The Bangladesh Commercial River Transport Industry

file photo
file photo

Published May 9, 2020 7:35 PM by Harry Valentine

The nation of Bangladesh has a population of some 170 million people with over 3,800 kilometers of year round navigable waterways and almost 6,000 kilometers of rainy monsoon season navigable waterways. While the capital of Dhaka is Asia’s fastest growing city with some 18 million population and streets clogged with slow moving traffic, the nation has a thriving river boat industry that carries both freight and passengers. There remains potential to introduce overseas maritime waterway developments into the Bangladesh waterway industry to enhance viability and efficiency.


Intercity river boat services operate between several cities in the nation of Bangladesh where few bridges cross major navigable rivers and result in road distances greatly exceeding waterway sailing distances. One such river link connects the capital city of Dhaka and the City of Barisal (pop. 400,000) with several companies competing for freight and passenger traffic. The navigable eastern section of Ganges Rivers flows through Bangladesh where it becomes the Padma River that flows into the Meghna River that empties into the Bay of Bengal. 

River transport using steam powered vessels began during the era of British rule. At the present day, waterway transportation in the region incurs much lower operating cost than any railway, truck or bus transportation. As a result, river boat operators charge extremely competitive tariffs to attract freight and passenger traffic, usually on different vessels. Passenger vessels called launches operate profitably carrying capacity loads of passengers, with boat operators occasionally loading passenger vessels beyond design capacity. A government body called the Bangladesh Inland Waterway Transportation Authority sets design standards for vessels and regulates the operation of passenger and cargo vessels along their very extensive waterway system.

Passenger Transportation

The region’s passenger river transportation industry carries more intercity travelers at lower cost than the railway or intercity bus industry. While smaller vessels that carry up to two-levels of passengers ply the shallower and less heavily populated river channels, much larger vessels that carry up to four-levels of passengers sail along main river channels between large cities. Competing private companies own and operate the biggest of the river launch vessels that each carries the equivalent of several trainloads of passengers. The low tariffs attract sufficiently massive numbers of passengers to sustain profitable operation of the river boats called launches.

A domestic industry that employs a substantial workforce designs and builds passenger vessels while competing companies that provide passenger transportation services also employs a substantial workforce. A few companies have recently introduced twin hull catamaran vessels that carry three-levels of passengers. These vessels operate the same routes, sail at higher speed and carry fewer passengers than the larger four-level mono-hull vessels. Overnight variations of these vessels carry economy travelers who sleep on mats on the lower level floors and more upscale clientele who travel in more luxurious accommodations that include hotel style bedrooms on the upper levels. 


Overcrowding is common aboard most economy ferry launch vessels that often sail in convoys between major river cities. Several times per year, a few passenger river vessels capsize along the rivers, with overcrowding either being a direct or indirect cause, such as when a wave strikes a vessel causing it to destabilize and capsize. The ongoing occurrence of overcrowding suggests that either vessels are too small or that service frequency is too low. The inland waterway transportation authority sets maximum dimension limits for passenger vessels, resulting in vibrant competition amongst rival private companies.

On some routes, the volume of passenger traffic sustains the operation of several almost fully loaded passenger launches that depart almost simultaneously and sail in convoys along the waterways. It is not uncommon for some of these large launches to sail parallel and too close to each other, reducing dynamic water pressure between the hulls and sometimes gently bumping sideways into each other. For the majority of the nation’s citizens, river boats offer the only affordable means of intercity transportation. The chronic roadway traffic jams that occur in the major cities enhance the attractiveness and popularity of river travel.   

Hydrofoils and Efficiency

Recent developments related to hull technology offer the promise of slightly improving the fuel efficiency of some of the river vessels. One innovation from the Netherlands involves mounting a hydrofoil called a Hull Vane at the stern of the vessel, causing it to ride slightly higher in the water. The device offers potential fuel savings of 10 percent at 12 knots sailing speed, achieved by flattening the wave behind the stern, a common occurrence on the large river vessels. The prospect of fuel savings could encourage some operators to evaluate the device that could potentially improve stern stability on overcrowded vessels.

