Transport systems Cheaper and efficient solutions needed – Prof. Kumarage

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By 2017-12-04

By Rathindra Kuruwita

In the last few years Sri Lanka has undertaken the construction of a number of expressways and the expansion of its road network. This has led to the expansion of our public road network to cover 8% of Sri Lanka. However, we have continued to ignore our public transportation system forcing people to purchase private vehicles. Ceylon Today spoke to former Chairman of the National Transport Commission and Senior Professor of the Department of Transport & Logistics Management, University of Moratuwa, Amal Kumarage to discuss the consequences of these developments.

Excerpts of the Interview:

Why do we need to develop the railway transport system when many 'experts' say that transporting goods and passengers by road is cheaper and effective?

A: I think this stems from not considering all the factors in play. A lot of people think that rail transport is subsidized and road transport is not subsidized but that is not true at all, road transport is subsidized in many ways.

If you look at the current situation, the government spends a large sum of money on the construction and maintenance of the roads and that is not recovered by a road tax or any such mechanism. Moreover, if you think of the Southern Expressway, to travel from Colombo to Galle one has to pay around Rs 400 but actually the government may be subsidizing that trip by around Rs. 1,000 when considering the investment made and it's financing as well as the cost of operating and maintaining. So, highway travel is also subsidized. So is parking allowed for free on most roads and sometimes even petrol and diesel are subsidized for road vehicles. The railways cost includes the cost of providing track, signals, stations etc. The cost of providing traffic police, signals etc. are usually not paid directly by road users. Thus it is obvious that when people say that the railway is subsidized, they have not considered the subsidies indirectly given to road transport.

A country needs to subsidize the transport sector according to the direction it wants to go. For many decades successive US governments have subsidized road transport but now it is struggling to maintain all the roads which were built. In India they have taken a different approach by promoting railways. Singapore, for example, taxes private vehicles heavily to reduce road congestion and they subsidize public transport. So, each country must decide what to promote and what not to

Do you think that we should keep on subsidizing road transport?

A: In Sri Lanka we can subsidize road transport but the question is whether it is sustainable? We continue to widen and build new roads and we already have around 120,000 kilometers of road. We have a high density of roads for a country as well and around 8% of our land has been allocated for public roadways, this is excluding things like garages and parking lots. We are a country that does not have unlimited land, we need land for habitation, cultivation, etc. Therefore, we need to agree on boundaries on how much of our land will be allocated for roads.

We are also a country that is still struggling to develop economically. The cost of building a new highway, the cost of importing new vehicles and fuel comes to about Rs. 800 billion a year, which is nearly 6% of our GDP. When we think of all of that, we need to come to a policy of encouraging public transport, which is to say that, both road and rail infrastructure must be optimally used for that. More specifically, we need to think of improving bus transport and we need to think of how to carry more people using our trains.

I can give you an example of how effective the railway is, the ticket to Jaffna in an air conditioned train is Rs 1,500 to travel 400 kilometres. That is less than Rs 4 per km and railway department is running that line profitably. If you take a super luxury bus it also charges around the same price. So we can't say that railway is costlier. The cost of driving even if you take 4 people in a car will be at least Rs 12 per km per person. It is widely held that transport of goods by rail is more economical especially for distances over 200 km and when roads are congested.

You spoke of the importance of developing our public transport system. Why has none of our governments taken this seriously?

A: This is the issue that begs an answer. It's very clear that our road system can't handle the number of vehicles that use it every day. We are importing around 2,000 vehicles a day and more and more the roads are getting congested. Therefore this policy of encouraging people to use private vehicles instead of developing public transport is not sustainable.

The policy of successive governments of encouraging private transport is very short sighted because while it's okay for people to own vehicles, forcing people into using vehicles because there isn't adequate public transport and ensuring that roads are congested is disastrous. We need to disassociate the two, so we can allow people to own vehicles instead of taxing vehicle ownership, which is not an effective way to discourage the use of private vehicles, and subsidizing fuel and the roads.

A vehicle is an investment and it has a social value and I don't think we should put barriers on the ownership of vehicles as a luxury item with high taxes as has been the practice for many years. It's the use of vehicles, especially in congested areas we have to look at. Therefore, we should move into road use charges and variable charges so that if people use vehicles during particular times they will have to pay for that. The cost to the economy of someone using a vehicle at 8 a.m. on a weekday in Colombo and at midnight is different. The mode that should be promoted at different times and places should therefore be different.

