation expert Shamsul Hoque agreed. He said one metro rail route will not bring any revolutionary change in Dhaka’s traffic. “Yes, it will help a good number of people, but the problem lies elsewhere,” he said.
Hoque, a professor of civil engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology, said his department’s research has found that over 75% of Dhaka’s roads are now occupied by private vehicles, the primary culprit behind the clogged traffic.
“Since Dhaka has no suitable public transport, people here opted to buy their own private vehicles once they attained the financial capacity. And the roads are occupied with not only cars or motorbikes, but also with slow-moving rickshaws. The traffic practically moves like a sloth,” he lamented.
A World Bank report from 2017 supports Hoque’s assessment. It found out that in the previous 10 years, the average traffic speed in Dhaka plummeted from 21 km per hour to 7 kph. It warned that by 2035, it could sink to 4 kph, slower than walking speed.
“We cannot expand our road networks inside the city even if we want to,” Hoque said. “We have to move people underground or in overhead structures, so metro rail is the most suitable solution. But we have to have multiple lines crisscrossing the whole city. The MRT lines have to reach everywhere.”