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

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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.

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

All’s not well on reconstructed Northern Line

10,000 of 50,000 pre-stressed concrete sleepers show cracks

A curious advertisement appeared in local newspapers in the first quarter of last year. It invited expressions of interest for repairing building cracks and carrying out waterproofing treatment for various railway station buildings in the Northern Provine of Sri Lanka.
The party that published the notice was Ircon International Limited, a Government of India Company that had re-constructed the Northern railway line.
The closing date for applications was July 2015—well after the inauguration of the final phase of the project.
It was the first sign that all was not right. Why were the foreign builders of the celebrated Northern railway line searching for contractors to repair structures that were brand new? And shouldn’t waterproofing have been completed much earlier?
The Northern railway line was re-constructed in several phases. Most material, including sleepers, signals and other accessories, came from India. The project was financed through an Indian line of credit; that is, a loan.
The interest rate is London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) plus 0.5 percent—a manageable 1.25 percent. Repayment is to be in two decades after a grace period of five years. IRCON handled the design and build components of the project.
The inauguration of each stage was done amidst much political grandstanding. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then President, flagged off the Kilinochchi to Kankesanturai stretch in October 2014, just weeks before a crucial election.
The final stage from Madhu Road to Talaimannar was launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March last year.
It was a defining moment for the two countries and for its ruling politicians. But engineers were already uncomfortable with some developments on the ground.
In the fourth quarter of last year, IRCON took out another advertisement. It called for the manufacture, supply, transportation and delivery of 16,000 pre-stressed concrete track sleepers for rail sections in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. The closing date was December 2015.
The Sunday Times interviewed numerous officials of the Railway Department and the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB), who were consultants to the project. We also spoke with sources in the North.
They said cracks had started appearing in a large number of railway sleepers.
In one section, for instance, cracks were observed in 8,000 out of 140,000 sleepers. In another, there were 2,000 affected sleepers out of 10,000. As a total, however, the quantity of cracked sleepers amounts to just 4.2 percent.
The cracks have emerged despite some of the sleepers being tested for quality in Sri Lanka. Engineers are concerned that, should the defective sleepers be allowed to remain, there will be a durability problem in the long-term.
It is not usual for cracks to appear in pre-stressed concrete, said a senior engineer.
But IRCON has undertaken to change the sleepers before June. This has already been done in four sections on the Medawachchiya to Madhu Road stretch. There are other issues.
For instance, five bridges on the railway line are to be replaced later this year after the CECB found painting, fabrication and welding defects in them.
High quality paint is of essence in the construction of bridges, said one engineer, and it must be applied to a certain thickness to delay the onset of rust.
The bridges are now under fabrication in India. When the replacement process begins, the train service will have to be temporarily suspended. “They may be structurally safe but with corrosion, the expected lifetime reduces,” he explained.
There were complaints regarding quality assurance. “From bridges to signals to way-and-works, we observed that there was something wrong with IRCON’s quality assurance system,” said another source, requesting anonymity.
“So much of their material is prone to corrosion. Everything is corroding including rails, bridges, signals units, electronic systems and cables.”
Rust has been documented in outdoor cabinets, even after these were repainted several times. It has also been seen on rails, with some flaking. The problems are worse on the Madhu Road to Mannar stretch, officials said.
“We expect a signaling system to work for thirty to forty years,” he continued. “With the current rate of degradation, we don’t expect that kind of lifetime.”
The CECB has in reports identified numerous shortcomings in signaling and telecommunications. Level crossings are equipped with bell and light warning systems and are inadequate to prevent accidents.
In case of total power failure, the warning signals and alarms will not work. There are no additional safety precautions and indications to ensure safety of road user or train operator.
“We are worried about unreliability because there are failures at an unacceptable rate,” said a senior engineer. “We are negotiating with the contractor to rectify these issues.”
“Several times people have complained to me that the bell and light sometimes operate when the train is not there,” said N. Vethanayahan, Jaffna Government Agent. “So people don’t care about the bell and light now.
I have also observed the bell and light ringing while the train is not there. We need to have gates.”
Worryingly, longitudinal cracking of rails has now been identified in 39 places. This was deemed an “unusual occurrence” by all experts interviewed. “We have never seen that on any rails anywhere in the country,” said a ground source.
The manufacturer of the rails recently travelled to the sites and collected samples for further investigation. A report is expected shortly.
Some pieces of rail have been removed also for local testing. Again, the concern is that neglect could lead to further problems like serious cracks. The affected rails are under observation. Action will be taken depending on the report.
On the Sri Lankan side, there are suggestions now to extend the defect liability period over fears that more problems might emerge after it expires in June 2016. Some payments to IRCON have been withheld until there is delivery on commitments.
The ‘performance certificate’, which is of great importance to the contractor, has not been issued. It is expected to be handed over once all defects are corrected.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Railway electrification and modernisation:

• Project ready for implementation
• First trains to run by 2021


By Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya

No, no, it is not another ‘supplier driven’ project, the more decent phrase to identify projects offered by companies from countries with "friendly" governments, offering loans for the project at double the market interest rates, repaid in ten years. Only if Sri Lanka awards the contract to their chosen contractor, on a platter! No competitive bidding. If the count is right, going by the headlines in state-run newspaper over the past 10 years, we must have already built two express train services from Colombo to the airport, and one more Colombo-Negombo express train service, and two (not one) expressways to Kandy. There are also such "supplier driven" light rail and monorail services from Ratmalana to Colombo-Maradana-Borella, hidden under the bushes along Galle Road, as we cannot see any such service. Investors came and went, from time to time, got our politicians excited, generated only newspaper headlines, but no railway project.

Passengers continue to dangerously hang on to the bars at the doors, trying to get to work on time. Back to the footboard in the evening, to catch their connecting bus to get to the village. Their grandfather did so 50 years ago; and the grandchildren do that today, on the footboard. On our suburban train services,which have not seen any major improvement over the past 50 years or more. Yet,about 300,000 people travel daily in the suburbs. Half of them get in and get off in the Polgahawela-Kalutara South sector, Colombo being the main terminus. What if we can double that number to 600,000 per day, meaning 3000 bus-trips would not be required to run? Or 100,000 car-trips need not be done. Travel time will be saved. Energy will be saved. If you want to have more reasons, say that greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced.


Close your eyes: imagine you travel on your motorbike to your nearest railway station, Panadura. A smiling parking attendant accepts your motorbike for full-day parking, and charges a concessionary fee, chargeable on your train ticket, when you come back in the evening. The car park has no signs to say "parking at your own risk" but instead, the signs say, "Welcome to park and ride, we will take good care of your vehicle. Yours faithfully, SL Railways". A smiling ticket counter clerk issues an electronic ticket, which can be used in the train, connecting buses, and even to pay parking fees at station car parks. Electronic displays show the next train time, and even the time to the second train on line. As all Sri Lankans can read, noisy announcements at stations are no more, replaced with good, bright signs. The five-carriage electric train arrives, the destination "Veyangoda" shining brightly besides the SLR logo, brakes smoothly owing to regenerative brakes, doors open. The train floor and station platform are both at the same level, and you conveniently get in. The train is air conditioned, and off you go! The train gets crowded, but not packed, averages at 50 km per hour for the suburban run to your destination, meaning that it comes from Panadura to Colombo Fort in 30 minutes, even with so many stops.

As you approach the Colombo Fort, you hear that a family member has been taken ill and you need to immediately go to Ragama hospital. No need to get off in Fort, to buy a ticket to Ragama and scramble back on to the train; you continue on the same train to Ragama, and pay for the additional run when, after a further 20 minutes, you exit at Ragama, with your electronic ticket.

End of a dream? Not really!

No more a dream

Electrification and modernisation of the suburban railway network was approved by the Government earlyin 2015. Soon thereafter, upon invitation by the Government, the Asian Development Bank, has committed itself to finance the project preparation through a grant. This will happen in 2016. Then in 2017, the detailed technical designs will be done, followed by procurement, and construction work will be done over 2018-2021. The entire project will be financed by the Asian Development Bank on concessionary terms, and would be done according to the designs prepared in consultation with Sri Lanka Railways. So,as you see, the time table and the road map is now set to modernise and electrify the suburban rail network of Sri Lanka.

The sector selected for electrification and modernisation first will be the Veyangoda-Panadura sector, which will run a through-service across Colombo. This means, trains will not terminate in Colombo, but will continue to Panadura and vice versa, thus reducing the frustrating congestion in the sectors close to Colombo in the present service. Obviously, the service has to be extended from Veyangoda to Polgahawela, Panadura to Kalutara South, and Ragama to Negombo, in its subsequent phases of development.

Project construction, though not technically challenging owing to the technology being well established, will be difficult because construction has to be done while the existing services continue to operate. Track improvements to achieve higher speeds, safety improvement at crossings, raising the overhead bridges or lowering the tracks to accommodate power lines, station improvements, electronic ticketing and parking facilities at stations, would all be part of the project. So, it will not simply be a case of hanging a wire above the tracks and running an "electric power set". It will be a complete transition to a modern, suburban railway network and a world class service.

