The Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar Railway is a “fast track project” currently under construction in Bangladesh. The project, which began in 2018, aims to connect the popular tourist destination of Cox’s Bazar with the capital city of Dhaka as the 45th district via road, air, and rail. This will result in a reduction in transportation costs for both goods and passengers and is expected to significantly boost tourism in Cox’s Bazar. The project has a budget of over BDT 18 thousand crores, and all preparations are underway for its inauguration in 2023. As of now, 80% of the project has been completed.
In 2010, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council, known as ECNEC, gave approval for the construction of a 128 km railway project. The railway was set to run from Chittagong’s Dohazari, through Cox’s Bazar and end in Bandarban’s Ghumdhum Upazila on the Myanmar border. The cost of this project was estimated to be over Tk 1800 crore. The initial plan was for the railway to connect Bangladesh to the Trans-Asian Railway Corridor, which would then link up with China via Myanmar. The foundation stone for the railway project was laid in 2011, with completion scheduled for 2013. However, the project was delayed due to difficulties in appointing a contractor. It wasn’t until a 2014 ECNEC meeting that a decision was made to change the railway from a meter gauge line to a dual gauge track.
The project aims to construct a 128-kilometer railway from Dohazari in Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar, including a 28-kilometer extension to Ghumdhum in Bandarban. Additionally, the renovation work of the former 47-kilometer railway track up to Chittagong’s Dohazari is also part of this project. It was included as a ‘Fast Track Project’ in 2016, with construction beginning in March 2018. Originally planned for completion in 2022, the project’s duration was extended to 2024. The project is intended to connect to the Trans-Asian Rail Network, but the construction of the 28-kilometer railway from Ramu to Ghumdhum has been suspended due to a lack of progress on the Myanmar part.
The project involves constructing more than 260 minor bridges and culverts, as well as close to 100 level crossings. To facilitate the smooth movement of elephants and other wildlife, a 50-meter-long overpass and 3 underpasses are also being constructed. Nine stations will be constructed from Dohazari in Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar for this new railway, including Dohazari, Satkania, Lohagra, Harbang, Chakaria, Dulahazra, Islamabad, Ramu, and Cox’s Bazar. Initially, there will be a total of 10 trains from Dhaka to Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar running on dual gauge tracks.
Engineer Mofizur Rahman, the project director of a major construction project, has reported that 65 out of the total 100 kilometers of the project have been completed as of January 2023, with the progress at 80 percent. The objective of the project is to establish a direct rail network between the tourist city Cox’s Bazar and Dhaka, which will significantly boost tourism in Cox’s Bazar. As part of the project, an iconic oyster-shaped railway station is being built at Jhelongha Union in Cox’s Bazar. This station will be the only one of its kind in Bangladesh, with 6 floors and covering an area of 29 acres. It will provide various tourism-friendly facilities, such as lockers and parking spaces, for passengers.
Of the 9 stations under construction, 2 have already been completed, 5 are in the process of being finished, and the remaining 2 are still in the structuring phase. The project is scheduled to be opened to the public in October 2023. The total cost of the project is estimated to be more than BDT 18 thousand crores, which is almost ten times more than the project cost approved in the 2010 meeting of Ecnec. This increase in cost is due to inflation, the construction of various tourism-centric facilities, and the decision to build dual gauge tracks instead of meter gauge, which led to cost overruns. The Asian Development Bank will provide more than 70 percent of the expenditure, or 12 thousand crore rupees, while the remaining funds will be provided by the Government of Bangladesh.
Cox’s Bazar, located in Bangladesh, is renowned globally for its enormous natural beach, making it one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Cox’s Bazar attracts around 10 million tourists annually, with only 17% being local visitors and the majority being foreign tourists. The completion of the Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar railway project would connect Cox’s Bazar to the road, air, and rail transport, making it more accessible to tourists. The project’s completion would significantly reduce travel time and distance from Dhaka and Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar, resulting in improved communication systems. The transportation system’s affordability would increase Cox’s Bazar’s tourism potential significantly. Currently, travelers from Dhaka or the north-western part of Bangladesh must travel a long distance to reach Cox’s Bazar.
