Soon, a thing of the past: Rs. 35bn fuel waste at traffic lights each year
- Transport Minister Kumara Welgama

* Private sector should team up with Sri Lanka Railways to develop rail container handling, management


Transport Minister Kumara Welgama says that a Master Plan which will be devised by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency ( JICA) will see that there is a drastic reduction in the Rs. 35 billion fuel wastage at traffic lights which is burnt annually in the western province alone.

He also wants the private sector to team up with Sri Lanka Railways to develop the handing, operations and management of rail containers aimed at reducing traffic congestion in Colombo, an original proposal which was mooted by the Strategic Enterprises Management Agency (SEMA)

Here, the Transport Minister is in conversation with The Island Financial Review

Q: What is the transport policy of the government?

We have decided to develop the bus transport sector on the basis of a public sector partnership where we share timetables. We decided to keep 40% of the time tables and allow the private buses to have 60% of the share. That has been agreed upon this is being already been implemented in some areas.

Q: Is your saying that allocation of 60% to the private sector, an indication that the state sector is scaling down operations with a possibly gradual handover to the private sector ?

No certainly not. But, the private sector has 20,000 buses and the state has 7500. The total demand is around for 30,000 buses with the rural routes as well. The deficit is around 2500. We have to safeguard the government sector while guarding their business as well.

Q: The Head of the Moratuwa University Department of Transport and Logistics of the Faculty of Engineering Prof. Amal Kumarage, himself a former Chairman of the National Transport Commission said that Rs. 35 billion was wasted in fuel annually due to congestion in the Western Province alone. (The Island Oct 02-2012) How do you see this and how do you plan to reduce this?

We have signed an agreement with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency ( JICA) and they are formulating a Transport Master Plan for the city of Colombo and the Western Province . That Committee has a number of professionals in the transport sector which also includes the Transport Ministry Secretary, the National Transport Commission and Prof. Kumarage. That will put into place a national transport strategy for Sri Lanka which will address all these issues. The project work will take around another six months. That will address all these issues. It will cover bus and rail transport, monorail and others. Fuel combustion will also reduce with that substantially.

Q: By how much? Is it 10%., 20% or say 50%?

I cannot say specifically by how much at this stage . But it will significantly reduce. The metro systems and all that.

Q: So, are you trying to bring down the Rs. 35 billion wastage to zero which will be laudable indeed?

Let us wait till the JICA report comes. Then the waste will be minimized. The details are being worked out now.

Q: Coming to bus transport. This government seems to have a penchant for anything Chinese. Chinese ports, Chinese coal fired projects and now Chinese buses. Why? What is the attraction and what is the funding line?

I am trying to get buses from China which will be for the long distance routes as the technology of the Chinese buses are good. We have been using Indian buses right throughout and we can always get the buses from India for the short distance routes. However, the comfort of the Indian buses are not good for long distance running. The Chinese buses are comfortable and they will be good on the long distance routes.

Q: It is reported that these Chinese luxury buses have Volvo engines and technology. Is it true?

Yes. Not only Volvo, but others as well. They will be the low floor buses and the air-conditioned buses. That will be on an earn- and- pay basis. So, there will be no investment in the conventional sense. So, there will be no drain on the Treasury as well. We are negotiating with three companies which have come forward although nothing has come to Sri Lanka yet. We are studying the proposals prior to inviting for the tenders and we are studying as to how we can earn and pay these Chinese companies. We cannot afford to buy buses and it is also on the same basis that I have imported 500 buses from India’s Ashok Leyland on an earn and pay basis. We set apart Rs. 5000 per day for repayment.

Q: Will you antagonize the private bus operators by importing buses. After all, they stood you in good stead at the time that the state transport sector could not deliver....

No. They are in partnership with us. That has worked well.

Q: The Group Managing Director of the Fortune 500 listed Tata Motors- Carl Peter Forster told me (inter-a alia) in an exclusive interview last year when he was in Colombo to celebrate 50 years of Tata Operations through General Sales Agents- Diesel and Motor Engineering here that the Sri Lankans deserve much better in public transport to go with improvements of the social indicators and standards of living from the time of independence. So, what are your plans in this regard?

It is for these sentiments in mind that we invited JICA to give us a proposal. That will give us the changes to meet with the modern times.

Q: In developed Asian countries such as Korea, even the buses used for local transport are akin to the tourist coaches here ? Aren’t you planning in those lines here for at least long distance routes such as Colombo to Kataragama, Kandy, Anuradhapura and Trincomalee?

That is exactly what I have in mind. We will have the Indian buses on the short routes and the Chinese air conditioned buses on the long term routes. We can buy a 54 seater non air conditioned Indian bus for Rs. 4.6 million while the Chinese counterpart will be over Rs. 7.5 million which could be used for the long distance routes which will be air-conditioned and low floors. We are running around ten of these in Colombo itself. The roads are improving and people like to have a good ride !!

