Tuesday, April 5, 2016

State Of The Railways: A Look Into Lanka’s Railway Service

State Of The Railways: A Look Into Lanka’s Railway Service

Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) is perhaps our country’s most illustrious government institution. What began as an idea hatched by the British to transport tea and coffee, has now evolved into one of the cheapest, and (once you factor in the traffic jams) fastest forms of transport available to all Sri Lankans.
The Annual Performance Report of SLR for the year 2014 was presented in Parliament recently (no, that was not a typo and yes, the report is technically almost two years late). We dug into it, and managed to unearth some interesting facts and figures which we hope would make for an interesting read.
First, let’s skim through the facts before diving into a slightly deeper analysis.

1. Widening Losses

According to the Central Bank, SLR’s revenue has increased by an average of around 10% every year, for the last five years. However, there has also been an increase in operating expenditure which is quite significant. In 2014 alone, SLR’s operating expenses increased by around Rs. 6 billion compared to 2013. A little bit of cross referencing with the data released by the Railway Authority reveals that this entire amount is attributed to an increase in wage costs1. Unsurprisingly, losses have ballooned as a result.
Key Financial Metrics
Key Financial Metrics

2. Where Are The Trains?

The performance report lays out details about the rolling stock owned by SLR. In the railway industry, the term rolling stock usually refers to all the locomotives, wagons, coaches, and railroad cars belonging to an operator.
Fleet Level Indicators
Fleet Level Indicators
Judging by the numbers, our railway system doesn’t seem to have as many engines and DMUs (DMU stands for “Diesel Multiple Unit”, also known as ‘power sets’ among locals) as it needs. On the other hand, it seems to have adequate numbers of carriages and wagons.

3. Capital Expenditure On The Rise

As a result of all the carriages and DMUs which were purchased over the last few years, SLR’s capital expenditure has been on the rise. At the same time, recurrent expenditure has also increased. The rather significant increase in 2014 is the result of the increase in wage costs which we talked about earlier.
Increasing Capital Expenditure
Increasing Capital Expenditure

4. And There Were A Lot Of Breakdowns

There were 503 engine breakdowns in 2014, which is an improvement compared to the previous year, during which 530 engine failures were reported. Engine failure rates have come down over the last five years, which is likely to be the result of the then Government’s efforts to modernise the fleet.
Engine Failures
Engine Failures
As a general rule, newer trains don’t breakdown as much as older trains do, and SLR does have engines which are around 30+, or sometimes 40+ years old. The major drawback of keeping ageing engines running is that maintenance costs will increase with time. This is because in most cases, the manufacturers themselves would end support for older engines, which forces operators to try and build spare parts by themselves whenever they’re needed. Needless to say, that route can end up being a very expensive one to take.

5. More And More People Have Been Using Trains To Get Around

There’s been an increase in the number of passengers using the train network. The increased traffic likely has something to do with the opening of the Northern line, and also a few other line extensions carried out around the country, which means more people now have access to the train network.
Consequently, the number of passenger trains being operated has also increased. In 2014 alone, slightly more than 117,000 passenger trains were operated, roughly a 2000+ increase compared to 2013.
Revenue based indicators - I
Revenue based indicators – I
Revenue based indicators
Revenue based indicators

6. Freight Services Can Bring In More Revenue

Trains are a very cost effective method of transporting goods over a very long distance. Though SLR only nets around Rs. 500 million in revenue by providing freight transportation services, it does transport a significant quantity of goods. Agricultural products, petroleum products, and cement are the three major types of goods transported by train in Sri Lanka. In 2014 alone, SLR transported a combined 1.6 million tons of goods belonging to these three categories. But that’s actually a drop of around 400,000 tons compared to 2013.
Goods Transport
Goods Transport
Goods Transport - II
Goods Transport – II

