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Improvements to Kelani Valley Railway – A response from a laymon

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BY Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

This piece is written in response to a letter published by a former General Manager of Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) in The Island of 29.10.2020 under the heading “Improvements to Kelani Valley Railway”, highlighting a difference of opinion as to whether the stretch up to Homagama should be elevated or not.

PREVIOUS PROPOSALS FOR IMPROVING THE KV RAILWAY

In response to an Island Editorial titled “Ailing Railways” which appeared on 02.12.2015, the writer wrote a piece proposing a solution to ailing railways which was published in The Island of 08.12.2015. This piece may be accessed via: http://archive.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=news-section&page=news-section&code_title=49. In the Budget for 2016, the government has allocated a sum of LKR 1.5 billion to modernize the Kelani Valley (KV) railway line. The writer proposed that once the KV line is modernized, it could be leased to a private party to provide an upgraded railway service as a public-private venture.

He also said in this piece that “With the increase of frequency of trains, one problem one could envisage is the congestion that could be created due to frequent closure of railway crossings. The solution for this is to build fly-overs at every point where a major highway crosses a railway line. The government could get the assistance of the private sector here too by getting them to build metal flyovers similar to what has been erected at Nugegoda and Dehiwala. They have to just copy what is installed”. However, there was no news that any action was taken to spend this money for improving the KV line.

 

BROADGUAGING THE KV RAILWAY LINE

In the writer’s piece referred to above, he said that “A few decades ago, the narrow gauge of KV line was broadened to the standard gauge at Sri Lankan Government expense but the service was not improved concurrently. Only the dilapidated aged coaches and power sets operate on this line which run infrequently. According to the railway schedules posted in the Railway Dept. (RD) website, only four trains operate from Avissawella to Fort daily, three in the morning and one in the afternoon, while five trains operate from Fort to Avissawella, three in the morning and two in the evening. It takes about two and half hours to cover the distance of 61 km, which is running at an average speed of 24 km/h.

At such operating conditions, it is not surprising that most passengers, except those travelling on cheap government season tickets, prefer to travel by bus despite they are crowded and the service is poor. The High Level Road (HLR) is almost saturated with buses and there is no room to increase their number plying on this road, without slowing down the existing traffic further. Hence, shifting of bus commuters to railway is necessary. However, even after any modernization of the track envisaged after spending the allocated Rs. 1.5 billion, there is no guarantee that the KV line will be provided with additional rolling stock and a better service to the commuters”. This situation has not improved during the last five years.

 

CURRENT PROJECT FOR IMPROVING RAILWAYS

Sri Lanka sought a loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2016 for assistance to modernize the Colombo Suburban Railways covering stretches from Colombo up to Rambukkana, Kalutara, Negombo and Awissavella. The ADB agreed to lend USD 160 million on concessionary terms and the agreement was signed in July 2016 to undertake feasibility studies and detailed design of the system.

Already a sum of USD 10 million has been mobilized for preliminary work. The segment on the KV line included rehabilitation, capacity upgrade, modernization, and electrification of the KV line between Maradana and Padukka with double tracks in this section. After studying several options, it has been decided to have the section of 20 km from Maradana to Malapalla elevated. The section between Padukka and Avissawella will remain as a single track, following mostly the existing track. (See https://www.csrp.lk/kelani_vallay_line.php?id=3)

Under this programme, the design of infrastructure including railway stations, tracks and other facilities including electrification and communications are underway according to a video clip available in the above site. The preparation of detailed designs and bid documents are expected to be completed in December 2020. A copy of the final feasibility report of the project is available on https://www.csrp.lk/backend/documents/Kelani%20Valley%20Railway%20Final%20Feasibility%20Study%20Report%20-%202019-04-11.pdf.

Further, a detailed socio-economic survey has been conducted to identify affected families living on railway reservation land between Maligawatte and Malapalla and their resettlement is planned including construction of multi-story housing for them, both in Colombo and in Malapalla. The Cabinet approval was granted for the project on 17.10.2017 and to set apart houses built by the Urban Development Authority to resettle the families encroaching the lands to be used for the development of the KV Railway Line.

 

PROPOSED OPERATION OF THE NEW SYSTEM

According to the above feasibility report, electric multiple units (EMU) will operate during peak hours at seven minutes intervals between Maradana and Makumbura North (a new station) and at 14 minutes intervals between Makumbura North and Padukka. Diesel multiple units (DMU) will operate at 30 min intervals between Padukka and Avissawella until such time this section is electrified. The travel time from Padukka to Maradana during peak hours is estimated to be 64 minutes with stopping at all stations.

