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Sri Lanka Railways

Past golden era, present reality and future plan:
Another Golden Era for Sri Lanka Railways:
Yal Devi Express Train from Colombo to Jaffna.-Railway Advertisement from the Golden Era.
Yal Devi Express Train from Colombo to Jaffna.-Railway Advertisement from the Golden Era.

Since the first line was built between Colombo and Ambepussa in 1864, railway travel and transportation have played a weighty role in the history and development of Sri Lanka. From connecting rural villages to lessening travel time from days to hours, trains deserve much credit for allowing the country to properly develop, innovate, and expand. But one and a half centuries later, Sri Lanka Railways faces a bevy of problems which threaten its sustainability, including recurrent annual losses and underutilization.

As ever, the question remains: Where do we go from here? Last week, Chief Engineer (Signal and Telecommunications) of Sri Lanka Railways Dhammika Jayasundara provided some answers. Presenting the B. D. Rampala Memorial Oration at the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka titled, “Another Golden Era for Sri Lanka Railways,” Jayasundara drew on Sri Lanka’s rich history of rail travel to accurately diagnose current weaknesses and lay out a road map for the future.

A Rich History

Demand for trains in Sri Lanka started taking shape in the nineteenth century, just as the world’s first intercity railway was built in Great Britain in 1830, connecting Liverpool to Manchester. British colonists and planters on the island who cultivated coffee, tea, and other crops in Hill Country were eager for ways to efficiently send their harvest to Colombo Harbor. At the time, these plantation goods, and people as well, mostly travelled by bullock carts, which had limited capacity and took days to reach the port.

After failed attempts to form a private railway company, construction was taken over by the colonial government. The respective agency, Ceylon Government Railways (CGR), was formed in 1858. By 1864, CGR had completed construction of Sri Lanka’s first intercity railway: a 54 kilometer track between Colombo and Ambepussa.

In the years that followed, the service extended to Kandy, Nawalapitiya, Nanu Oya, Bandarawela, and Badulla. As well, additional lines were added to the system, including to Matale in 1880, the Coast Railway Line in 1895, the Northern Line in 1905, the Mannar Line in 1914, the Kelani Valley in 1919, the Puttalam Line in 1926, and finally lines to Batticaloa and Trincomalee in 1928.

Townships developed around the railway stations, Engineer Jayasundara explained, and people utilized the railway station for personal transportation needs as well as to transport their goods. For the next 80 plus years, from 1928 to 2010, no new lines were constructed. Interestingly enough, though, it is within this period of time that the Golden Era of Sri Lanka Railways occurred.

B. D. Rampala, Giant of the Industry

Born in Pannipitiya, British Ceylon in 1910, B. D. Rampala grew up to become the first ever native Sri Lankan to hold the post of Chief Mechanical Engineer, and then General Manager, of CGR (eventually renamed Sri Lanka Railways). Appointed to the position of Chief Mechanical Engineer in 1949, and then to General Manager in 1955, Rampala ushered what is universally considered a golden era for Sri Lanka Railways that lasted throughout his twenty-one year tenure.

Around the time Rampala assumed management, the newly independent country was undergoing much change and transformation, especially to its socio-economic landscape. An expanding network of roads, along with an increase of both private vehicle ownership and public bus service, affected the railway industry immensely, putting an end to the monopoly it had enjoyed over transportation for almost a century.

Under someone less visionary, the railway industry could have faded into the background, becoming irrelevant. But under Rampala’s auspices, the exact opposite happened.

What Made the Era “Golden”

Rampala revived Sri Lanka railways by employing strategies that addressed varying problems in the industry from all angles. He oversaw subtle yet effective marketing campaigns that targeted nontraditional rail passengers, such as women and children, with slogans like “Travel Safe - Travel Cheap - Travel by Rail.” He upgraded from steam locomotives to diesel ones, keeping rail travel in Sri Lanka abreast with the most recent industry advancements. He prioritized commuter comfort, outfitting new stations and improving old ones with desired facilities such as canteens, rest areas, and roof covers over platforms.

Notably, he launched named express trains to Badulla (Udarata Menike), Matara (Ruhunu Kumari), and Jaffna (Yal Devi)—the last of which served not just a practical purpose but as a cultural icon, quite literally transcending the country’s division between north and south.

According to Jayasundara, part of Rampala’s genius was his ability to wield government policies and transport service products in a way that allowed the railway industry to try and maintain its market share.

He spearheaded the non-issuing of both public carrier permits for operation of lorries in areas served by railway and stage carrier permits for omni-bus services, prioritizing the railways for long-distance journeys. He implemented bus connections at railway stations and built railhead distributions in cities such as Chilaw, Matara, and Kandy. He created storage facilities in Colombo and Kandy for goods transporters, and originated the idea of secured transport for valuable cargo with vacuum locks.

Rampala also introduced to the busiest portions of the railway an electronic color signalling system. Previously operated with a lock-and-block signalling system, controlled on an individual basis, the electronic color signalling was able to be controlled by a centralized traffic control panel in Maradana, which greatly improved safety.

Upon Rampala’s retirement from Sri Lanka Railways in 1970, the locomotive industry in Sri Lanka was at a high. SLR enjoyed thirty-eight percent of the goods-transportation market share. And train technology had been kept up-to-date and ran efficiently.

Sri Lanka Railways, Today

In the forty seven years since Rampala left Sri Lanka Railways, the agency and the locomotives it operates have unfortunately been on a steady decline. An array of contributing factors—not the least of which was a three-decades-long civil war—caused the railway to be neglected. Unable to keep up with technological innovations that improved railway travel worldwide, issues of travel time, reliability, and comfort plagued Sri Lanka Railways.