7. Our Trains Don’t Always Run On Time

By now, you’ve probably come to realise that SLR’s biggest source of income is its passenger transport operation. Passenger transport trains are usually broken down into four types: Suburban trains, Local trains, Distant & Intercity trains, and (uniquely for Sri Lanka) Rail Buses.
Train operations
Train operations
Train operations - II
Train operations – II
Punctuality is of utmost importance to Suburban trains, since millions of people rely on them to get to work every day. In 2014, the on-time record of Suburban trains stood at 37%. In other words, for every ten trains, roughly four ran on time, while the others were delayed. Out of all the Suburban trains which were delayed, 17% were delayed by around six to ten minutes, while 35% were delayed by around eleven to thirty minutes.
Punctuality of trains - 2014
Punctuality of trains – 2014
Punctuality of trains - 2013
Punctuality of trains – 2013
In the case of Suburban trains, the on-time record has actually worsened from 43% in 2013 to 37% in 2014. However, in the case of Distant and Intercity trains, the on-time record improved by 2% to reach 15% in 2014.
Sure, the SLR has many critics. It doesn’t exactly have a very enviable Quality of Service (QoS) and its finances are a mess. The taxpayers regularly end up having to bail out the service, which adversely affects the country’s finances.
But all’s not lost.
An improvement in the QoS can only be achieved by investing in SLR. These investments will need to address pretty much everything, from internal processes and rolling stock, to customer care. But all those investments will cost money.
There are quite a few ways for SLR to obtain the money it needs. It could ask for money from the treasury, it could borrow or apply for a grant from some institution such as the ADB, or it could raise its prices to a much more realistic level. That last method is by far the most sustainable, and the Central Bank has exhorted SLR to charge realistic prices for quite some time now. But that is not a very politically popular move, and SLR itself makes note of this fact in the report.
There is another neat way of raking in some cash. SLR owns vast tracts of land in prime locations all around the country. Transferring these lands into a separate firm, and thereafter leasing those lands for commercial development can be a very lucrative opportunity. In other countries, such deals are structured into REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts), but since we still don’t have the legislation required for REITs, a company structure would do for now. (The CSE is in the process of drawing up legislation for REITs; also, the Government can  obviously push new legislation to help SLR).
As you can see, freeing up some cash will allow for a much more rapid revamp of the entire system. But will this become a reality anytime soon?
Maybe. Maybe not. We’re not quite sure ourselves, but here’s hoping for the best.
If you’d like to know a little more about the SLR, and are in the mood for something lighter than what you just read, check out our article on some of the quaint traditions of the Railways that are still pretty much continuing today.
1 For some reason, it looks like SLR doesn’t count Maintenance costs as a recurrent expense. This may or may not be a genuine error. Even we’re confused, kind of.

