Monday, December 7, 2015
Editorial on 2/12/2015
Ailing railwayDecember 1, 2015, 7:45 pm
All unauthorised structures on either side of railroads that run through some parts of the Colombo city and its suburbs will be removed, Transport Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has said. There are shanties with their roofs almost touching the moving trains. Drastic measures are, therefore, called for to rid the railway land of encroachers.
Minster de Silva was seen inspecting the Kelani Valley railway line a few days ago. It is one of the worst sections of the country’s railway network. The track conditions are appalling and inordinate delays are the order of the day. If properly developed, this railroad has the potential to bring much relief to the commuting public and ease congestion on several arterial roads in Colombo.
Old-timers may recall a funny Sinhala poem about the trains that used to move at a snail’s pace on the narrow-gauge Kelani Valley line in times of yore, stopping as they did at every station and every signal post. The last two lines of the poem read: ‘tharuna joduwak neggama kolombin/daruwek upadi opanayakin (a newly married couple beginning journey from Colombo has their first baby by the time the train reaches Opanayake). Now the situation has somewhat improved, but much more remains to be done.
The need for developing railway as a solution to the ever worsening traffic congestion in the city cannot be overemphasised. The eviction of squatters on railway land alone won’t help develop the service. There needs to be a radical shake-up in the railway administration besides a massive cash injection for developing tracks and purchasing rolling stock. The railway department is one of the worst government institutions characterised by inefficiency and corruption. Minister de Silva has undertaken a Herculean task.
An expert committee has disclosed that the newly built northern railway is full of defects. Sleepers, culverts etc do not conform to the specified standards, as we reported the other day. The Matara-Beliatte section of the coastal line, too, has not been properly built, experts have said. Stern action is called for against those responsible for the defective tracks. Somebody has obviously lined his pockets and the contractors must be held answerable for these serious lapses which would have endangered the lives of commuters if they had gone undetected.
It is good to see the Transport Minister take train rides once in a way. All his predecessors did so with media personnel in tow. If he wants to see how bad the train service is he should travel incognito. Else, the railway authorities do everything in their power to ensure that the trains carrying him and his officials run smoothly. The only way to have the public transport system developed is to make politicians, especially ministers, and top bureaucrats travel in packed buses and trains so that they will realise the suffering commuters undergo daily. Time was when people’s representatives travelled by train.
A high-ranking railway official has told this newspaper that ‘footboard travel’ will be banned on all long-distance trains, but the ban will not apply to crowded office trains as the department cannot augment its ailing fleet for want of resources. One is intrigued. Do the railway officials think that footboard travel is a solution to the shortage of rolling stock?
Minister de Silva’s keen interest in developing the ailing train service is to be appreciated. It is hoped that he will emulate the late Transport Minister Anil Moonesinghe, who did the country proud, and recruit officials of the calibre of the legendary engineer cum railway general manager, B. D. Ramapala, who ensured that the then CGR provided an efficient service to the public. Having the right people in key notches is half the battle in developing any institution.
Posted by Asela at 11:46 PM
Budget proposals vague on transport and logistics
Posted by Asela at 9:01 PM
Ailing railway – Is there a solution?December 7, 2015, 6:11 pm
By Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri
The Island editorial of 02.12.2015 on "Ailing railway" prompted me to send this write up. The Minister of Finance in his recent Budget Speech said that "Kelani Valley line will be modernized where the speed and the carrying capacity will be increased for which I propose to allocate a sum of Rs.1,500 million". Sometime back a Transport Minister too said that the KV line would be improved by removing several crossings it has between Kosgama and Avissawella, but nothing was done about it. Hope the same thing will not happen here too.
A few decades ago, the narrow gauge of KV line was broadened to the standard gauge at Sri Lankan Government expense but the service was not improved concurrently. Only the dilapidated aged coaches and power sets operate on this line which run infrequently. According to the railway schedules posted in the Railway Dept. (RD) website, only 4 trains operate from Avissawella to Fort daily, 3 in the morning and one in the afternoon, while 5 trains operate from Fort to Avissawella, 3 in the morning and 2 in the evening. It takes about two and half hours to cover the distance of 61 km, which isrunning at an average speed of 24 km/h.
At such operating conditions, it is not surprising that most passengers, except those travelling on cheap government season tickets, prefer to travel by bus despite they are crowded and the service is poor. The High Level Road is almost saturated with buses and there is no room to increase their number plying on this road, without slowing down the existing traffic further. Hence, shifting of bus commuters to railway is necessary. However, even after any modernization of the track envisaged after spending the allocated Rs. 15000 million, there is no guarantee that the KV line will be provided with additional rolling stock and a better service to the commuters.