What happens to your beloved express trains, the "Kumaris, Menikes, and Devis", and the mighty "office trains", when a part of the network is electrified? No problem; they will continue to be "diesel power sets" or drawn with diesel locomotives, run on the same tracks, now much improved to accommodate faster electric trains. Obviously, they will run express in the electrified sectors, much to the delight of the long distance traveller. Stage by stage, our entire extended suburban network, may be even up to Chilaw in the NW, Kurunegala in north, Rambukkana in the central, and Aluthgama in the south, should all be covered by the electric suburban service. These require more studies, as we go ahead with the Veyangoda-Panadura sector, to evaluate the benefits Vs costs. Why only Colombo suburbs? Kandy, Jaffna and Galle too have busy suburbs, that require thought and analysis, and electrification.

What about the KelaniValley line, presently running six trains packed to capacity, on a winding single track? The recently concluded Colombo Metro Transport Master Plan places the highest priority on upgrading the KV line, because it provides extremely high benefits to the travelling public, and thereby, to the economy. Therefore, the KV line development and electrification would be a complete stand-alone project, to be started immediately.

The Battaramulla-Malabe-Pelawatte elite, if we may call them so, would be delighted that a new railway to Battaramulla and beyond would also be built, shortly, though not firmly included in the upcoming project. It is your duty to get it included in the already approved project, if you want a joyful ride to work in the city and back. And from the city to Parliament and back.

Technically Speaking

A suburban train full of 1000 passengers uses only about 5.5 units of electricity per kilometre. Your electric car uses about 0.1 unit of electricity per kilometre, just for the two of you. Thus, the electric train is at least 10 times more efficient than your electric car. If we add regenerative braking, that means when the train brakes, energy goes back into the grid, rather than being wasted on the wheels, the electric energy use reduces by at least 20%. A longer, double "power set" will be even more efficient.

Electricity will be supplied to trains through a "catenary" wire, hung above the tracks. Current enters from the "pantograph" collector touching the catenary, drives the train motors, and current leaves through the wheels along one of the two rails. Will it be dangerous to walk on the tracks? No, not owing to electric shock, but with more frequent trains running at higher speeds, it would be very dangerous to walk on tracks. So what do we do? Fence the tracks, and control access, and wean Sri Lankans away from the habit of walking along rail tracks. We have fenced all the expressways, and people have come to accept it, so why not fully fence the railway lines?

What happens in a power failure? The national grid is more reliable than the roadside distribution line serving our households. Electrified trains will draw power from the high voltage grid, not from the roadside lines. To the credit of Ceylon Electricity Board, grid failures are becoming less frequent, although roadside lines are reporting increasing numbers of failures. The most recent grid failure was in September this year; the previous one was in October 2009. Both 2009 and 2015 grid failures were the result of technical errors (human errors) and not any weather-related cause. So, as our power engineers mature, grid failures will be even less frequent. However, in case the grid goes dead? Yes, for that, SLR would have several standby generators that would come-up automatically and power-up the SLR power network to provide a limited service. To accelerate an electric power set, it requires 1200 kilowatt, but that is for a few seconds, and thereafter, power requirement will decrease. So, even in a grid failure, a reasonably good service can be provided with about 5 megawatt of standby capacity. All these will have to be examined in the detailed design.

Remember the greater London blackout of 2003?Thousands could not get home after work, and slept on the pavements of London.

So what?

Remember, the construction work has not started as yet. Expect to see processions at Fort railway station against relocation of unauthorised dwellings and fencing the tracks. With the stringent social impact analyses required in projects financed by Asian Development Bank, such problems will be minimal.

Do you believe that your Government is firm with the decision to commence electrification and modernisation?

Any train passenger would have been happier if the electrification and modernisation project was included and specifically mentioned in the budget speech.No, it was not done, and instead, the budget speechspoke of hydrogen vehicles (still on the drawing boards, in research labs and pilot stage) and Helium vehicles (which even in the wildest dreams, no researcher would even think of using for transport). Therefore, your Government, or at least certain arms of the Government, is still not with you and with the project, to ease your transport worries, and give you a more comfortable, energy-efficient daily ride to work and back.

No politician, including the Megapolis Ministry, getting mightier by the day, has taken ownership of the project to modernise the railway network, as yet. Why do you think it is so? Have you heard the Minister of Transport saying, yes, let us do it, and promising to place his heart and mind and energy into getting the job done? NO. Megapolis Minister? NO. Prime Minister? NO. President? NO.

May be some arms of the Government think that the illusive self-appointed investors would come their way along with their local promoters, again, and generate a railway project of much bigger value, which will be beneficial to all above the heads of the travelling public.


Demonstrations at Fort Railway station to pressurise the government to implement the project with absolutely no delay, and run modern electric trains from 2021. Pressure the government to support Sri Lanka Railways, their engineers and staff, to manage this landmark project that came its way after a very long time, very well, and to think far into the future.

Also wanted are demonstrations by the Battaramulla-Pelawatte-Malabe elite shouting: "Include our new railway line in the upcoming project, link to Dematagoda and fast into Fort, Panadura, and Ragama-Veyangoda."