Sunday, March 27, 2016


Back on track to Jaffna

The No 4001 Train is a daily Intercity Express Train on the Northern Line of the Sri Lanka railways which runs between Mount Lavinia of the Western Province and Kankesanturai Railway station of the Northern Province. Distance is 398 km. At Wellawatte Station there are two train times shown in the morning. One says ICE and the time is 5.18 am. ICE starts at 5.10 am from Mount Lavinia. The other says Yal Devi which comes at 5.40am plus. ICE refers to the fully air conditioned express to and from KKS.
Currently four trains travel from Fort, Colombo to Jaffna and four trains from Jaffna to Fort, Colombo on a daily basis. On Saturdays, one train travels from Matara to Jaffna while the same train on Sunday travels from Jaffna to Matara. Of the four trains which travel from Fort, Colombo to Jaffna, two are intercity express trains while one is the Yal Devi and another a night mail train service.
ICE is the only train with AC onboard. It remains clean, including the toilets. Slowly the fabric on the seats is becoming discoloured due to food and drinks spilling and staining them. The cafeteria has begun restocking food for the return journey from Jaffna. Food lies on shelves covered with newspaper allowing the oil to soak the paper. Not the healthiest form of storing and selling food. There are no refrigerator visible, cooling beverages.
The train crew has an arduous day starting at the Dematagoda Yard and finishing their day at the same yard having stopped the run at Mount Lavinia. Cleaning is at the Yard. It’s tough on the engines. The trains in general in this country are well patronized.
LED displays
For this reason it is possible to look at improvements. The long distance buses have wi- fi free. No reason why trains cannot feature likewise. The DVD on ICE offers pretty much the same for months. The train carries people of all denominations. Since its air conditioned the windows are kept shut.
The CGR could and should introduce LED displays of the oncoming stations inside carriages. Buses are carrying such external displays. Even for a Sri Lankan, unless you are familiar with the geography of the country knowing your stations can be daunting. The drivers maintain a good speed right through. The track conditions in general seem quite good. The restaurant cars can easily scale up what’s on offer. Not merely selling pre- cooked short eats or lunch packets but also potentially food items which can be cooked fast. The carriages have phone charging outlets. Which means cooking using electricity should be possible.
A remarkable job
If ICE has a cousin which runs at night, there is no doubt it will be a roaring success. Every night a large number of night buses in this instance to the North leave Colombo. Likewise to other destinations. ICE II could easily consider a departure with dinner on board, arriving before sunrise in the North overtaking the night mail on the way. Same for the return journey in terms of timing. ICE takes approximately 6 hours 45 minutes if not delayed each way. Travelling at night means much less signals slowing the journey. If the night mail wakes up station staff when it passes, an additional wake up for ICE II should not pose difficulties subject to overtime issues. ICE has a famous companion in the Yal Devi the well-known cousin which takes a slightly longer time running a little slower with no AC at all. A shocking state of affairs for what is termed 1st, 2nd and Observation cars on the Yal Devi. The latter a derelict, pathetic pretender to its name. Here too, simply upgrading the fare on offer with better meals, air conditioning, comfortable seating and sleeping facilities will no doubt increase passenger loads and revenue. Seating and facilities for adults with infants or smaller children and even senior citizens will be undoubtedly a draw.
Our engineers’ do a remarkable job keeping our trains running. The crews too stick to their tasks with little recourse to luxuries. Looking at quarters for station staff one cannot but notice the pathetic conditions of the structures. Paying more attention to the back end which services the trains and railways will no doubt enhance productivity.
In advanced settings similar facilities have been offered to passengers shown below.
The Pacific Parlour Car of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight.
These trains have dining cars, which function exactly like a restaurant on rails. A lot of the entrées are prepared fresh on board, and they are actually pretty good. The Amtrak Signature Steak, cooked to order, is a passenger favourite. Vegetarian and lighter fare is also available.
The dining car is open for three meals a day, which are included in your fare if you are staying in a sleeping car. Reservations are always required for dinner, sometimes required for lunch and never required for breakfast.
Special carriage
Snacks and more inexpensive options are also available in the train’s café area, which sells alcoholic beverages in addition to the dining car.
A roomette aboard Amtrak’s Capitol Limited.
We are quite capable of rigging our carriages and scaling up comfort and facilities with tiered fares.
When the Queen visited Sri Lanka in 1981 a special carriage was configured at a privately run yard at Dematagoda by a former senior veteran of the CGR. Engineering Consultant and Railway Engineering Consultants- offered to provide a special air-conditioned coach fit for a Queen. Coach Stock No. 7402 was designed, built, equipped and fully furnished and air-conditioned - with a power plant installed in the coach itself. This coach was built by of Engineering Consultants in association with the firm of Railway Engineering Consultants. In view of the limited time available, they had to airfreight specialized items for this coach, namely, fabric imported from Germany for lining the interior of the coach, upholstery and curtain materials from Britain, a bathroom suite from Spain and safety glass from Singapore.
An extract of a letter of commendation received by the Minister of Transport from Buckingham Palace dated October 26, 1981 states:
“...... Her Majesty knows what an immense amount of work was put into preparing the train for the overnight journey to Anuradhapura and would like you to know that it was an extremely comfortable and convenient way of making this long trip and was greatly enjoyed by Her Majesty and The Duke of Edinburgh. They were particularly appreciative of the efforts of Rajagopal to produce the special coach in time for the visit...”
This coach specially designed and executed, was a 100 per cent Sri Lankan effort. Sri Lanka should be proud of this achievement, for the reason that when the Railway could not obtain a special coach for the Queen's visit from abroad, Sri Lankans took up the challenge and provided a coach fit for the Queen.
Where is the special coach, bearing Stock No. 7402 in which the Queen travelled?
CGR employees
Indian Railways some years back revolutionized the carriage of cargo by simply adding more cargo capacity on each train carrying goods. Revenue shot up. Given the congestion on roads not to mention wear and tear on surfaces using our rail system to carry greater tonnage of goods is the way forward. The railway authorities own very valuable real estate across the country. Some are being poached by other agencies. Cannot the CGR call for expressions of interest for private-public partnership ventures which optimize the use of these idle assets? Same is true of goods carrying capacity slowly rotting across the country. Is it unthinkable for CGR employees to become recipients of profit share, become shareholders and for the CGR to become a public quoted entity? If public service does not understand business why not allow business to make that a reality for the CGR?
It’s time the Minister and his CGR staff considered optimizing the assets and the opportunities not only to offer much greater public services but also to rake in the untapped revenue potential if any or all are serious about running our railways not only as a public service known for a very high standard but also as a business venture which rewards its employees and earns mega bucks. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016


