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Sunday, 12 May 2013

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Government Gazette

Railway Dept on the threshold of wide expansion

The Department of Railways is one of the core service providers to the people of this country and train service is one of the most sought after transportation modes among the public though it is not expanded within the country that much.


General Manager, Railways B.A.P. Ariyaratne

With the dawn of peace the Railway Department is also expanding its wings and plans are afoot to restart the services which were suspended during the conflict period in the North. The Railway Department is ready to start train services upto Madhu from May 14 and to complete the entire Northern rail tracks by April next year.

The General Manager of Railways B.A.P. Ariyaratne says that the Department expects to begin the train service to Kilinochchi by the end of August this year once the track is completed upto Kilinochchi.

Following are excerpts of the interview the Sunday Observer had with the General Manager of Railways to identify the present and the future plans of the Railway Department to provide an efficient service to the public.

Question: Can you explain the present contribution of the railway system to the passenger transportation and the freight transportation in Sri Lanka?

Answer: The railway network of Sri Lanka runs to 1,422 kilometres whereas the road network is over 20 times I suppose. Then obviously the contribution of the railway to the transport sector can't match the road transportation. Nobody can change this. Therefore, our contribution to the transport sector is about six percent in the passenger transportation compared to other modes of transport. We have to increase that.

Q: In which way is the Department planning to increase that share?

A: There are two ways we can do that - getting more and more passengers to the running trains and extending our line to the areas where there are no rail tracks at the moment. To do this we have done a lot of things during the past few years. We have imported new trains from India and China. During the past two years we have introduced 36 new trains. At the same time we have rehabilitated our track in the coastal line to run a train at 100 kilometres per hour. We have strengthened our other lines also to a certain extent. Therefore, the passenger demand is more, and more people travel by train during the past one year or one and half years. We checked and found that there is a 10 to 15 percent increase of revenue in the passenger transportation. But when we run trains in the night and on weekends we get lesser number of commuters. We are losing by running these trains. Without 300,400 passengers for a train we can't recover the operative cost. There's nothing we can do about it. Every country in the world gives subsidies to the train services, especially the passenger service.

Q: How is the freight transportation contributing for the Department and what are the constraints for the Railway Department in freight transportation?

A: We are earning a good income from the freight traffic. But we have a very limited area to work since we have a very limited railway network. If we undertake the freight traffic (say)a container, we move it by 100 kilometres. The customer has to bring the container and load it into our train and again they have to unload that for the trailer and go to the destination. When we add those three costs it is economical for the customer to transport them directly by road. The most viable destination for railways freight traffic is from Colombo to Trincomalee, and Colombo to Jaffna. Jaffna line is under construction. I strongly believe after the construction of the Northern rail line we will get more freight revenue from the Jaffna line alone because the distance is long.


Earning a good income from freight traffic

Q: How is the Department planning to increase the freight transportation?

A: We have improved the freight transport by a little. We are transporting petroleum about 35 percent per day except for Katunayake oil train. We are going to improve it to 50 percent by introducing more trains to Vavuniya and Batticaloa. Other customers so far we could not get, because of the short distance. We are discussing with the cement corporation to undertake the cement transportation. We have worked about 75 percent with the micro car company to transport cars by train from Polgahawela to Colombo. Now we are working on that and hopefully in another two months we will be able to undertake everything. They told us that they are transporting 800 cars per month from Polgahawela to Colombo. It is safer for them to transport them by train.

Freight traffic is another main feature that we are planning to undertake together with container transport after providing the facilities. Because without loading and unloading trains gantry crains at our railway stations it is difficult. You cannot match the cost.

We are also hoping to develop the transportation of sand by train but it will take one or two years. We have to buy some wagons like tippers which can undertake loading and unloading facilities.

Q: The Railway Department has invested heavily for the rehabilitation of the coastal line to increase the speed of the trains. But there are criticism that it was not cost effective and the reduced time is much low. What do you have to say about this?

