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“TRAVEL SAFE – TRAVEL CHEAP – TRAVEL BY RAIL.”

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By Rohan Abeygunawardena
ACMA, CGMA: Financial and Management Consultant.
abeyrohan@gmail.com

(This article is dedicated to all those officers and other employees who worked under the late Mr. Rampala, during “Golden Era “of the CGR from the late 1940s’ to 1970 including my father the late Mr. G.A.V. Abeygunawardena)

Above was a marketing campaign slogan based on a concept of the legendary leader of Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) B.D. Rampala to attract passengers for train travel.

Rampala was the first Ceylonese Chief Mechanical Engineer from 1949 and then was appointed to the newly created post of General Manager of Railway (GMR) in 1955.  He joined CGR in 1934 as a Junior Mechanical Engineer after completing his engineering apprenticeship at the Colombo University College. In 1956, the Institution of Locomotive Engineers in London recognised him as the finest diesel engineer in Asia at the time (Wikipedia.)

History of Sri Lanka Railway

It was the coffee planters who first felt the need to construct a railroad system in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1842. Under pressure from this elite group of the crown colony, Ceylon Railway Company (CRC) was established in 1845 under the Chairmanship of Phillip Anstruther, the Chief Secretary of Ceylon. The contractor William Thomas Doyne was selected for constructing the 79-mile (123 km) Colombo Kandy railway line and later it was realised that the project could not be completed within the original estimate of £856,557. In 1861, Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) was established as a department and took over the construction work. Guilford Lindsey Molesworth, an experienced railway engineer from London, was appointed as the Director General of the CGR.

It took nearly 22 years to build the first stretch of railroad and run the first train from Colombo to Ambepussa in December 1864. It was then extended to Kandy in 1867, the main request of British Planters. Thereafter to Nawalapitiya, Nanuoya, Bandarawella, and Badulla by 1924. However by 1928, the Matale line, the Kankasanturai (Northern Line), the Southern Coast Line, the Mannar Line, the Kelani Valley Line, the Puttalam Line, the Batticaloa and Trincomalee lines were added to the network.

Golden Era of Sri Lanka Railway

Visionary Rampala had a helicopter view of the organisation. During his tenure as the GMR many modernisation programmes were introduced. He had systematically planned to replace British-built steam locomotives with Diesel locomotives over a 20-year period. Five G12 Diesel locomotives, gifted by the Canadian Government, in 1954, were utilised to run Sri Lanka’s most famous trains, the Udarata Menike, the Yal Devi, and the Ruhunu Kumari, the three sisters on rails.

Emphasising punctuality and comfort, major stations outside Colombo were upgraded during the Rampala era. He also introduced an electronic signal system controlled by a centralised traffic control panel in Maradana, which greatly improved safety. In order to popularise rail travel he carried out a marketing exercise of the railway service through a slogan “Travel Safe – Travel Cheap – Travel by Rail.” The objective of this marketing campaign was to attract non-traditional rail passengers, such as women and children, and increase the market share of travellers and improve income of CGR.

Rampala tenure is considered as the ‘Golden Era of Sri Lanka Railways.’ He successfully conducted the grand Centenary Celebrations held in 1964. The main highlight was a refurbished old steam engine driven train, with old carriages, operating from the Colombo Terminus station of Olcott Mawatha to Ambepussa, carrying passengers, driver and guard dressed in late 19th century attire. The train left around 8 a.m. followed by a diesel engine, driven modern train carrying CGR employees and their immediate family members. The writer who was just 14 years was lucky enough to travel in that train with his father who was an officer in the CGR. An exhibition of model trains was also held at Maradana head office for the public. Some of the models were locally made by railroad enthusiasts and CGR engineers while others were imported models owned by locals and foreigners.

In spite of an economic decline in the country Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) continued with the numbers of its passenger services and enjoyed nearly 38% of freight transportation in the early seventies.

But with the introduction of the open economy, the road transportation systems improved and private road transport services that provided door-to-door or warehouse-to-warehouse service captured a bigger chunk of the freight service market of the country. The three-decades-long civil war, non-introduction of technological innovations that improved railway travel worldwide, issues of travel time, reliability, and comfort plagued Sri Lanka Railways said the Chief Engineer (Signal and Telecomunications) Dhammika Jayasundara who delivered the B.D. Rampala memorial lecture in 2017.

