Future of commuting to start with dirty old fuel

In a surprising about-turn, the Dhaka Bus Rapid Transport Company Ltd has ditched a plan to introduce predominantly electric, or e-buses, on its under-construction Dhaka-Gazipur route.

According to official documents seen by UNB, officials now plan to operate the country's first BRT route with a preponderance of diesel buses. Out of a total of 130 buses planned to ply the 20.2-kilometre dedicated bus lane, some 100 are set to be of the highly polluting diesel-run variety, while the remaining 30 'might' be e-buses.

"This would be a major deviation in the project as originally electric vehicles were planned for the Dhaka-Gazipur route," a stakeholder who was strongly advocating for the use of environmentally-friendly vehicles in the scheme, told UNB.

"This will not only undermine the government's commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, but also further inflate the cost of the project," he adds, requesting anonymity since he anticipates continued involvement in advocacy around the project, hoping to convince the authorities to go electric one day - again.

Official documents show that the Dhaka BRT outlined an annual plan for the fiscal year 2022-23, in which Tk 400 crore had been earmarked specifically to procure e-buses.

The government initiated the move to construct the corridor from Hazrat Shah Jalal International Airport to Gazipur, an extension of BRT line-3, in 2013. To implement the project, the Dhaka Bus Rapid Transport Company Ltd (DBRTCL) was formed as a state-owned company that same year.

The plan was for articulated buses with high carrying capacity to ply these dedicated lanes. There will be provision of e-ticketing, automatic ticket counters and Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) at the stations, of which there will be 25 on the Airport-Gazipur route, for the convenience of passengers.

On the project's website, some of the earliest literature states: "Once implemented, BRT will be the country's first air-conditioned and environment-friendly, modern bus-based public transportation system. This system will carry 20,000 passengers per hour in both directions."

As recently as July 4, the project invited interested parties to submit their preliminary expression of interest (PEOI) for "Procurement of Electrically Propelled- Standard (12 meter-long) Air-Conditioned Premium Buses for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)".

About 40 interested parties subsequently submitted their respective proposals by the deadline of August 7, 2022. According to the invitation for PEOIs, which was published in four national newspapers including the Daily Star (a copy can be viewed on the project website), the next stage for the interested parties would be 'International Competitive Bidding'.

But instead of that, the project authorities suddenly convened a meeting of those who submitted the PEOIs through an email circulated in September. It was at this meeting that the idea to procure diesel-run buses instead of e-buses, was first floated in public.By speaking to a number of the attendees who were there on the strength of their PEOIs, UNB was able to establish that by the time this meeting ended, the idea of operating e-buses on the country's first BRT route had been firmly chucked out.

Instead, more detailed specifications for the kind of diesel buses they wanted were shared with the interested parties. Senior officials of the BRT project also shared that initially they would buy at least 100 units of diesel buses, out of a total requirement of 130 buses, for the route.

The sudden change of heart had come up in a question-answer session that followed the meeting. Safiqul Islam, whose role in the Dhaka BRT was that of a project director in the public sector, shared that it was at the 'request' of the French government's international development arm, Agence Française de Développement (AFD), that was financing a substantial part of the project.

One of the participants at the meeting had said that Bangladesh was forgoing the opportunity to introduce the world's latest "zero emission e-buses" in its maiden BRT project, and added that the maintenance cost for e-buses is very low compared to diesel vehicles.

But it seemed nothing could sway the project authorities.

The features that actually make for a modern BRT system - remote monitoring, surveillance camera system, Wi-Fi connectivity, cashless fare collection - are all just more compatible with e-buses, said a young entrepreneur who had been hoping to do business with the country's first BRT.

Echoing the same, another stakeholder said if the Dhaka BRT goes for diesel-run buses, it has to set up two types of operation and maintenance systems (ONM), one for diesel-run buses, and another for electric vehicles.

That too would escalate the cost substantially. Besides, the introduction of diesel-run buses would create systemic problems as well. In the BRT system, the buses usually keep their doors on the right side to facilitate passengers' easy entry and exit.

But the proposed diesel-run buses will have no right side entry-exit system. Instead they will have a left side entry system which will not be compatible with the BRT system, he said.

The private parties which are involved in the BRT project under different capacities said the "errant move" by the Dhaka BRT authorities surprised many, including environmentalists, and transport sector experts who smell a rat in the project.

Defying logic?

Sharif Jamil, general secretary of the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), an environmental advocacy group, termed the initiative for introducing diesel-run buses 'illogical' - given that it was all set to go electric.

"Obviously a diesel-run bus will have a negative impact on the environment and its operation costs will be higher too than e-buses," he said.

State Minister for Power, Energy and Mineral Resources Nasrul Hamid even said recently that the government wants to promote electric vehicles, as its energy efficiency is 80 percent against diesel-run vehicles' 20 percent, according to Jamil.

"The Power Division has also adopted a policy-guideline for EV charging stations," he added. But then why would they be turned off the idea of e-buses for the BRT project at this late stage? There was no satisfactory answer.

From the horse's mouth

For that, UNB was able to reach the managing director of the DBRTCL, Safiqul Islam.

A career bureaucrat with extensive experience in the Road Transport and Highways Division (RTHD), Islam had been serving as an additional secretary at the RTHD when he was picked up to lead the state-owned DBRTCL.

He defended the move to procure diesel-run buses for the project by deferring to decisions taken at the Ministry level.

"This is the decision of the Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges as no feasibility study for introducing e-buses has been completed yet," he said.

He then claimed that the original plans for the BRT had been drawn up with diesel buses in mind. To anyone familiar with the project's timeline, those plans must be at least ten years old now. It doesn't quite match an invitation for PEOIs published in July.

"But we will gradually introduce e-buses once the feasibility study is complete," said Islam. He also added at this stage that they had moved to procure diesel buses as they have no technical knowledge and experience in operating e-buses.

This was nothing that could not be fixed with some weeks of training and getting used to. The BRT project is already one of the longest-delayed projects in the country's history, plagued by numerous false starts, flip flops, and oversights.

As things stand, the Hazrat Shahjalal Airport to Gazipur corridor has a completion date by the end of this year, after which it may be pressed into service in the new year i.e. 2023.

The project's cost has more than doubled over the years, from the Tk 2,040 crore estimated in 2012 to the Tk 4,268 crore allocated till today.

Islam's final words of reassurance were only slightly more specific.

"Once the feasibility study is complete, the BRT will move to procure 50 e-buses," he said.

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