Take for example the railway line to Matara. In 2009, a project was started at an enormous cost to remove the existing railway track between Kalutara and Matara, concrete the bed and re-install the rails on concrete sleepers, all with a view to enable trains to travel at 100 km/h speed, and the work was completed in 2012, as reported in the media. But, what is the position today? Only six trains ply from Matara to Fort daily, 4 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon, taking over 3 h and 20 min. to cover the 157 km distance, at an average speed about 44-47 km/h. I believe this performance is no better than what it was before.
The Editorial has said that "there needs to be a radical shake-up in the railway administration besides a massive cash injection for developing tracks and purchasing rolling stock" and goes on to say "The railway department is one of the worst government institutions characterized by inefficiency and corruption". If that is the case, no amount of cash injection to the RD will improve its services as some money will get syphoned out before being utilized, as long as the present system prevails. Of course, corruption is not limited to the RD, but prevails everywhere in Sri Lanka. It has now become a part of Sri Lankan culture. It is very unlikely that a change of government could change this culture which has spread as a cancer in our society.
With regard to inefficiency, the inability of the RD to manage the operation of 10 high-tech locomotives imported from France came to light when the manner in which it handled their operation was publicized. Their purchase itself was highly controversial with Presidential intervention, but once the locomotives were delivered, the department had the responsibility of operating them properly. But, they ran into many technical problems and several were taken out of service within a short period and the general public was made to understand that the locomotives were of poor quality.
However, according to a media report that appeared in a local daily on 08.02.2014 quoting an engineer attached to RD, "There was nothing wrong with the French Alstom M9 locomotives dumped by RD as unusable …. It's just that we were not ready for them in a technological sense when they were first brought to the country. At the moment Alstom was the market leader in engine manufacturing.The technology was so advanced, our engineers simply did not know how to operate or maintain them". It may be mentioned in this connection that recently India placed an order for 800 locomotives from Alstom, the same company that supplied the 10 ‘defective’ locomotives to Sri Lanka!
In many countries, operation of railways is undertaken as a public-private partnership. It is not uncommon to see trains owned by a private company running on tracks owned by a public organization or by another private company after leasing out the rights to use the tracks. The government could therefore consider, to start with, leasing out the KV line to a private company to operate trains on it after completing whatever rehabilitation work planned. In order to get travellers attracted to this service, it is imperative it offers a better service, not merely a marginally better but a class better – comfortable seating, more frequent service, shorter travel time and reasonable fares. A first class too could be added for air-conditioned comfort.
The government may grant duty and other concessions for the company to import rolling stock initially and also to assemble the coaches locally if any entrepreneur is interested. The company may even consider electrifying the entire line thus saving a considerable amount of fossil fuel which will help the government to comply with its commitments made at the Climate Change Conference currently being held in Paris.
Depending on the success (or failure) of this exercise, the government may even consider leasing out operating rights on the northern and southern railway lines as well to the private sector. The government has spent an enormous amount of money on reconstructing these two lines and the only way to recover at least a part of this money is to get more and more trains to ply on these lines. These trains could be in addition to what the RD is operating currently. On the other hand, the government could even transfer the operation of these trains also to the private sector for better service. This could also include the new railway line being extended to Kataragama.
Currently, our highways face the problem of heavy traffic congestion not only during office hours but at all times in the day. One cause of congestion is the usage of highways by slow-moving heavily loaded trucks carrying building material, food items and container loads of export items. A century ago, the up-country railway line was built by the British to transport tea and rubber from the plantations to the city for export. But today, all these items and also up-country grown vegetables are transported to the city by road. It should be possible to get the private sector to operate special freight trains to transport these items by train instead of transporting them by road.
To facilitate transfer of the load from the truck to the train at the loading point and from the train to a truck at the receiving end, a special type of containers usable both on a train and with a truck could be employed along with necessary transferring equipment. These container systems are common in the western countries. Shifting of freight transport from road to railways will certainly minimize traffic congestion on our roads.The RD has not been able to provide a satisfactory freight service all these days and one cannot expect them to provide it even in the future, and hence, getting the private sector to operate a freight service is the only solution.
With the increase of frequency of trains, one problem one could envisage is the congestion that could be created due to frequent closure of railway crossings. The solution for this is to build fly-overs at every point where a major highway crosses a railway line. The government could get the assistance of the private sector here too by getting them to build metal flyovers similar to what has been erected at Nugegoda and Dehiwala. They have to just copy what is installed, similar to what the Chinese or the Japanese did. It may also be necessary to strengthen any weak bridges.
It is important that the government selects the private sector parties in a transparent manner calling bids on a competitive basis limiting it only to those who have the necessary resources and the competency. The government should also ensure that this process is not just another opportunity for a few connected parties to make a quick buck, as happened in previous privatization efforts.
Posted by Asela at 8:59 PM