|What we should do to uplift the Sri Lanka Railways (SLR)
Arosha Fernando, Chairman of Infrastructure Development Alliances Ltd.
The post independence era immediately after getting the release from the British Government as a Colony was very remarkable for the CGR. In February 1948 the newly formed Government with the Ceylonese nationals and with the backing of the people as a whole commenced to plan and embark on broad-based and far-reaching schemes of economic development.
With that a series of Government sponsored Corporations and Boards were established for the production of cement, sugar, paper, textiles, ceramics, fertiliser, leather goods, plywood, hardboard and many other commodities.
The far seeking plans of the Government of that day not only generated employment all over the island improving the economy, CGR got a challenge to develop fresh types of rail traffic to transport heavy materials to establish those Industrial Estates and raw materials for the productions. Similarly the finished products has to be moved either for local distribution or for shipment in Colombo Port. Some of the other developments in that era were the Laxapana Hydro Electric scheme, Galoya Valley Development scheme, Cement Factory Project in Kankesanthurai, Paper Factory Project in Valaichchenai [Kadadasi Nagaraya - Railway Sub-Station], Chemical Factory Project in Paranthan, amongst so many other Projects all over the country CGR have rendered a yeoman service second to none in the transport sector to the building of our national economy. The Government at that time has utilised the CGR service to evenly distribute the employment generation all over the Island - North, East, South and West as it firmly believed in equal opportunity to all the Sri Lankans while building up the economy of the country. Those were the lessons of the past which we have to utilise today giving up the war efforts in the last two decades and collectively rally round as one nation.
Sri Lankans - to build up our national economy I wish to reiterate here that one way of achieving this is to uplift the Sri Lanka Railways [SLR] to its former glory which some of us talk today as our historical past legacy. We have to change our attitudes in life with the time. Similarly we have to change the attitudes of the policy, strategy, infrastructure and management of the SLR while we are embracing into the new millennium day by day planning for a better tomorrow.
From the past records upto the turn of the century - 1964 - CGR has managed to fulfil the task of the public for passenger transport and the private sector for their freight transport reasonably well. By this time the population of the country too had gone up, subsidy travel by train has increased, cost of maintenance of the rolling stock, infrastructures and the staff had gone up bringing down the overall income of the CGR.
There was no alternative for the Government, although at times some refer to CGR as a white elephant, the Railway as it is an essential service it must be maintained. In the past we have seen to survive without closing down the Railway fully some uneconomical lines have been removed and opened again when the necessity arise. The KV line which ran upto Opanayaka, later on beyond Avissawella was closed in stages. Now it is running again as a popular passenger line after converting it into a Broad Gauge line while the goods transport is very bleak. Puttalam line beyond Bangadeniya was closed for sometime and reopened with the opening of the Puttalam Cement Factory in 1964.
The infrastructures that has been developed by the CGR over three decades ago along the Puttalam line beyond Chilaw amazed me in my recent visit, after seeing very small railway station offices in some of the very popular towns in Australia. But, it could be made to good use if a new line is laid from Puttalam to Neriyakulam [Madawachchi] through a trace inside the land and go to Talaimannar Pier now that Sri Lanka and India are contemplating to put a bridge over the sea connecting Sri Lanka to India.
This is of course food for thought for the present. However, by introducing new railway lines in the country it naturally develops the country in that area and commercial trading in those areas go up increasing the economy of the country with value added to the life of the citizens as well as increasing the revenue of the railway. It is an opportune time to look into those abandoned plans of the proposed railway lines in the past Matara to Kataragama line, etc.
The Matara/Kataragama line could be planned to extend upto Badulla and then from Badulla to Batticaloa to make a circular trip encouraging the commuters to use the trains for their vacation trips, pilgrimages and for daily travels. The railway lines should be planned to trace interior of the land to make it more viable, so that both sides of the line the lands get developed and the commuters come from the towns and villages on both sides. The coast line upto Matara would have been a very much paying line today if it was traced very much into the land.
At the turn of the CGR centenary and later on very significant opposition came from the land transport tycoons - the lorry magnates. Earlier CGR had a fleet of lorries and vans in Colombo to transport goods to the destiny of the goods - door to door service from Maradana and Fort. The tea from the upcountry was transported to Colombo predominantly via trains and there was no pilferage of the goods.
But all those revenue paths gradually got diminished with the lorry magnates taking over those business from the CGR . In this new millennium SLR will have to fight back to gain that loss business. Intermodal transport in the island should be developed. If the containerising of cargo was not foreseen by the shipping magnates two decades ago., today the price of shipping would be prohibitive, the costof imported items would be very much higher, exporting items would not be competitive in the world market although we have very cheap labour component. Similarly, CGR today known as Sri Lanka Railways [SLR] which started the container transport in 1984 by rail will have to develop the container transport to gain the loss freight business by introducing very competitive charges with no pilferage and no spillage. This SLR could achieve if planned very well projecting it to the next ten years and gradually implementing it. To implement it SLR will have to establish container loading and unloading hubs close to the Industrial Estates like Katunayake, Biyagama, Koggala, etc. Similarly, in the tea estates area in the upcountry at suitable sites container terminals should be established.
