Janaka Perera laments lacunae in railways while trying to get back on track

Sri Lanka has reached a stage where the expansion and streamlining of its railways can no longer be delayed given the increasing vehicular traffic, and a rise in road transport despite the construction of expressways.

Successive governments since independence have acknowledged the need for a railway master plan. But not a single metre of rail track has been added to the system in the past 70 years except for a short extension from Anuradhapura to Mihintale.

We still depend on the rail tracks that the British laid. Worse still, we have removed existing lines from Avissawella to Opanaike (Kelani Valley line) and Nanu Oya to Ragala via Nuwara Eliya (Udapussellawa railway) – both narrow gauge.

Commencement of the initial phase of the Chinese built Matara-Kataragama railway extension project has become the first step towards extending the island’s railway network beyond what the British built. And reconstruction of the northern line has helped reconnect the country’s north and south after a hiatus of nearly 30 years.

Ironically, Sri Lanka’s railway construction began in 1864 – four years before Japan – but our train services reaching the level of Japanese trains remains a dream.

The golden age of our railways dawned when Chief Mechanical Engineer B. D. Rampala was appointed General Manager – Railways. His priorities were punctuality and passenger comfort. Rampala upgraded major railway stations, and had the Eastern Province’s tracks rebuilt to facilitate heavier and faster trains. He also introduced the iconic Ruhunu Kumari, Samudra Devi, Udarata Menike and Yal Devi express trains.

Under Rampala’s leadership, steam locomotives used up to 1953 were replaced with more efficient diesel versions.

By the late 20th century however, train services began to decline. For three decades, they were poorly run, incurring heavy losses. Failure to adopt technical innovations as seen in railway systems overseas was one of the contributory factors to this decline.

The 1,300 km railway network connects every major city and town in all parts of the island. Improving it is vital not only for speedy passenger and goods transport, but also for rapid deployment of emergency relief and security forces. Intercity and urban travel times by railways are far less than by road.

Although the previous and present regimes began to pay more attention to railway network expansion, the lack of electrification has impeded development of the service although the idea was first proposed as far back as in 1928.

Electrification of India’s railways began even earlier – in 1925. The Sri Lankan government did not begin work on railway electrification until 2015. Electrification of the Panadura-Veyangoda line is now proposed in phase one of the Western Region Megapolis plan.

Certainly, electrification will bring many improvements – viz. higher speeds, no noise and fumes, and easier maintenance.

Some 20 years ago, the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL) submitted recommendations for railway electrification to curtail pollution, improve passenger comfort and reduce travel time. Similar proposals were tabled in 2008 and 2010 but never implemented despite obtaining cabinet approval.

A light rail transit (LRT) system has become essential in view of the increasing demand for rapid public transport in urban areas. With the introduction of an LRT, people using cars to commute to work daily will have a far better transport alternative. Taking thousands of vehicles off the road will yield a massive saving in terms of fuel and man hours.

If funds are available, a monorail in both directions from Panadura along the centre of Galle Road to the Colombo Fort, and by outer circular route to Nugegoda, Maharagama and Homagama, as well as back to Panadura via Horana will undoubtedly go a long way in improving public transport – perhaps even to be nearly on a par with developed countries such as the UK and Australia. In the latter, most motorists park their vehicles at railway stations and travel to work by train.

As for rail freight, one train can replace eight or nine container prime movers. Companies should be encouraged to try rail freight, which can also contribute to reducing pollution. Freight services constitute a major share of the revenue from railways. It not only boosts the efficiency of freight transport but also makes it easier to track cargo.

The key to increasing passenger numbers is to offer speedier, more comfortable and cleaner trains. It is equally important to install more automatic motorised gates to prevent fatal collisions with motor vehicles at level crossings.

At the L. S. De Silva Memorial Lecture 2017, C&S Development Company Managing Director Dr. Prianka Seneviratne said: “Few will disagree that Sri Lanka Railways has enormous potential to contribute more to developing and uniting the country today than when the Railways Ordinance in 1902 formalised the Ceylon Railways for that very reason.”