In 2016, SLR’s overall performance was evaluated, and the results were dim. While the railway received a total revenue of Rs. 6.6 billion, it incurred a recurrent loss of Rs. 7.88 billion—even as the government injected Rs. 15.7 billion in capital during that same time.

As well, SLR’s market share of the transport industry doesn’t bode well for its future.

“Today SLR is enjoying around 5 percent of passenger transportation market share, lagging a little bit behind three wheels,” said Jayasundara. During the war, SLR was understandably unable to keep up with locomotive technological innovations abroad and therefore lost much of its market share of passenger transport. But the current passenger transportation market share of 5 percent marks a decline even from the 7 percent SLR had in 2011, meaning that the war isn’t entirely to blame.

“And the goods transportation market share is around 0.3 precent of the market. This has come a long way from 38 percent of the goods transportation market share enjoyed by SLR in 1968 under Rampala.”

A Road Map for the Future

Right now, Sri Lanka Railways is at a crossroads. Almost a decade after it ended the war can no longer be used to excuse away inefficiencies and failings. Instead, explained Jayasundara, SLR must evolve and adapt to today’s market realities.

“As a service provider, SLR needs to serve people. Just good intentions are not going to be sufficient. Considering that there are around 350,000 railway commuters per day which means only around 2 percent of citizens in this country are using the railway. But other 98 percent is also contributions for its sustenance,” Jayasundara said, through taxes.

“So SLR needs to increase its market share and profitability to justify its existence.”

But in order to do this, he insisted, SLR must have a clear vision for the future, with defined objectives that prevent the organization from going astray. He provided a three-pronged approach to help the agency do this: invest more in success, get rid of non-performing business activities, and exploit business opportunities by better understanding the nature of mass transportation.

Regarding the financial straits SLR currently finds itself in, Jayasundara didn’t simply suggest cutting costs wherever possible. In fact, one of the first solutions Jayasundara provided was to potentially increase the compensation of certain figures within the agency. He suggested that the current mode of compensating executives at the agency is misguided, as it “mistreats the decision maker.”

“In Sri Lanka Railways, executive officers are poorly rewarded within the organization. Therefore, in order to motivate executive officers, SLR needs to come up with a reasonable reward system. The introduction of performance based reward system can increase productivity and better quality of life for all those involved.”

Defending a proposal to increase compensation within an agency that continuously ends up in the red, Jayasundara said that because of the high overhead cost involved in infrastructure maintenance and operational activities, increasing or decreasing the compensation of a few within the agency would make no real difference. Instead, what is needed to sustain the system is efficient use of the railways and sufficient demand.

In this regard, he suggested looking at the examples of railway systems in other countries, such as Great Britain and Japan, which have made an effort to rid or more effectively utilize their railway systems’ white elephants.

Jayasundara explained that since SLR no longer has a monopoly in the transportation sector, for passengers or for goods, it isn’t realistic to expect economic development will occur by virtue of expanding the railway network into a rural area, the way it might have a century ago.

“Some of the very same railway stations which created flourishing town centers surrounding them now remain underutilized and decaying at the town center, hindering township developments.”

Before planning further expansions, Jayasundara said, SLR needs to come up with business plan to put existing infrastructure into operation.

Finally, Jayasundara spoke about the need to exploit business opportunities available in the market in order to gain a competitive advantage. The main opportunity comes from the problem caused by too many vehicles on the roads in urban areas, which he sees as interconnected with the fact that even as SLR is continually losing its market share in passenger transportation island-wide, it maintains a significant market share of 15 percent within Colombo and its suburbs. He sees huge potential in transporting passengers to and from the city and suburbs.

“By increasing frequency of train running with improved travel experience, the passenger market share in this area can be expanded to 25 percent. Railway lines also can be expanded in this area to have a better reach to the population centers.”

Ending his oration, Jayasundara noted the tendency to worship visionaries such as B. D. Rampala while forgetting their wisdom. But just as Rampala innovated in his time prompted by the need for new ideas and products to meet changing market realities, so must Sri Lanka Railways now.

“In today’s competitive transport market, customers decide which mode is satisfying their needs. Travel speed, punctuality, comfort and ease of transfer to other modes to reach their final destination will decide customers’ choice. So SLR needs to meet customers’ expectations. The Railway must change with the times.”


There are 3 Comments

If you need capital to for railway improvement Sri Lanka needs to place a Tourist Tax on foreign travelers using the Railways. If you market the idea to visitors that the money will be spent on improving the railways to not only help them have a realible railway visit but it will also help the local in the redevelopment of railway assets. If you go to trip advisor and feedback i have received from Australians who have had problems with train travel in Sri Lanka you can repackage the train system to encourage visitors to Sri Lanka. In Melbourne Australia I pay the equal of 960 Rupees a day to travel 8 kilometeres a day in and out to work . So if I have to pay extra to help Sri Lanka improveits railways I would not mind and as the trains become better it will increase revenue . The saying Build it and they will come can apply market Sri Lanka Railways as a tropical fun experience away from the mundane train travel of Europe and Australia and you will be on a winner. Coming to Sri lanka with my family In April 2018 and intend to travel on the trains Thank you for reading my comment .

Tourist pay more for travelling and other perks in the country include parks zoo rtc

David Nugara, the fact is; that are paying a mere 960 Sri Lankan Rupees for an or a mere Aus $7.95 for a train ticket to travel a paltry 8 kms to Melbourne for work. You are not paying Aus $960.00. Furthermore, if you live just 8 kilometres from Melbourne, you must be on a handsome salary as houses so close to Melbourne costs millions. So cut the whinging mate, and start comparing apples with apples and oranges with oranges instead of comparing apples with elephants.

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