A sleeper coach parked on a bay of the Carriage Heavy Repair Shop at the Saidpur Railway Workshop still bore severe burn marks. The charred iron structures of berths, wall fans, luggage racks, and the partitions carry proof of how a fire had engulfed the carriage.
This was among the 14 coaches that got damaged in the Ullapara rail accident on November 14 last year.
Within 97 days, 13 burnt coaches were restored to its original state; just like the new ones imported from Indonesia. They are now on track. Indeed, the repair work saved a huge amount of money that would be required to import 13 new coaches.
"This is our responsibility. Nothing more. Rather, we could have done more if we had more capacity," the workshop staffers said.
Saidpur workshop is not merely a repair shed. More than one thousand items of spare parts for carriage and wagon are manufactured at its separate sub-shops for boiler, smithy, foundry, and production engineering purposes.
Mofazzal Hossain, a Mistri (master) who leads the Loco Machine sub-shop, told this correspondent "By manufacturing spare parts and tools, we save millions of taka every year."
In 1870, the Saidpur Workshop was established as a meter gauge steam locomotive repair shed on a 110-acre land. With the installation of plants and machines to repair meter and broad gauge carriage and wagon, the workshop became fully equipped in 1953. Since then, even after the emergence of Bangladesh, the workshop has seen no significant development. Moreover, downsizing its manpower started since 1991.
The workshop once buzzed with activities of around 10 thousand workers. With the concentration of a huge number of railway staffers, Saidpur – although a sub-district of Nilphamari - became a railway district.
"Currently, only 918 staffers, including officers, instead of the 2,825 sanctioned manpower, are working. It is very tough to carry out the scheduled tasks with a 68 percent manpower shortage," said engineer Shaikh Hasanuzzaman, the Works Manager of the Saidpur Railway Workshop.
He added that, among the existing staffers, 125 will retire this year.
Alauddin and Abdul Wadud, two grade-1 blacksmiths are among the workers whose 37-year career will end soon. Colleagues at the Smithy sub-shop often say that when it comes to craftsmanship, the duo is best in giving accurate shape to spare parts and tools with glowing iron.
In 2015, a Chinese hydraulic hammer replaced the British-era steam hammer of B&S Massey Forging. But who will replace Alauddin or Wadud?
Morshed Alam, a junior blacksmith, replied, "Honestly speaking, there is no efficient replacement right at the moment."
Shrinking annual budget over the years is another big setback for the workshop. In the 2011-12 fiscal year, the government allocated a budget of Tk20.49 crore against the demand of Tk21.80 crore. In the last couple of years, the allocation has dropped to almost half of the required budget.
"For the 2019-20 fiscal year, Tk34 crore has been allocated against the demand of Tk60 crore," Works Manager Hasanuzzaman told The Business Standard.
In 2009, a three-year Modernization of Saidpur Railway Workshop (1st phase) Project worth Tk122 crore was launched. After eight years, when the project was completed, the cost stood at Tk157 crore.
Under the project, 56 new plants and machines were installed. Chinese companies CSR Sifang, Yuken, LT Machine and Jinan Leadteach NC Machinery, and Indian ventures HMT and Sagar Heavy Engineering were among the suppliers of the machines.
When the workshop's estimated 57 percent plants and machines were getting older than 50 years of service, it was presumed that the news machines would accelerate production capacity. But alas! According to the workers, more than half of the newly installed machines are now defunct.
The authorities, however, explained that the machines are left unused due to the shortage of skilled operators.
The Apprentice Training School of the workshop still follows a hundred-year-old curriculum. Even now, the school's section supervisor Shahidul Islam has to demonstrate obsolete tools for training.
"No recruitment. No modern training. How can we increase capacity of the workshop?" the trainer, who will soon retire from his job, asked.