Railways on the right track | Page 10 | Daily News

Railways on the right track

Here is startling fact: Apart from a brief extension from Anuradhapura to Mihintale, not a single metre of railway has been added to the local railway system during the last 70 years. In other words, we are still dependent on the tracks laid during the colonial period. In fact, we somehow managed to destroy an existing line from Avissawella to Opanaike, with the result that trains cannot now go beyond Avissawella on the Kelani Valley Line.

To be fair, all Governments did want to expand the railway network, which provides some of the most scenic and alluring rail journeys in Asia. But this could not be achieved due to monetary considerations and the lack of political will. Things are at last moving on the right track this time, with the commencement of the first phase of the China-built Matara-Kataragama railway extension project.

The first phase of the project includes constructing a railway line from Matara to Beliatta. State Minister for State Enterprise Development Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena has been quoted as saying that the Government hoped to finish the first phase of the railway project in the coming months, which will benefit both local travellers and tourists.

This is a project that many Governments wanted to implement but the lack of funds stood in the way. We should thus be grateful to the people and the Government of China for coming forward to fund and build this very important railway line, which will be extended all the way to the holy city of Kataragama. The project, funded by the EXIM Bank of China on a concessional loan, is being constructed by China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation in consultation with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation and the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau.

The only other railway project that can match this one in scope and scale is the reconstruction of the Northern railway line with the assistance of the Indian Government. This railway line has once again connected the North and the South of the country, boosting efforts at national unity and reconciliation. Trains already run from KKS to Matara and will soon run to Kataragama, connecting the two extreme nodes of the country.

For a country that covers only 65,610 Sq Km, Sri Lanka does have an extensive rail network exceeding 1560 Km with over 320 stations. Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) is also one of the biggest State sector employers, with a workforce of over 17,000. Statistics show that more than 300,000 people use trains daily. Still, there is much room for improvement in terms of network expansion and ridership.

The Kataragama extension will go a long way towards fulfilling the objective of network expansion, but there is one drawback that impedes real progress in the railway sector – the lack of electrification. We have been talking about electrifying the railways right from 1948, without any tangible results.

Electrification will bring many improvements – higher speeds, lack of noise and fumes, more stability and easier maintenance. We are seeing some action on this front at last – the Government plans to go ahead with the electrification of the busy corridor from Veyangoda to Panadura soon. The key to increasing the ridership figures is offering faster, more comfortable, cleaner trains. Electrification will make this a reality.

The biggest demand for the railway is from urban areas and this is where the planned Light Rail Transit (LRT) system comes in. Around seven routes have been planned, centred on Colombo. The first LRT line, from Malabe to Colombo, will be built with Japanese assistance and work is slated to begin this year. This line, as well as the proposed Piliyandala-Colombo line, are significant because both areas are currently not served by a railway line. The other major advantage of the LRT is that people who currently use cars for their daily commute to work will have a clean and fast public transport alternative. One can just imagine the savings in terms of fuel and man hours if at least 100 cars are taken off the road at rush hour.

There should also be a greater focus on rail freight – just one train can replace eight to nine container prime movers. SLR will soon purchase six power sets, 10 engines, 30 oil tankers and 20 container type wagons to transport coal and flour. This is a step in the right direction. Big companies with huge cargo requirements should be encouraged to try rail freight.

In the meantime, the Government deserves plaudits for improving the existing railway network with a recent order for more power sets and A/C passenger compartments. Plans are afoot to build more automatic motorized gates at level crossings to prevent collisions with motor vehicles.

The railway authorities should also be alive to the latest developments in Mass Transit systems such as the Hyperloop which is already being tested in the US. The idea is based on firing levitating pods, carrying passengers or cargo through nearly airless tubes, at speeds up to 1,000 Kmph. In the railway sector, the future has already arrived. 


 

There is 1 Comment

Didn't some body extend a line north Puttalam some time ago. I recall the last stop to be Eluvankulam? It would be great if a line built to Hanantota port move some freight too. As we all know CGR is a government department and departments never move fast. Electrifying railways is a good idea can you rely on CEB to provide necessary energy to operate the system. Imagine a power failure on your way to work in the morning.

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