US the world leader of railway

transportation:

The US had the best railway transportation system in the world, prior to World War II, with an operating route length over 250,000 km. But after the war, the American auto industry owners came out with a new concept ‘’Freedom on Wheels’’ to get people to use cars. This concept was to promote motor car industry and propagated by the companies in the auto and oil industries to enhance their profits. Initially, they bought up all the street cars i. e. trolleybuses and Tramcars relegating them to junkyards, and embarked on increasing the motor car production.

The government under President Eisenhower, signed a Bill to create the “The National Interstate System’’ and allocated funds for the construction of 41,000 miles of highways and the US shifted from a rail served country to auto dependent nation by the mid-sixties. They dedicated a huge amount of dollars to the construction of automobile infrastructure.

By 2019, the US averaged about 850 cars per one thousand inhabitants. Many countries in the west and Asia emulated the US and constructed highways. Indians, on the other hand continued to improve the railroad transportation system over the years. The Average Sri Lankan was dreaming of owning a car and when the economy was opened up in the late seventies, an influx of motorcars, motorcycles and other vehicles, both brand new and used, invaded the country.

Similarly, the expansion of air travel took place since the fifties, not only in the US but also in other countries. In the US internal air service systems were expanded rapidly for travel between cities.

In Sri Lanka too the government embarked on a project to improve road transport. During the Civil War it was on a low profile but increased construction of highways or express ways after the war from 2009.

Recent developments;

An efficient transport system is an indispensable component of a modern country, no doubt. They provide economic and social opportunities and benefits that result in positive multiplier effects such as better accessibility to markets, employment, and additional investments. Recently, this writer was approached by a group of industrialists to draw up a concept note to obtain land and other facilities from the authorities to set up new factories. One important requirement they emphasised was that location of the land should be close to an expressway. Since they have been into exports this is a fair request as their finished products should be moved to ports and airports as quickly as possible for shipping.

With the development of highways, especially expressways, Sri Lanka Railways (SLR), the market share of passenger and goods transportation has considerably dropped. Chief Engineer Dhammika Jayasundara in his 2017 lecture stated that while SLR’s share of passenger transportation market was only about 5% and goods transportation market share was around 0.3%. It would definitely have deteriorated further by now.

An opportunity for SLR:

The US is reassessing its transport systems at present. They have realised that the country is running out of space to expand the highways. There are limits at airports and aviation congestion is also an acute problem. Looking out for a solution, the US has now realised a better railway system is the best option.

But in today’s global economy ‘’time-saving methods” and “reduction of greenhouse gases” are two important factors when considering development projects. Therefore, electrified high-speed train is the best option to switch from air traffic and vehicles. A survey conducted indicates 71% of the younger generation (18 to 44) in the US prefer travelling by high-speed trains if available. Train systems reaching top speed of over 175 to 240 km per hour is generally considered high-speed. A plan is now in place to build a 27,000 km national high-speed rail system in four phases by 2030. The first project is to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles (about 613km) in less than three hours at a speed of about 350km/h by 2033.

When a high-speed train was introduced between Madrid–Barcelona in Spain in 2008, it took 46% of the traffic, grounding fuel-guzzling, carbon-emitting aircrafts across Spain. This high-speed train pulled by an aerodynamic engine with noses shaped like a duck-billed platypus covers 621km trip in two and half hours at a maximum speed of 350 km/h. The train has the capacity to carry 430 passengers per trip and operates four trips a day. This is an eye-opener to the Americans as well as transport authorities of other countries.

The first high-speed train the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, began operations in Japan in 1964 and was widely known as the ‘bullet train’. France commenced their first high-speed train in 1981 and as of June 2021 had a network 2,800 km.

In many developed countries, faced with issues such as aging population, rising fuel prices, increasing urbanization, increasing traffic congestion, rising roadway expansion costs, changing consumer preferences and increasing health and environmental concerns are shifting travel demand from automobile to alternative modes. Motor vehicles are the greatest contributor to urban air pollution, leading to health problems, worse than smoking and the other factor is deaths through road accidents.

