Railway tracks cheaper than highways

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By 2017-12-11

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Dr. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, Senior Lecturer of Economics, University of Colombo, has played many roles in the transport sector. He was the Secretary, Ministry of Transport during the early days of the United National Front for Good Governance administration and the General Manager of Sri Lanka Railways during the first decade of the century. He sat down with Ceylon Today to discuss the need to promote railway transport and the need to prioritize Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) over the much hyped and ultra-expensive Light Rail Transit (LRT).

You have been an advocate for a comprehensive railway system in Sri Lanka. However, it seems that successive Sri Lankan Governments have been adamant on building highways?

A: Sri Lanka is an outlier when it comes to this, as most developed and developing countries are moving towards railway and away from road transport due to a number of reasons, including efficiency, environmental friendliness and cost.

Sri Lanka is a country that has to pay colossal amounts on debt repayment and the Government talks continuously of this fact.

So, if we look at it from a cost perspective, railways is a much cheaper option than highways because we would not have to borrow large amounts of money for its construction. We can build a railway track at one fourth the cost that is needed to build a highway to the same destination. This is not to say that no highways need to be built, but that railway should be an imperative option to consider in the appraisal of alternative solutions before deciding on a highway. For instance, if we look at the Central Expressway, experts like Professor Amal Kumarage have said that to develop a new railway track to Kandy from Rambukkana, which can carry trains at high speeds, will cost a lot less than the money earmarked for the highway.

In addition, I believe that the transport policy of the State should be to promote the railway mode as the main carrier of people, particularly in urban sectors and long-distance express travel, and of goods wherever economically permissible. We need to shift the transport of people and goods away from private transport to public transport modes, and among those public transport options, prominence should be given to the railway. This is the policy of countries that seek a sustainable transport solution.

A light railway system is being touted as a way to minimize congestion in Colombo and suburbs. What is your opinion of this 'trendy' yet expensive idea?

A: From what I know, a light railway system costs a lot. I remember that a previous proposal to build a light railway stated that it would cost US $ 60 million to construct one kilometre of a light railway system. That's a very high investment and who would shoulder its financial burden? Someone might say it is the private sector that will build the track. But if there is such an investor who is ready to invest purely on commercial grounds with no conditions tagged, I think we must first examine his head because at such a high capital investment, it would not be a profit making venture. If a private investor appears most likely there would be some ulterior motives behind such a move. For example, such an 'investor' might ask for land around the light railway track, he may ask for concessions and subsidies from the Government because the project can't increase its ticket fares beyond a certain point, given the availability of other modes of public transport, and toll free roads. The final outcome is likely to be a white elephant, where the Government would have to ensure an expected financial Return on Investment through Government subsidies. Such a scenario does not suit our country, and could end up as another heavy burden on the tax payer.

This is what has happened with the highways. We have built them at very high costs and the amount collected from the toll is not even enough for debt servicing, let alone auxiliary service provision and general maintenance of the road. So, people who never use the highway end up paying for it. This is likely to be the same with the light rail.

A number of better alternatives were presented to the Cabinet when Hon. Minister Ranjith Maddumabandara was the Minister of Internal Transport during the 100-day Government. These could have been considered. For instance, let us look at where the light railway system is proposed to be established first: from Battaramulla to Colombo. But a lot of people don't know that Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) carried out a Pre-feasibility study on laying a regular railway track from Battaramulla to Colombo. According to that study, this can be done at a much lesser capital cost and it can even be electrified. This appeared a very feasible project, and one such alternative plotted, had 92 per cent of the proposed railway to be laid on unoccupied State land, so that only a few displacements would become necessary. But all these possibilities appear to have been ignored and all the attention is now shifted to light rail.

You also speak about the need to look at building local industries that are linked with transport?

A: Yes, throughout our history the transport sector in Sri Lanka has borne the mobility burden of the economy, that is moving goods and people from place to place. Yet, only a significant local transport-related industrial value addition is created within the economy. Through our transportation, we generate business for suppliers in India, Japan, and oil producing Middle-East, making these countries richer. The more we travel the more we spend on fuel, enriching Arabian countries. The more we import vehicles and spare parts, the more it benefits automotive industrialists in India, Japan, Korea, and Europe.

But we have not thought of using the demand created in the transport sector to develop a local supply industry base. What Sri Lankan businesses do is we enrich by our transportation, other than possibly tyres to a certain extent and some repair garages and vehicle service stations. Why can't we think of creating what economists call "backward economic linkages" within the national economy? Think of developing new railway lines. Why cannot we use local talent and entrepreneurship, rather than giving construction contracts to Indians and Chinese? Why can't we build expressways and highways using local entrepreneurs? Why can't we develop and establish a railway signalling system domestically?