Q: The Sri Lanka Central Transport Board depots were on strike daily due to non- payment of wages especially Moneragala and Kalutara which is your electorate as well. How will you stop this?

The strikes are over.

Q: There was a new system where the Board employees were given a standard Rs. 10,500 and the remainder had to be earned by the profits of the depots. Is this practical in the light of the pilferage of tyres and other spare parts taking place in the depots?

We have worked that well. The Rs. 10,500 goes into their bank accounts and they have everything found, tyres, batteries and spares and all free. There is no problem and they have to earn the balance earning and earn their diesel and the running expenses. The government has to pay for these as this is a service. There will be only six people travelling on a service in the night , but we have to do it as we are service oriented.

Q: Bus services were curtailed in the nights all these years due to the war, but with the end of that, there is now a lot of night travelling. But no buses to supplement that demand. Why?

We are short of buses. Of the 6000 buses, only 2500 are new. The balance is at least 20 years old and we can’t give a good service with these old buses.

Q: Now, you are trying to import buses. What are your doing to repair the buses which are broken and lying idle at depots and how much will it cost to make them roadworthy?

These can be repaired but another part will be broken in no time. It is always better to get the new buses in the long run.

Q: There was also thinking that the implementation and operation of a luxury bus service to Colombo from the immediate suburbs such as Panadura, Nittambuwa , Negombo and Avissawella would reduce the number of cars entering the city and therefore, reducing fuel consumption and traffic as well. But that was seen to be a failure. Why?

Yes. The "Park and Ride" was a failure at the start. But we have to motivate people to do that. We have to get new air conditioned buses for that operation. The cost will be slightly higher than the normal service, but we will have the normal service as well for those who want to use that. Similarly , we have that for the trains as well where a large number of people park and ride in the train.

Q: Coming to the railways. There was once a proposal by the Strategic Enterprise Management Agency (SEMA) for the containers to be transported by rail from the Colombo port to specific container yards owned by Sri Lanka Railways and then gradually transported in small quantities arising from the needs which was seen mainly as a strategy to reduce congestion. But nothing seems to be happening. Why?

It is now that we see improvement in the railways, which was started by the British to transport tea. Transporting cargo is what brings the money and not people. But, the government can’t do business like goods and container transport. The private sector should team up with us and help us to develop the cargo transport and container transport on the basis of a public- private sector partnership. It is only if we give the management to the private sector, that this will succeed. Otherwise, we will be wasting time and money if the state tries this under the present set up. The private sector should invest in the gantry cranes and other infrastructure and that is the way to make money. We should get a portion of the profits without the government investing any money. If we take a container to Matara, how are we going to unload it? We don’t have the gantry cranes and the flat bed trailers and the 40 foot trailers and others there.

Q: There is also a school of thought that the railway carriages imported do not match with the needs and therefore, misfits. Your comments?

Railway carriages are all right. But now, we have the power sets, which is the modern method.

Q: It is also reported that the Colombo-Badulla train is operated by a private company and a larger share of the revenue goes to the company and not to Sri Lanka Railways. Cant SL Railways run it and get the full revenue?

We are not running that operation. We are running only the train. They have a special carriage for that and built it. They have refurbished an old carriage which they have got from us. There is only one carriage and they pay us the first class fare. We are getting seven air conditioned power sets on the Badulla run. Two have already come and they are running now.

Q: Why is it that stations here cannot the mechanized systems of issuing tickets like in developed countries unlike now where passengers have to stand in long queues which is quite archaic ?

You are most certainly right. We must have a card system like developed countries for the convenience of passengers.

Q: The Colombo-Matara rail track which was repaired after the tsunami tragedy was said to operate an express intercity train which was said to come to Colombo in two hours, but now it is taking three. Why?

It is true that we have developed the track. But, what is stopping the running of the train at 100 kilometres per hour is that there are unprotected crossings which means that trains cannot stop on time at these crossings when running at 100 kmph. We will have to put that in order before having the express trains. These trains have to slow down even now.

Q: What is happening to the much hyped extension of the Colombo-Matara railway track to Kataragama?

The first phase is from Matara to Beliatta. The second phase is from Beliatta to Hambantota. The third phase is from Beliatta to Kataragama. We have started the first phase. We will be finalizing the EXIM Bank loan soon which will see the finality of the planning and the implementation.

Q: Similarly, what is also happening to the Northern railway line to Kankesanthurai ?

Similarly, the first phase is from Medavachchiya to Thalaimannar which we hope to finish by December 2013. We will be finishing Madhu by April 2013. We will finish up to KKS as well and the entire project is on schedule.

Q: Finally, on a personal note, what are your perceptions and wish list for the transport industry in Sri Lanka, with your good self coming from a family that has been in the transport sector for years and you have transport in your genes ?!!

My ambition is to give a good and effective service to the people. One cannot do that with redundant buses and trains. With the blessings and the support of the Treasury, we can provide that.

Picture by Ravi Ladduwahetty

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