Legendary steam train 'Flying Scotsman' returns in UK

The  Flying Scotsman steam train stands alongside a platform at Bury Bolton  Street rail station in Bury, north west England on January 8, 2016. - AFP

UK: The Flying Scotsman, a steam locomotive seen as a jewel of British industrial heritage, left King's Cross Station in London Thursday on its first official journey after a 10-year restoration project.
Pulling away in plume of white steam, the 97-tonne green engine pulled out at 0740 GMT with some 300 passengers on board to applause from a crowd of enthusiasts who had come to witness its rebirth.
The Flying Scotsman is set to arrive at 1230 GMT in York, a historic city some 280 kilometres (175 miles) north of London, before heading to the city's National Railway Museum where it will stay until the beginning of March.
The train will then spend the coming months on tourist trips and featuring in exhibitions.
Restoring the famous engine cost around £4.2 million (5.3 million euros, $5.8 million). Thursday sees the locomotive's first official outing since it returned to the rails last January in Bury, northwest England, for a series of tests. "It's a historic day," said Paul Kirkman, director of the National Railway Museum.
- AFP 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Freedom flushed down Railways toilet

View(s): 732

Sri Lanka celebrates 68 years of independence from colonial rule this week but the Railways Department seems to have missed the message.
In scores of railway stations across the country — from Colombo Fort and Mt Lavinia to Nanu Oya and Badulla —Sri Lankans are being condemned to decrepit, dirty toilets while non-Sri Lankans are offered clean, tiled toilets sign-boarded “For Foreigners” or “For the Use of Foreigners”.
The racial segregation has caused issues, Railways General Manager B.A.P Ariyaratne said. Officials regularly receive complaints from irate Sri Lankans who see the division as insulting. But the Railways Chief said it was being done to preserve the image of the country as many locals did not use the facilities in a decent or clean manner. They also drew on walls and soiled the floors making it difficult to maintain the toilets.
“We are being treated as second class citizens while foreigners are given higher status,” said R.D. Primal Madusanka (38), a commuter who was at the Colombo Fort station. “It is unfair to do this. We travel on these trains throughout the year, yet we are discriminated against. These people who visit the country once a year are given good facilities.”
“We are not treating our people in a derogatory manner but our people are degrading the facilities we provide them,” Mr. Ariyaratne explained. “That is why we have provided foreigners with separate toilets to conceal these things from them.” “I accept that we are wrong,” he continued. “It is unfair for the local commuter to feel neglected, segregated or feel as if we are ruling over them as in colonial times. Therefore, the local toilets will be improved while foreigners’ toilets will be re-named according to ticket classes.”
Foreigners also felt the pain of Sri Lankans. Some also felt embarrassed to go pick up their separate keys to gain access to the special toilets. Pleuni Sloots, 27, who is visiting from Holland, said in their country foreigners and locals were treated equally and allowed to use the same toilets.
“We are all humans here,” she said. “If I were Sri Lankan, I would definitely be hurt to see foreigners treated well while our own people were neglected. We come to see the beauty of Sri Lanka. Locals might feel they are treated badly because we are still ruling over them. This is not the case.”
“It is awkward when people are being discriminated against,” she added. “We heard that Sri Lanka would be celebrating Independence Day, yet we see people are given the wrong message by the Government.”In some instances the foreigners were unaware that they had to request the railway employees to open the toilet doors and made use of the facilities available for locals or walked away.
The malaise is also spreading to other areas. The Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, too, offers segregated toilets for foreigners and Sri Lankans. In most cases the foreigners’ toilets have clean commodes with hand driers, bidet showers and toilet paper while the “local” ones only have squatting pans, urinals and buckets.
Deputy Transport Minister Ashoka Abeysinghe told the Sunday Times they were compelled to have separate toilets for foreigners as the normal toilets lack necessary facilities and the country’s image was preserved by providing them with separate facilities.
“However, there is a problem in identifying foreigners as some of the Asian country visitors are not provided with the facility,” he said.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Alert engine drivers prevent near disaster

