‘Metro is more feasible than monorail in Nepal’

Following the progress made in the development of rail transport by different countries across the world, there have been talks in recent months of constructing different modes of rail transport in Nepal too. The East-West electric railway, Kathmandu-Kyirong electric railway, Raxaul-Birgunj-Kathmandu electric railway and Kathmandu metro train are some rail routes that have been under consideration. However, given the topography, constructing a railway in the country is easier said than done. This problem is further compounded by issues of land acquisition, forest clearance and local obstacles. In this context, Umesh Poudel of The Himalayan Times caught up with Balaram Mishra, director general at the Department of Railways, to know more about the possibility and challenges of operating railway services in Nepal. Excerpts:

What is the current status of railway system in Nepal?

We are currently working on various aspects related to different rail projects that the country plans to start operating sooner rather than later. For instance, the Janakpur-Jainagar rail system, which had remained defunct for six years, is about to restart operations after having gone through the modernisation process. Due to lack of skilled manpower, we have been unable to operate the railway service at present despite the rail wagons already being ready in India. However, the government has already initiated the process to recruit the necessary staffers and hope we will able to operate the railway service by the end of the current fiscal year. The detailed project report (DPR) of one section of the East-West railway project has already been completed and construction of rail tracks has also started. The DPR of other sections of this project is also in the final stage. Similarly, we are about to begin preparing the DPR of the Kathmandu-Birgunj and Kathmandu-Kyirong projects. Likewise, the detailed feasibility study of the Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini railway is under way. Moreover, we plan to have six cross-border rail connections with India. Among them, two are about to start their service and the DPR for the remaining four are in the process of being conducted. The railway department has advanced the works for the Kathmandu Metro Rail project for urban transportation.

Earlier, the department had said it would operate the Janakpur-Jainagar railway service by January this year but it has been extended by six months. What are the reasons behind this delay?

We had plans to operate the Janakpur-Jainagar-Kurtha rail service from January but that plan was initially pushed back as there was a delay in manufacturing the rail wagons due to the floods in Chennai of India where they were being manufactured. And again the floods last year wiped out some sections of the rail tracks in Nepal side which had to be rebuilt. Now, the problem is we do not have the skilled human resources to operate the rail service and manage the security. We plan to hire the necessary staff domestically soon. We could have hired foreign staff for the purpose but that would have raised our operational cost. There are also a few pending technical issues such as railway track handover and inspections by technical teams of both the countries. Last year we had revived the Nepal Railway Company, which used to earlier operate the Janakpur-Jainagar service, with a view to start offering comprehensive railway services in the country.

What is the progress of East-West railway and when can we expect it to be ready?

We have submitted all the details of the railway service regarding its operating cost, construction cost, operation model and how to manage the funds to build the project to the Ministry of Finance via our line ministry. Our study has found that we will be unable to construct the project through our own resources and will need foreign investment as the estimated cost of the project stands at Rs 330 billion.

Currently, the Bardibas to Simara section is under construction and the rail tracks of this segment will be laid in the next two years. In the next phase, we will start construction of Kakarvitta to Inaruwa section and this has been accorded priority in the budget too. In the remaining sections we have been facing a major obstacle in the land acquisition process. Land acquisition really is an arduous task in Nepal as locals keep raising their demand now and again and the cost becomes infeasible. The reason why East-West railway is a very important one for Nepal is that this rail service will be much faster than the rail service being operated along a similar route in India. So, we can attract Indian travellers who are travelling along that route.

Construction of railways needs to be viewed from the technical and economic perspective but in Nepal it is guided more by political considerations. Don’t you feel this hampers the development process?

Railways is one of the basic infrastructure for transportation. There are different types of transportation modes but I feel railways is the most important one. There have been numerous discussions regarding rail services in Nepal. There are some people who have been arguing that rail is not necessary in Nepal and it is just a high-cost investment which has been guided by politics. But they need to properly understand the importance of railway services and to be honest I don’t know where politics has been involved in this development. The population of the country has been growing and along with that the need for more people to travel. So, having a mass means of transportation is of utmost necessity. We can’t wait till the situation goes out of hand. Moreover,

rail service has always been one of the cheapest and also safest modes of transportation across the globe. We are located in the middle of two nations that have developed extensive rail networks and we need to learn from them. Roads are not going to be sufficient in Nepal because of the topography and also as people’s incomes start rising they will want to own their own vehicles which will put pressure on the road network. To achieve our national goal of ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’, massive industrialisation is needed and development of railway network is the basic requirement for it.

The Kathmandu-Kyirong railway has been one of the most talked-about projects in recent times. What is the progress of the project till date?

After inking the agreement with China to build the Kathmandu-Kyirong railway there have been many works that have been carried out through joint efforts of both the nations. We have, in fact, already finalised the initial feasibility report of the project. We are now about to start conducting the DPR of the project and the process has been delayed for the time being due to the cornonavirus outbreak that started from China. Once the outbreak has been contained Chinese technical human resources will be able to travel to Nepal and we will begin the process of the DPR. I am positive about the Kathmandu-Kyirong railway service starting one day. There is no doubt about it. One reason why I am very hopeful about this project is that the Chinese president has talked about constructing it at any cost and the practice in China is that they do fulfil the tasks that the president gives priority to.

India is helping develop six cross-border railway connections with Nepal. What has been the progress of these projects?

Among the six projects, study related to four is being conducted and two are in the construction phase. As per the memorandum of understanding signed between Nepal and India on February 16, 2010, the 68.72-km-long Bardibas-Janakpur-Jainagar and 18-km-long Biratnagar-Jogbani railways are under construction. Similarly, study related to the 15.3-km-long Bhairahawa-Natanwa, 12.11-km-long Nepalgunj-Nepalgunj Road in India, and 70-km-long Kakarvitta-New Jalpaiguri rail services is in the final stage and we hope to start construction works of these projects soon. Moreover, we also hope to start preparing the DPR of the 135-km-long Raxaul-Birgunj-Kathmandu railway soon, the agreement for which was signed between Nepal and India on June 10, 2018. These projects have faced problems related to land and forest issues which can only be resolved through the joint efforts of the concerned stakeholders.

The Kathmandu Metropolitan City has initiated the study to construct a monorail in Kathmandu and DoRW also has plans to build a metrorail in Kathmandu. There has been debate on which will be feasible for the valley. Which in your opinion will suit us best?

Personally, I’m against the construction of a monorail. I feel it is not suitable for Nepal. In general engineering terms any rail service is designed with a view that it can do more work at a lower cost. One major problem with monorail is that it is used to basically transport people only. The other problem is that it is cost-intensive as compared to a metrorail. We need to look at the needs and conditions of Kathmandu Valley. The population of the valley stands at around five million but the floating population is quite high, hence for cities like Kathmandu I believe monorail is not feasible.