Each coach could accommodate 200 passengers, but only 40 seating capacity will be provided in each coach. Seats are fitted longitudinally leaving more room for standing passengers. Each EMU will comprise 10 or 12 coaches, with capacity of 2,000 and 2,400 passengers respectively. So, most passengers will have to keep standing during their entire travel. There is provision to operate express trains with stops only at a few major stations.

For the regular traveler, a more desirable option is to have a combination of coaches with longitudinal seats and transverse seats. With the latter, seating capacity will be increased but overall capacity reduced. The coaches with transverse seats could be offered at a higher fare in a different class. Passengers may not mind paying extra fare if they are assured seating for over an hour-long ride from Padukka to Maradana.

The EMUs will be powered by electricity supplied through an overhead catenary system (OCS) operating at 25 kV connected by a pantograph to the coaches using rails as the return path. The project proposes to feed power to the OCS system from the 132 kV grid substations at Pannipitiya and Kosgama. During day time, the national grid has adequate capacity to feed the EMU operations. However, one risk factor is the unexpected power failures in the national grid encountered occasionally, in which event the EMUs will get stranded until power is restored. Perhaps the CEB may be asked to give priority to these two GSSs when restoring power.

 

IMPROVEMENTS TO THE TRACK UP TO AVISSAWELLA

The original KV line was built mostly following the contour of the highlands and hence comprised many bends with short radius of curvature. This is unlike the HLR built in late forties by American contractors which was mostly a cut and fill exercise. If one examines the present trace of the KV line up to Makumbura, there are several places where the track could be straightened. According to the Final Feasibility Report, the curves at many of the places seem to have been straightened or curves realigned with larger radii of curvature.

In addition, straightening the stretch between Hokandara Road crossing and Athurugiriya Road crossing will avoid several bends and reduce the distance from 1.83 km to 1.56 km. Further straightening the stretch between the Malabe Road crossing and Makumbura will reduce the distance from 1.56 km to 0.85 km, resulting in an overall reduction of about one km distance.

The stretch between Padukka and Avissawella is supposed to follow the existing track. The railway line between Kosgama and Avissawella crosses the A4 highway at four places. Since it is expected to run trains at 30 min intervals during peak time in this stretch in one direction or at every 15 min if both directions are considered, there will be congestion on the highway unless fly overs are built at these crossings. Alternatively, the track could be re-laid to avoid the crossings altogether.

There is also the ambiguity with regard to the section to be elevated. The Final Feasibility Report says it is up to Kottawa in some places and as Makumbura North in other places. The project website gives it as Malapalla. The former GM says that the railway line to be elevated is up to Homagama.

 

OPERATION AND MAINTENANCE OF THE NEW LINE

Once the new system is built by the foreign contractors, it has to be operated and managed by a competent organization. Being the owner of the project, SLR may want to do that, particularly because all trains operating in Sri Lanka are required to be driven and guarded by SLR staff according to the law. However, the question is are they the most suitable for the job? The archaic rules and regulations, the attitude of staff, lack of interest in passenger care, low level of maintenance and neglect of existing tracks, dominance of trade unions in operative matters would necessitate the government to rethink on who should be entrusted with the task of operating and managing the new system.

The SLR is dominated by Mechanical Engineers. Their inability to operate and maintain electronically controlled trains was amply demonstrated in the case of the 10 Locomotives from Alstom of France imported in 2000. After a short spell of operation, they developed various problems and efforts made to get them attended to by the manufacturers were not successful. Though the manufacturer trained the SLR staff in maintenance and gave them maintenance kits, it was reported that they did not have the background knowledge to assimilate the training given and as a result most of the locomotives had to be taken off service (Ceylon Today, 08.02.2014). Although SLR found these locomotives unsuitable here, India entered into a contract with Alstom to manufacture 800 locomotives in India, delivering 100 units annually.

It is therefore imperative that the new train system be leased to a private party to operate jointly with SLR drivers and guards, and the private party given the full responsibility for its operation and management including maintenance. The private party could be even a foreign company having the experience in managing similar railway systems in their own countries. This could be tried out at least initially until such time a local company staff are trained and ready to take over.

 

PLANS FOE FUTURE EXTENSION OF KV LINE

The former GM speaks about “the new infrastructure provided should be able to be utilized for any future extensions beyond Avissawella”. The website of the Colombo Suburban Railway Project (https://www.csrp.lk/about-us.php) has described several new railway lines to be built in the foreseeable future. One is the construction of a railway line from Kurunegala to Habarana via Dambulla, a distance of 81 km, for which the Feasibility Study has been completed. Another is the extension of KV line from Padukka to Nonagama via Ingiriya, Ratnapura and Embilipitiya to link with the Southern railway line. It is noteworthy that this trace bypasses Avissawella.