These questions are more pertinent because we have demonstrated that we can do all these things. The signalling system at the Narahenpita Railway Station was developed by local engineers. When the terrorism was defeated, nearly 13 km new railway track between Tandikulam and Omanthai was constructed entirely by the Railway engineers and technical staff at a fraction of the cost charged by Indians in constructing the rest of the Northern railway tracks, and the trains could run quite smoothly and fast up to 100 km/ h between Tandikulam and Omanthai, even now. When the Southern railway track was destroyed by the Tsunami, our people rebuilt it in record 56 days and at a fraction of cost quoted by foreign companies. When these skills and capabilities exist, the State policy should be to encourage their deployment for the nation's betterment, and also to develop such skills further. In this respect, the transport sector can become driver of development and innovation. If we can do this, local industries will develop and create new jobs as the transport sector develops. It would encourage the reduction of imports as well. Unfortunately, we do not seem to have politicians who have such a national vision and who seek to develop domestic industries.

There is another side to the story. Not only that we unnecessarily spent heavy investment costs to foreign companies to do our railway tracks and that we forego the associated skill development and experience gains, but also that there appear to be technical issues pertaining to construction undertaken by foreign companies. For example, Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau had refused to accept some bridges newly constructed in the Northern lines by Indians, which had to be replaced later.

Thousands of newly laid railway concrete sleepers on the Northern track by foreign contractors were reported to be cracked within a short period of time, when locally produced concrete sleepers generally last at least 40 years without any such train operation-induced cracking. A Commission led by a renowned railway engineer and former General Manager Priyal Silva found that the signal system used in the Northern railway system built by the Indians is outdated, expensive and does not suit Sri Lanka. But the Governments do not appear to have learnt from these past experiences. Though all these reports, communications and information are available for administrators, policy makers and even to the public now, no concerted effort is being taken to correct the path and railway track and signalling construction contracts continue to be given to foreign companies. For instance, the track rehabilitation between Maho and Vavuniya is said to be given to Indians in spite of the fact that Minister Ranjith Maddumabandara, when he was the Minister of Internal Transport under the 100-day Government, presented a Cabinet proposal to rehabilitate this section of the railway track using domestic skills and knowhow. Signalling construction in between Matara and Beliatta is said to be given to a Chinese firm at an exorbitantly high capital expenditure of Rs 2,200 Million, when it is learnt that the Railway Signal Engineers have offered to do the same job or better below Rs 200 Million, thus making room for the country to save scarce resources and to reduce foreign debt burden. It may be noted that none of these contracts appear to be awarded by following the transparent international open competitive tenders, but on bilaterally agreed loans, something which His Excellency the President condemned and pledged in his Manifesto-2015 that he would never allow if elected to power, this is rather unfortunate.

In 2015, there was a proposal to introduce a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system but after almost 30 months we are only implementing a priority bus lane?

A: It must be questioned whether the Government has not thrown the proposal for a BRT system to the dustbin. If so, that is pathetic, because, we could have implemented the BRT system, at a low cost, in a short time to solve our pressing Colombo urban transport issues. I wonder whether the Government systematically discouraged Professor Amal Kumarage and the team, made them leave and replaced them with another group of people, allowing the BRT idea to die a natural death.

With the priority lane, we have just allocated a particular lane to the buses. But, this is not a substitute to BRT which would bring about many in-bus and systemic quality improvements as well. BRT solution has the potential of elevating the urban transport system to a higher standard. There may be better options including light rail, but all those options are extremely expensive and time consuming. I am glad that this government is embarking on a electrification of the existing sub-urban railway because it will greatly increase the quality of our trains but we have to keep a close eye as to how the Government would formulate and implement the project, who gets the contract and at what price, and so on. But, even the sub-urban railway electrification is not a substitute for BRT, which system can be made ready to shoulder the traffic problems within a much shorter horizon and at a lesser cost.

But it does not look like that the Government is assigning priority to implement the BRT system. Policymakers might be wondering whether a BRT system might become a problem for Megapolis light railway plans.

When the BRT solution was proposed in 2015, first to be installed was along Galle Road between Panadura and Colombo and subsequently extended to Kadawatha. Parliament Road, High Level and Low Level roads and Negombo Road also were considered.

If implemented as planned the project would have enhanced the quality of our bus transport quite significantly, elevating it from the presently accepted level as low quality mode of transport of the poorest. That should not be the case; we should have buses that can attract a man who travels by motor car. We must do the same with trains and I think that can be achieved, at least partially, with the electrification of railways. If we can enhance the quality of buses and trains people will be tempted to use public transport again.

Judging from what you say, it seems that we have a lot of good ideas but why can't we implement these?

A: There is so much that officials or professionals can do. They can come up with a lot of proposals, but those also need to be approved and necessary resources allocated for those to go ahead. For example, when we had to build the Tsunami affected railway line, the then transport minister Felix Perera gave us the green light and allowed us to use the available resources within the Department to build the track. Another example is the track from Vavuniya to Tandikulam, which was commenced on the blessings of the then Minister-in-Charge, Dullas Alahapperuma, to use available resources. In fact, it was during his time that a project named "Uthuru-Mithuru" was conceived to do the entire Northern railway track locally. But there are forces which abhor these kinds of initiatives to use local talent. They did their best to prevent all those local initiatives, including the effort in 2010 to locally construct the railway track between Pallai and Kankesanthurai, being carried out.

The problem in our country seems to be that Governments do not take decisions based on the nation's long-term interests, and on the will of the people, but on the decision-makers' own welfare. Until this problem is sorted out, our motherland will not be able to stand on her own feet.

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