Panadura-Veyangoda railway to be electrified, US $ 300m ADB loan; completion in 2020
Sri Lanka’s railway electrification project, first proposed by Engineer D.J. Wimalasurendra in 1924 is long overdue. Decades after that first proposal there is light at the end of the tunnel. Serious attempts were made by local engineers to get the government to implement the electrification and modernisation of the railway system in the island, particularly in 1994 and 2008. However, the project was not implemented. Today the members of the Institute of Engineers of Sri Lanka say it may seem hard to get to it, but they will continue to work hard until the project is implemented.
Railway to be electrified The first sector to be electrified and modernised is the 100 km stretch of the Panadura-Veyangoda track – the busiest rail track in the island. The cabinet gave its approval to the program last July and the project is scheduled to be completed by 2020.
Sri Lanka’s first railway electrification and modernisation - of the suburban railway network - is ready to begin with an Asian Development Bank (ADB) loan of US$ 300 million and the approval of the cabinet. The Institute of Engineers of Sri Lanka (IESL) wants to ensure that it is ‘a top priority’ of the government over the next couple of years. A team of ADB officials studying the feasibility of this railway project completed their ‘study mission’ in Colombo last week; they met the officials of Sri Lanka Railways, the Transport Board and the Finance Ministry during this visit.
Following their meetings and findings, the ADB team has decided to proceed with the preliminary design of the project, starting next month for which they have asked the international consultants to express interest. Sometime this month, the ADB will select the designing group as well.
“Electrification and modernisation of the railway is a top priority and we want the government to concentrate its efforts on getting that right,” said Dr. Thilak Siyambalapitiya. “We remain concerned about the future of the electrification. The project is on track, but needs everyone’s support to remain on track,” he said.
Sri Lanka Railways transports 400,000 passengers daily; they travel in utter discomfort.
People complain that the fleet of trains does not run on time; the carriages are insufficient and the rolling stock almost dilapidated. On the other hand all road users suffer from severe traffic congestion.
“People deserve to travel comfortably as they are the people contributing to the growth of our economy. A better rail service means people will prefer leaving their cars at home and travelling by train,” Dr. Siyambalapitiya told a forum in Colombo last Monday.
The forum organised by the IESL was chaired by four transport experts, Dr. Thilak Siyambalapitiya, Dr. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, Prof Amal Kumarage and Priyal de Silva.
IESL has been in the forefront of conducting analyses and sensitising the governments over the past five decades about the immense economic benefits of railway electrification-energy saving, lower emissions, saving in travel time and comfort.
IESL says that the government should use the concessionary financing already available from the ADB and not further delay the implementation of the electrification project.
The speakers emphasised that this project will transform the lives of people, those who travel between Panadura and Veyangoda initially, and the rest later.
Railway electrification does not mean that the project ends at the point of connecting the trains to an electricity system. “The aim of railway electrification and modernisation would be to encourage the 400,000 passengers who travel by rail daily to continue with train travel, and attract road users to move into this modern, efficient form of transport. The project hopes that over one million travellers will use the electrified service daily,” de Silva said. Dr. Siyambalapitiya said the proposed project goes way beyond “hanging a wire and running an electric train.”
“Yes - current comes along the overhead wire and then returns along the rail. Walking on tracks will not electrocute a person, but is dangerous as he may be hit by a train running at 100 km per hour. Therefore, railway tracks need to be fenced, for that land acquisition may be required in certain areas,” he said. Electrification will reduce pollution as it helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions, save energy, and provide faster and more reliable services for thousands of passengers. There is no other project –which will bring the benefits to the community at large than this project.
“With this project, we have never been close to implementation as it is today. The project is ready to go; the project is finalised and has the support of the IESL and the entire government. At present it is the only government development project, which already has money. For all other projects money is yet to come,” Dr. Siyambalapitiya said. IESL has done several studies on railway electrification and the latest available is the study done in 2008 which was done in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Railway and the Ceylon electricity Board.
The study recommends that the Panadura-Veyangoda track would be the most economical track to begin with. This has also been vetted by their Indian counterparts, he said. Another speaker at the forum, Prof Amal Kumarage said the basic railway technology should be available to the people of this country soon. “At present the railway carries only about 12% of the total passengers. It can be easily increased to 20% and with a more ambitious plan it can even be increased to 30%,” he said. For instance, there are certain railway lines that carry up to 20-35% of people.
“Railway electrification and modernisation alone is not sufficient for this project,” said Prof Kumarage. The entire system including the Railway Department has to be revamped and modernised.
“We need to get modern railway stations – they are still in the 19th century. We need modern amenities, modern stations with boarding facilities at the same level, escalators, ticketing options, smart cards, pleasant environments and connecting buses and taxi services to move like in other countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and India now.” And it is also important to train the Railway employees to get connected with the new system with the right attitude to offer incomparable service to its users, he said.
Dr. Gunaruwan outlined three key factors – the project should be done at the lowest (without compromising quality) cost at the lowest interest rate – which the ADB has already pledged.
“We also need to work with certain foreign professionals and ensure that our country and its professionals benefit by way of economic factors, value addition and knowledge; the project implementation should help drive the local economy. Therefore, we need to go for an international competitive bidding process,” he said.
He added that private investors are usually not keen on developing projects of this nature. “Concessionary financing available from multilateral lending agencies such as the ADB are the cheapest form of financing for infrastructure. As infrastructure projects have long construction periods and unclear revenue streams, projects of this kind have never attracted foreign investors anywhere in the world.”
However, when the project is implemented, there will be many opportunities for private sector investors to run businesses and connect people to workplaces.
Dr.Gunaruwan, a regular railway passenger, said the project has already got funds. “But we, the engineers, need to support the project throughout and ensure it’s got to be kept on budget; it’s got to be kept on time because this may be the last chance we have to get the railway electrification project a reality.
“The entire nation should push for the implementation of this project with absolute commitment from the government.”
There will be many opportunities for private sector investors to run businesses when the project is implemented.