All Government cargo should be transported in future by train containers as an example to the private sector. With the construction of the proposed Hambantota Harbour, Airport and the Industrial Estate the planners should give priority to introduce railway container terminals in all those new business ventures as a policy of the Government. If this is adopted in the future, in due course it will lessen the burden of the Government to subsidise the SLR maintenance and will eliminate the container carrying giants on the road plying on the almost congested very narrow coastline corridor. With the opening of the SLR North Line for the trains to go beyond Neriyakulam in the very near future from the inception
Government should plan to implement the intermodal system of cargo transport to reduce the freight costs and to reduce the road congestions leading towards Jaffna via Puttalam and via Kurunagala from Colombo.
Before the withdrawal of the North Line beyond Vavuniya due to the ethnic conflict two decades ago the SLR records show that the most paying line for transporting the petroleum products was this Line. Similarly the transport of mail which brought a sizeable revenue to the SLR suffered a set back due to the disruption of the train services to the North and the East.
These revenue earning avenues should be restored as early as possible for the benefit of the masses and the SLR. There were eight night trains carrying passengers, mails and parcels in this longest journeys covered by the SLR to the North which remain suspended upto now.
The Sri Lanka roads have not been constructed with a view to allow heavy container loaded lorries to ply. If this is allowed with the opening of the roads leading to Jaffna from Colombo it will damage the shoulders of the main tar roads which will be a burden to the Government to repair them as well as to the other road users. SLR policy in the very near future should be to open these revenue paths without being a burden to the Government.
In the past SLR depended on the funds approved by the Treasury to run its annual affairs the management and maintenance of the railway infrastructures, rolling stock and running the trains punctually and safely. The annual inputs requested by the SLR always got pruned down by the Treasury Executives before they produce it to the Annual Budget approval. This has forced the SLR over the past few decades to prune down their services. There were twelve named Fast Express Trains on the SLR lines, which were very popular amongst the travelling public and the overseas visitors. They were:
1. Yal Devi running between Fort & Kankesanthurai on the Main & Northern Line
2. Uttara Devi running between Fort & Kankesanthurai on the Main & Northern Line
3. Udaya Devi running between Fort & Batticaloa on the Main, Northern & Batticaloa Line
4. Hijra running between Fort & Batticaloa on the Main, Northern & Batticaloa Line
5. Rajarata Rajini running between Matara & Vavuniya on the Coast, Main & Northern Line
6. Senkadagala Menike running between Fort & Kandy on the Main Line
7. Udarata Menike running between Fort & Badulla on the Main Line
8. Podi Menike running between Fort & Badulla on the Main Line
9. Ruhunu Kumari running between Maradana & Matara on the Coast Line
10. Galu Kumari running between Mardana & Galle on the Coast Line
11. Samudra Devi running between Maradana & Galle on the Coast Line
12. Muthu Kumari running between Fort & Bangadeniya on the Main & Puttalam Line
What happened to some of those fast express trains which generated very good revenue to the SLR predominantly from the passenger transport. Some of them got paralysed over the years due to no fault of the SLR management as it was beyond their control. It was the collective responsibility of the past Governments for not investing annually for the upkeep of this essential service of the nation, which is a legacy of the SLR today. However, SLR will have to fight back to resurrect the good old train service with new methods to earn the loss revenue and run more trains.
Recently Hon. Prime Minister Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe has announced the Privatisation of the SLR. If the Government cannot afford to invest enough funds annually to maintain the SLR profitably or evenly, then the next option is to Privatise it as the key to railway growth is continual investment in infrastructure.
For the last two decades one of the very essential infrastructure of the SLR the Islandwide Radio Communication System needs replacement as it is almost defunct without spare parts supplied by the original equipment manufacturer. The Colour Lights Signal System in the Colombo Sub-Urban area needs updating with modern technology for the last decade. Over 200 passenger coaches needs replacements. Over ten Diesel Electric Locomotives are essential to run the full compliment of the trains. Track rehabilitation needs rails and over 800,000 wooden sleepers and other track materials to overcome the bare minimum maintenance requirements to the run the trains as safety as possible are not available to carry out their legitimate maintenance programmes. Those are some of the Projects amongst so many other important matters which should be looked into by the Government.
Government naturally looked to the private sector participation. From the other overseas railways it is believed to have achieved by the private sector what their Governments could not. Privatisation does not mean that the SLR will be sold off to the private sector in its entirety. They should be franchised. The nature of franchise places certain obligations on private operators, as well as limits on their freedoms. It also preserves a very important role for the Government as regulator, partner and strategic planner. In overseas countries private ownership of public infrastructures has become common place in transport. The present employees could still remain as pensionable Government servants in the new management under the Privatisation. The Private Operators will spend their money to update the infrastructures, rolling stock and carry out the regular maintenance programmes to run the trains punctually and safely. They will run the maximum compliment of trains to make their profit without increasing the present fares structure. This is the key to resurrect the SLR and run as an efficient mode of land transport to bring back the past glory which all of us could be proud about our railway. The subsidised funds spend on the SLR in the past, the Government could divert them to the Primary Education, Higher Education, Welfare Systems, Hospitals improvements and to give improved amenities to all the citizens.
There are two factors for Railway accidents apart from what we have learned from the past accidents. (i). The main factor is getting the work done by some one else of what should have been personally attended to by the legitimate person. (ii) The second factor is the lack of knowledge of Railway rules, carelessness in observing the safety rules or by passing them as merely to reduce personal effort. In the Railway vigilance has no substitute. A little more care makes mishaps very rare. Every Railwayman clearly wishes this is to be a good and efficient Railway which he can be proud of, but another thing is necessary, he too should be a good and an efficient Railwayman to fulfil his wishes.
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