For example, if you are using a vehicle in a rural area like Moneragala it has a different economic impact, than using a vehicle in Colombo. In a rural area, private transport is more effective and economical because otherwise the government needs to operate a bus service throughout the day in an area without the population density to make the service viable. That would lead the way to more losses and more criticism.

On the other hand there are limits to what private vehicles can provide in Colombo or any other urban area where space for road widening is not possible. So what we need is actually an orientation to reforming the existing transportation management structure, i.e. how we move from taxing vehicle ownership to user taxes such as taxing fuel and road tolling. Then we need to learn how to manage the entire transport sector rather than managing roads, railways, buses, and private vehicles as different entities. The tax policies and the investment on public transport have to be looked at together to come up with one strategy. Historically we have not seen that approach, with taxes usually determined by various extraneous parameters like fiscal and environmental reasons. I am not saying that these are not important, but similar weight should be given to the implications of raising or lowering taxes on vehicles or fuels in terms of managing the entire sector.

In Singapore the public transport share is 67% and they want it to increase it to 75% because they have found that it is the most efficient balance. Sri Lanka, in my opinion, needs to have 60% share for public transport in order to stop our roads from getting congested, and to have adequate funds to properly maintain our roads, because now most of the funds allocated for roads are being spent on creating extra capacity rather than safety and convenience.

What is your opinion on the proposed light rail transport system in Colombo and suburbs which is seen as a solution to the heavy congestion on many of the main roads leading to and out of the city centre?

A: When we think of Colombo and Kandy we need to think of both, a rail alternative as well as road alternative. That, for me, is a good balance of different transport technologies that we can use to give people an adequate choice. For certain parts in Colombo where we can't put in new railway stations we can use rapid transit systems. There are many rapid transit systems such as bus rapid transport (BRT) or light rapid transit (LRT).

The problem with LRT is that it is an expensive system. It can cost about US$ 50 million per kilometer for Colombo and with the cost of two kilometers of LRT we can modernize the entire bus operation system of Sri Lanka of 20,000 buses, and bring it on par with the rest of the world.

Sometimes we get carried away with modern technology. Modern technology is fine if it is affordable and effective but now in this case although Colombo will need LRT somewhere down the line, we can do a much more with a much lesser sum of money that will have an effect on a greater number of people. Bus transport of Sri Lanka affects the life of 70% of the households on a regular basis. LRT, from the numbers that I have, is only going to affect about 6% - 9% of the users in the Western Province. That is about 3% of the people in the country. So we need to think of directing the transport sector to areas where the largest number of stakeholders can get better access, both in rural and urban areas. These are some of the things we need to look at.

I would definitely support LRT and Colombo will definitely need it at some point. But my contention is that we need to prioritize some short term improvements much before that. If you want rapid transit there are other systems like Bus Rapid Transport, which can be done on some roads where the demand and space is there. BRT system will cost only about 10% of the LRT system and they will carry close to the same number of passengers. BRT will also repay their investment in three to four years and if someday BRT is not needed it can be replaced with LRT because BRT infrastructure is not very costly and the rolling stock of buses can be used on other roads. So these are more sustainable and realistic transport systems whereas if we go for a LRT that will require permanent and heavy investment. Yes we will need LRT but at the right time and we have a number of other issues that a LRT will not solve. For example over 25 km of bus lanes are being done in just 4 months in Colombo. With new buses on order these can significantly improve services. BRT will be an incremental step to be taken over next 2 years. A 75 km LRT network for Colombo which is being studied now, is likely to be too extensive and premature and likely to end up where a minority of high end users will have to be subsidized by the majority of bus and train passengers.

Since we were talking about BRT, how do you feel about the bus priority lane we have implemented? Do you think it has been a successful experiment?

A: I think this has been a phenomenal success both from the operational as well as the social adaption angles. People have adapted to it, they are complying with it and the police have taken ownership of implementing it. These developments to me have been the biggest surprise. We have implemented this for about 25 kilometers and I don't think it has cost over US$ 1 million. We live in a country that spends huge amounts on debt repayment and we keep on borrowing great amounts and optimistically expect to get out of this debt trap. However, what we need to do is look at solutions that are cheaper and efficient. So, bus priority lane, modernization and railway electrification are the things that we should be looking at first.

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