2016-01-29 10:42:38

The engine drivers, of the Rajarata Rajini Express train and that of Train No: 872, managed to stop their trains at a distance of five metres from each other at Gintota this morning.

The express train was travelling from Matara to Colombo and the other from Kandy to Matara. The trains were on the same rail track and moving towards each other when they were stopped in the nick of time.   Pix by Krishan Jeewaka Jayaruk

- See more at: http://www.dailymirror.lk/104635/rivers-prevent-near-disaster#sthash.dF4BElGl.dpuf

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Waiting for the Electric Trains


by Ananda Wanasinghe

I now live in crowded Colombo with its dust, noise and bustle. Travel by bus takes 45 minutes to cover the five miles from Pamankada to Fort; much slower than that steam train 60 years ago. If development proceeded as projected in 1952, I would not have left those verdant, bird infested surroundings of Bemmulla with its beautiful stretches of green paddy fields and meandering streams of gurgling waters.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I read Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya's letter in The Island of Jan. 4, which held out fresh hope for railway electrification. It took me back 63 years to 1952, when my father took me, a twelve-year old, at that time, to the Colombo Plan Exhibition which was about the development plans for Ceylon after Independence.

To us, the most attractive of the exhibits was the one on the projected electrification of the railways. There were little electric trains busily running between Panadura and Veyangoda, just as in the first stage of the plan described by Dr. Siyambalapitiya. There was to be a train every 10-15 minutes in both directions. At that distant time no more than ten trains a day in each direction stopped at Bemmulla. My father and I were fascinated with what we saw. We watched with pride as the little trains stopped at the Bemmulla station on its way to Veyangoda and back.

We lived a mere five-minute walk from the station––or a minute's sprint across neighbourhood gardens for me to catch the train to school! At the time there were no buses servicing Bemmulla and we had to travel by train. The smoke spewing steam engines, stopping at all seven stations in between, took well more than an hour to drag a train the 19 miles to Colombo. What a great time would we have after electrification when we could get to Colombo in the promised less than 30 minutes?

For years thereafter my father lived in the hope that electric trains would be running in a few years. It never happened. He died 25 years later without realising his dream. For about 15 years during the 1970s and 1980s I had to travel daily to Colombo for work by train. By this time office trains arriving at Bemmulla were always over-crowded. It was quite an effort to get into them. There was no hope of getting a seat unless a friend offered his seat for a while. Camaraderie developed among regular travellers who formed into groups that always travelled in the same compartment. There were so many people that, even in a group, one was always pressed against two or three others. Yet, the conversation within the group made the travel somewhat bearable. Even a semi-express train took more than an hour to get to Colombo. The picture of the busy little electric trains always remained at the back of my mind.

Dr. Siyambalapitiya places the first operation of electric trains in the Panadura-Veyangoda sector five years away in 2021. Now, for me, well past the biblically allotted three score and ten, and not being in the best of health, this seems a very distant prospect indeed. I don't even dream of it!