The KV line was first built from Colombo to Yatiyantota via Avissawella during 1900–1902 to serve the plantation community in Sabaragamuwa. It was branched off at Avissawella and extended up to Opanayaka via Ratnapura in 1912 (Wikipedia). Hence, today there is no necessity to retrace the old track to Ratnapura via Avissawella when there is a shorter route available via Ingiriya.

Furthermore, this stretch is heavily encroached and it will be a difficult task to claim it back. Even the Ruwanpura Expressway is planned to traverse via Ingiriya to Ratnapura. However, such investment on building new tracks is justified only if investments are made to acquire the necessary rolling stock to maintain a regular service.

 

FUNDING OF THE PROJECT

The project feasibility report gives the estimated investment required for the project as USD 1,424 million (M) comprising USD 700 M for track construction, USD 250 M for rolling stock, and USD 300 M for other infrastructure development and feasibility studies. Financial analysis of the project shows that project cash flows are not sufficient to fully recover the investment cost of USD 1.42 billion or LKR 263 billion.

According to the feasibility report, even though the Project cash flows are not sufficient to fully recover the total investment and associated cost of funding, it could recover approximately 21% of the investment cost and related cost of funding under 30-year analysis and it can go up to 27% with 50-year financial evaluation. Recovering the rest of the investment costs and paying the related cost of funding could not be made with project cash flows generated thus the government needs budgetary allocation from common public funds for the same which is the usual case with public sector railway projects in many countries.

On the other hand, the project operational and maintenance costs and replacement costs can easily be recovered with railway tickets and other income of the KV line. Accordingly, the project does not require government subsidies for meeting operating costs. It is also expected to generate wide economic, environmental and social benefits which cannot be monetized directly. It is therefore envisaged that funding could be raised through loans from commercial financial institutions and multilateral agencies in addition to government contributions.

 

RESERVATIONS EXPRESSED AGAINST THE PROJECT

Some independent consultants, including the former GM, are now questioning the desirability of elevating of the stretch from Maradana to Malapalla. It is surprising why these professionals are now making objections for elevating the track up to Malapalla at this late stage. He seems to be concerned about the high cost of the project, “the return on investment, and the impact of the solution to the country as a whole, in relation to financing of foreign loans”.

 

The former GM says “I believe there were two main excuses to recommend elevation; one was the acquisition of land or let me mention in a more prudent way, it is relocation of encroachments presently occupying railway land, and the second is the number of level crossings presently at-grade”. He goes to great length explaining how level crossings could be built economically in the event the tracks are laid on the surface including building fly overs and under passes quoting practices in other countries.

One excuse he gives against elevated line is that elevation “requires the provision of escalators and elevators for stations in the elevated sections required to be maintained, and in case they are not maintained, the general public will suffer when they have to climb 7m (the height of two floors of a building) to the station platform”. Escalators are used world over for mass transport of people between different elevations, though the former Railways GM thought they are not good enough for Sri Lanka. That may be the reason why none of our railway stations have any escalators installed.

Some experts are of the view that the electrification of sections on the main and coastal lines should have been given priority rather than developing the KV line. See http://www.themorning.lk/railway-project-on-hold-rs-40-b-dent-on-state-coffers/. The lobby against the project is so strong that they were trying to influence the ADB which certainly does not sound ethical for professionals. A more appropriate course of action would have been to get it sorted out internally (http://www.themorning.lk/after-jica-govt-removes-adb/). It appears that these moves have resulted in getting the project stalled.

 

CONCLUSION

A loan of USD 160 million from the ADB has enabled the SLR to study modernization of its suburban railway lines including their electrification which has been long overdue. Under this project the KV line up to Makumbura North will be elevated, with double tracks up to Padukka. The track beyond Padukka up to Avissawella will remain single track without electrification but with improvements. Detailed designs are being carried out including resettlement of displaced families. It is expected that the project will be implemented soon despite objections raised by some professionals on frivolous grounds.

It is also important to hand over the operation and management of the new railway to an experienced and competent party until such time the local personnel are trained and ready to take over. With objections raised against the project by certain quarters, it is sincerely hoped that the government will not abort the project, the way the Light Rail Transit project was aborted recently. It is expected the government will be able to secure funding for the project through offers made by foreign ambassadors from friendly countries and various visiting foreign dignitaries for assistance to develop the country.

Features

Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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