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Bridge to Bangladesh

The Export-Import Bank of China confirmed this month its willingness to cover the US$300 million funding shortfall that has left the Padma Bridge Rail Link in development limbo in the past few months. As well as being a key element in Bangladesh's bid to radically overhaul its internal transport network, the 6.15-kilometre bridge is also seen as a prime conduit for the Belt and Road Initiative, China's 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, US$3.69 billion bridge was awarded to China Railway Group, the Beijing-headquartered, state-owned construction company that is one of the world's-largest civil engineering conglomerates. As of last October, 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 – which forms 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 later this year, it will be the largest bridge in Bangladesh and the country's first fixed river crossing open to road traffic.

Grand Strategy

The bridge is a key component in the 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, cutting 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 at least seven hours. As well as installing 215 kilometres of upgraded track, 66 large and 244 smaller bridges have been constructed to bring the project to fruition. In addition, 14 new stations were built and six existing facilities were redeveloped.

The line itself will also feed into the southern corridor of the Trans-Asian Railway, a 14,080-kilometre 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 travelling to and from the Mongla Port, the second-busiest marine cargo-handling facility in Bangladesh. Another rail project will also see Dhaka linked to Payra, a new deep-sea port facility under development in the country’s south.

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 underway 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, a key Belt and Road channel. Once completed, the 2,800-kilometre 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.

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