Likely alternative is the high-speed train. This is the most cost-effective transportation mode for moving large numbers of people and compared to road and air transportation less risky as far as accidents are concerned. Today, high-speed train systems are being introduced all over the world in countries like India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran and Morocco. China is the world leader in the construction of high-speed railway systems. By the end of 2020, the Chinese had 37,900 km of high-speed rail lines in service, the longest in the world.

Long-term- plan for SLR

Sri Lanka Railways should study the changing nature of transportation system in developed countries. Since our island nation does not have to cover distances like in the countries mentioned above, railway authorities benchmark a country like Denmark with an area of 42,933 sq. km and a population of 5.8 million. The first ever high-speed train on Copenhagen–Ringsted line commenced on the 31st May 2019 covering 60 km. It has a maximum speed of 250 km/h and covers the trip within 35 minutes. The project received approval from the Danish Parliament in 2010 and was completed in 2019 at a cost of US$ 1.83 billion.

In Sri Lanka, the fastest train service is between Colombo and Beliatta covering 158 km with a maximum speed of 120 km/h. The fastest train ‘Galu Kumari’ takes three and a half hours to cover this distance.

Future generation of sophisticated and knowledgeable Sri Lankans are bound to switch over to train travel and will demand much faster mobility between cities. For example,

if Colombo Jaffna (304 km) travelling can be completed within two hours, instead of present eight hours, there will be lot of economic and social benefits to the country including communal harmony through better interaction. Such speedy travel can only be achieved by rail road or costly air travel, not by motor road vehicles.

However, the capital cost of introducing a High-Speed Railway (HSR) project is very high. The cost structure is mainly divided into costs associated to the infrastructure, and the ones associated with the rolling stock. While infrastructure costs include investments in construction and maintenance of the railroad, the cost of acquisition, operation and maintenance of rolling stock is determined by its technical specifications. SLR engineers and other experts should work out specification suitable for Sri Lanka.

It is necessary for SLR official to take into account the impact on wildlife when planning high-speed train track which British planners had not taken into account during colonial period. As a result, many elephants collide with fast moving trains and perish. According to the Department of Wildlife figures, 15 elephants were killed by trains in 2018, almost more than double the previous year (Mark Saunokonoko – 07 Jan., 2019.) It may be possible for trains to run on cement pillars where the elephant corridors are located.

Taking into consideration the distance from Colombo to Beliatta (158km), Jaffna (304 km) and Kandy (120km) SLR should plan for a total distance of 582 km of high-speed train service. A ballpark figure extrapolated on the basis of Copenhagen–Ringsted line construction, the total cost would be approximately US$ 18 billion. If planned for 20 years this is an average investment of about US$ 900 million per year. The government could approach funding agencies such as the World Bank (WB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB),, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) funding of the project and to carry out a feasibility study.

The implementation of this project depends on the development of the energy sector. Best option is the development of solar power which can provide free electricity to all, according to renowned Sri Lankan scientist, Prof. Ravi Silva, Director, Advanced Technology Institute at the University of Surrey, who was awarded a CBE for his services to Science, Education and Research. (Reference below)

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also keen to attract large scale investments in renewable energy, particularly in solar, wind and biomass, over the coming decades.

One may ask whether a country facing economic problems and borrowing crisis should embark on a project of this nature. The answer is in the affirmative. As Asia is expected to rebound faster compared to other regions after the global recession and the pandemic, Sri Lanka has an opportunity to attract investment in the long term. But such investment should be futuristic and in projects that have a greater payoff in the future. The ‘Mahawali Project’ was to be completed in 35 years, but it was telescoped into five years. Similarly, the speed-train project should be a national policy long-term plan, and depending on the economy can be accelerated.

The development of high-speed train does not mean that the government and the Road Development Authority should abandon the development plan of the High Mobility Network or construction of Expressways. It is necessary at present for better connectivity. But a futuristic plan for Sri Lanka Railways should be based on changes taking place, world over.

The implementation of such a modernisation project will help realise the vision of the late B.D. Rampala ‘Travel Safe – Travel Cheap – Travel by Rail’. It will also justify the need to continue with the railway services without heavy subsidies and be a burden on taxpayers’ money.

References;

(Let the Sun Shine: Do not let a photon go to waste without benefit to mankind https://www.timesonline.lk/opinion/let-the-sun-shine-do-not-let-a-photon-go-to-waste-without-benefit-to-mankind/158-1120004 .)



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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