I hope that Dr. Siyambalapitiya's prediction comes through and the people who made sacrifices to win the war but continue to suffer in suburban travel, get the benefits of railway electrification, sooner than later. I now live in crowded Colombo with its dust, noise and bustle. Travel by bus takes 45 minutes to cover the five miles from Pamankada to Fort; much slower than that steam train 60 years ago! If development proceeded as projected in 1952, I would not have left those verdant, bird infested surroundings of Bemmulla with its beautiful stretches of green paddy fields and meandering streams of gurgling waters. And if destiny permits; sometime in the future, I may even hear on a silent night, mixed with the rhythmic calls of a pair of owls, the soft whoosh of an electric train braking to a halt at the nearby station.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Teething problems exaggerated, say IRCON officials


In an interview with the Sunday Times, IRCON officials said the issues experienced along the Northern railway line were “teething problems” that were being “exaggerated out of proportion”.
“The common man in Sri Lanka is very happy with the project,” said S.L. Gupta, theSri Lanka-based Project Director. “The Railway Department is earning a lot of revenue. The trains are running full.”
Mr. Gupta answered specific questions related to the Northern railway line. He said the cracks in the pre-stressed concrete sleepers were surface ones and had no bearing on their structural strength. He ruled out manufacturing defects “beyond doubt”.
And he said efforts were being made to find out the other probable reasons for the cracks, including flat-wheeled or defective rolling stock.
It was not usual for cracks to appear on pre-stressed concrete sleepers, he admitted, “but it is also not a rare phenomenon”. He claimed that there were “more than 25% cracked sleepers in the stretch where sleepers manufactured in Sri Lanka have been laid”.
Mr. Gupta also said it was not usual for longitudinal cracks to appear on rails, the way they had done in some parts of the Northern line.
The rails were supplied by M/s Steel Authority of India, the sole supplier to Indian Railways. An expert team from SAIL has already inspected the site and samples sent to their research centre in Ranchi, India for testing and evaluation.
“Though these cracks are not affecting the train movement, IRCON has replaced few defective rails and a few have been kept under observation. The cause will be known after investigation.
Referring to the replacement of bridges, Mr. Gupta said five of them had some “metalizing” and painting defect at interface surfaces.
While Ircon proposed a method for rectifying this, the relevant Sri Lankan engineer was not agreeable to it and “rather suggested a methodology which was practically not possible to adopt”.
Left with no option, Ircon decided to replace the “girders” or beams. The manufacture of new beams has already started in India and they will be in place by June this year.
Corrosion has become a widespread problem in the Northern railway line due to the extreme corrosive environment in the Northern Province and “poor maintenance practice by Sri Lanka railway”.
“It may be noted that in similar marine corrosive environment, same type of equipment are performing satisfactorily in coastal areas of India,” Mr. Gupta said.
“In marine corrosive environment, it is very much essential to ensure preventive maintenance which is not ensured here,” he asserted. “Sri Lanka Railways have not applied a single brush of paint in last two years, since taking over of project and revenue operation.
“Ircon has agreed to galvanise these (signals) equipment,” he added. “It is expected that, with this, the corrosion problem shall be arrested provided the Sri Lanka Railway takes up scheduled preventive maintenance as per specifications.”Mr. Gupta said there was no basis for extending the defect liability period as anticipated in some quarters.
Under the contract, the DLP can only be extended when the intended purpose of the project is not served due to a defect. The commercial operations of trains have not been affected.
As such, no such extension of DLP is required. “Not even a single service affecting (signal) failure has taken so far since start of revenue operation of the line,” he concluded.
Mohan Chahar, Ircon General Manager (Signaling and Telecommunication) said nothing has been compromised. Every procedure for operations and maintenance was observed.
But he and Mr. Gupta both claimed that Sri Lanka Railways did not give Ircon permission to do certain improvements. “Equipments are lying in our store and people are sitting idle,” Mr. Gupta said.
“We will not leave any grievance unattended,” he stressed. “We will address everything, we are working aggressively. But Sri Lanka has to ensure the maintenance part and training of their staff.”
“There is also no system in place for procurement, disbursement and transport of maintenance staff,” said Mr. Chahar.