Moreover, there is no international airport in Cox’s Bazar, and no direct flights are available from Chittagong Airport to Cox’s Bazar, which makes the journey by road quite time-consuming and arduous. The two different road routes from Chittagong City to Cox’s Bazar are 148 km and 152 km, respectively, with neither route having sufficient lanes for high-speed travel. The distance from Dhaka to Chittagong is 265 km, and it takes around 5-6 hours by bus. Similarly, it takes around 4-5 hours by road to reach Cox’s Bazar, which is about 150 km from Chittagong. However, the journey from Dhaka to Cox’s Bazar, a distance of over 400 km, takes over 10-12 hours by bus, and the route is also hazardous due to a lack of sufficient lanes and dividers on steep and winding roads. The railway distance from Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar is 147 km and can be covered in a maximum of two and a half hours once the project is operational. Moreover, according to those overseeing the project, once completed, the train will take just 7 and a half hours to reach Cox’s Bazar from Dhaka, significantly reducing travel time and traffic congestion.
If the railway project is implemented, it will provide a cost-effective and comfortable travel option for passengers. The train fare for the Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar route is proposed to be kept between Tk 100 to Tk 400 depending on the type of train, which is lower than the bus fare of Tk 400-600. Similarly, for the Dhaka to Cox’s Bazar route, the fare for buses ranges from Tk 800 to Tk 2000, but the proposed train fare would be between Tk 700 to Tk 1500 depending on the type of journey. The railways will offer a congestion-free and more comfortable mode of travel compared to buses or cars, resulting in less inconvenience for passengers. Upon completion of the Dohazari-Cox’s Bazar railway project, over one lakh passengers are expected to travel on this route daily. Besides intercity trains for passenger transport, new trains with better amenities for tourists will also be introduced, increasing the number of tourists in the city. To handle the additional tourists, the government and private sector are initiating new tourism-based development projects around the city, which will create new job opportunities in the region.
The Planning Ministry of Bangladesh’s 7th Five-Year Plan and Railway Master Plan indicates that the Chittagong-Dohazari-Cox’s Bazar railway project could increase goods transportation by railway by 15%. Cox’s Bazar is responsible for producing most of the country’s salt and dry fish goods, as well as being the largest source of sea fish. The transportation of these products via trucks daily results in increased costs and longer time for perishable goods due to long distances and traffic jams. However, if the railway project is operational, it could significantly reduce the time and cost of transporting goods. The project plans to introduce a special refrigerated wagon service to transport fish, dry goods, salt, and other products from Cox’s Bazar to other parts of the country, reducing the chances of spoilage.
Abu Morshed Chowdhury, President of Cox’s Bazar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, believes that this rail link would be beneficial for various industries, including fish, salt, dried fruits, and vegetables. Furthermore, the railway project would have a significant impact on the overall economy of the country, as well as Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar. The Matarbari deep sea port, another mega-project underway in Cox’s Bazar district, would directly benefit from the railway project. The Chittagong Port cannot accommodate large mother vessels due to the shallowing of the Karnaphuli River and excess sedimentation in the riverbed, and small feeder vessels must be brought from the main sea to the container port, increasing costs for importers and exporters. The construction of the Gavi Sea Port at Matarbari aims to handle the container handling capacity of Chittagong Port and direct mother vessels to Bangladesh. The cargo handling capacity of the port is expected to increase to 320 million tonnes per year by 2055 after the Matarbari Deep Sea Port is commissioned.
A new connecting rail line is also being constructed with the Dohazari-Cox’s Bazar railway to unload and deliver goods to the designated destination. This railway line would help transport products from the port to different parts of the country easily through cargo trains, reducing transportation time and traffic congestion on the roads. Additionally, this railway line would assist in delivering products produced for export across the country to the two ports of the country at a low cost, boosting the country’s economy.
The construction of the railway line has sparked significant investment in a range of activities in Cox’s Bazar, including tourism, production, and export at both the public and private levels. This investment is expected to increase in the coming years, offering new opportunities for the people of the region, from employment to business ventures. The project not only brings about drastic changes to the trade and communication system but also plays a crucial role in improving the standard of living for the people in the South Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar districts.