At present, the catamaran river vessels sail without hydrofoils. While the addition of the Hull Vane technology is possible at the stern of a catamaran vessel to improve vessel fuel efficiency, there is also the potential to install a hydrofoil between the twin hulls near the bow. The combination of forward and rear hydrofoils offers the possibility of causing the twin hulls to ride higher in the water, reducing overall water drag and offering potential to reduce fuel consumption. It is possibility that owners of catamaran river vessels could further evaluate this.

Freight Vessels

The extensive network of navigable waterways results in a vibrant river transportation freight industry, including vessels that sail between India and Bangladesh. In the interest of improving sailing economics between the Ganges River and India’s Assam province, India recently negotiated to dredge some waterways located in Bangladesh. Freight vessels are comparatively small and privately owned, with potential to develop longer vessels if the inland waterway authority were willing to examine some proven overseas waterway technologies that could be adapted to sail the inland waterways of Bangladesh and India.

One technical possibility involves tug barges, with a tug pushing and navigating a barge. Removing engines and fuel tanks from a vessel increases payload capacity. High traffic density sails along the inland waterways and the absence of navigation locks could allow for the operation of lengthwise coupled barges with a tug pushing and navigating at the stern and a second tug pulling from ahead of the bow. Lengthwise coupled barges offer the potential to reduce fuel consumption to that of single vessel, while carrying double to payload. Negotiation between India and Bangladesh on future vessel size would be required.

Tug Barges

Tug-barges regularly sail through coastal channels of the American intra-coastal waterway system, where wave conditions are less severe than on coastal ocean. While wind driven waves occur along the Ganges, Padma and Meghna Rivers, these waves are much smaller than ocean coastal waves. Heavy vessel traffic along major inland waterways and bridge design would restrict tug-barges to the width of a single vessel and involving up to three barges coupled lengthwise being pushed and navigated by a stern tug and assisted by a leading tug pulling at the assembly bow, either directly connected or connected via towing cable.

Asian waterway transportation offers lower transportation tariffs and incurs lower operating costs than commercial road and railway transportation. The Bangladesh inland waterway transportation authority would need to decide as to whether to allow freight carrying tug-barges to sail along their rivers. There would likely be need for discussions with Indian authorities on the possibility tug-barges sailing from the Padma River in Bangladesh into the eastern section of the Ganges River. Combinations of crew operated bow and stern tugs navigating coupled barge tows would offer savings in transportation energy, thereby reducing freight transportation cost.

Two-Section Passenger Launch

Research has been undertaken in the United States that has focused on possible two-section ships capable of sailing on the North American Upper Great Lakes as well as along the Lower Mississippi River. The configuration is based on that of a tug-barge, except that the powered second section of ship measures 50 to 60 percent the length of the forward or barge section of ship. Tug-barges have sailed as fast as 13.5 knots along the Mississippi River, suggesting potentially higher sailing speed for a two-section ship along inland waterways such as the Padma and Meghna Rivers.

Given the overcrowding problem that occurs on several of the launch vessels, the option of extending the overall length of the vessel offers potential to carry more passengers with fewer occurrences of overcrowding. There is potential to adapt the same type of transverse coupling hinge used along the Mississippi River to be applied to a two-section passenger launch intended for Asian inland waterway service. Naval architects, ship designers and maritime researchers in the region along the Bangladesh Inland Waterway Transportation Authority would need to evaluate possible layouts of two-section launches for domestic passenger transportation.


The economy of Bangladesh is heavily dependent on a functional waterway transportation industry that carries goods and people between towns and cities, at very affordable tariffs. Given the nation’s high rate of unemployment across and the large number of people employed in the river transportation industry, short-term future development of the industry would depend on making more efficient use of available transportation energy to reduce transportation costs. To reduce overcrowding aboard passenger vessels, there will be a need to explore the possibility of higher capacity passenger launch vessels sailing the waterways between the region’s larger cities.


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.