A: This track was constructed to bear upto a maximum speed of 100 kilometres per hour. It doesn't mean that it can run 100 kilometres per hour anywhere. In the curves it can't run on that speed. In the coastal line there are a few curves that reduce the speed to 80 Kmph 70 or may be 60 also. But most of the places track is constructed 100 Kmph. Now the track is faster. Ruhunu Kumari from Matara to Colombo is coming in two hours and 35 minutes. Earlier it may be half and hour or more. Time reduction is less. But can any vehicle come from Matara to Colombo by two hours and 35 minutes. I don't think that is possible; even using the super highway. Because from Matara to Galle they have to come by normal road. And then from Kottawa to Colombo it takes another 45 minutes.

Q: So, it is a good decision?

A: People will say with this time reduction it is useless. But the quality of the track is high. We have specifications. This track is made to world standards. But this is a very good investment. Because of this we can reduce the maintenance cost. Reduce the time the comfort and safety. There is no single derailment on the track after it was constructed. I think that is very beneficial to the country. The Indians are using the latest technology and equipment. If we are to construct a track by ourselves for quality we need all these materials to do that job within a short period. Therefore it is a decision taken considering the feasibility of all these facts. I don't think it as a waste but it is an improvement. Since the track upto Matara was washed away by the Tsunami this helped us improve the quality of the track.

Q: As you mention the Government always has subsidised the operations of the Railway Department. But compared to the assets the Department has, one may question why the Railway cannot run making use of these assets effectively without heavily depending on Government funding. Are there barriers for the Department to do so?

A: The main function of the Railway Department is to provide the passenger service and the freight services. By passenger service, it is very difficult to get profits because we our ticket rate is much less than the bus rate. Less than 50 percent of the share rate of the bus fares. If we increase that of course we cannot match that. Of course if we increase the fares that will also be absorbed by the normal public. So that is a decision that should be taken very carefully. Secondly the trains that runs in the night and running on public holidays are not productive. If you cancel those trains we can save the diesel and our loss will be reduced. That is also another policy decision that has to be taken. As I explained earlier, we can expand the freight market further but there are barriers because we have to improve the infrastructure. It is only very slowly that we can improve.

Q: The Railway Department owns a lot of land. Is there any mechanism to utilise them effectively?

A: The other revenue point is that our lands and buildings. The Railway Department has lot of lands and building including the tracks buildings and all our land availability is around 16,000 acres. What has happened today is many places have been encroached by people. It has happened over the years. If we take the Nugegoda area in the KV line by the side of the track 1,100 families have built temporary houses; in Avissawella and Ratnapura another 500 houses. Harbour line and various other places have over 10,000 encroachers. Those have to be regularised to get an income. I don't know how to do that. That is a massive problem.

Secondly we have very valuable Colombo lands, Kandy lands Kurunegala lands and we have leased land to people. May be 7,000 plots of land leased out for different people. We are developing a system to improve land revenue. I can say the land income in 2010 is Rs.75 million. In the year 2012 it was increased to 146 million by using different methods and creating different units. We have created units for Up country, Colombo and Ratnapura areas and one unit for the rest of the country.

Q: By doing so can the department cover the losses?

A: It is very difficult to match the loss. Our revenue is touching Rs. 5,000 million and expenditure of the recurrent excluding capital projects touching about Rs.10,000 million. There is a gap about Rs.5,000 million. By improving these lands and freight and all these operations we can match one or two billion. But still there is a gap of about three billion. We cannot reduce this expenditure. We have a cadre of 22,000 people in the Railway and today we have 15,000 We have 7,000 vacancies. Those vacancies have to be covered by other people and we have to pay them Overtime. Their bill is very high. Also, the Railway Department has to maintain the trains as well as the track, train operators, 360 station buildings and nearly 1,420 track 49 tunnels, bridges, buildings and nearly 5,000 quarters for the employees. The profit if you want to get we have to go with the investors by giving them on long term lease basis in city areas to build the shopping complexes and houses and things like that. That is the only way we can improve the income.

Q: With the improvement of the tourism sector, Railway Department also started some services to attract tourists. What is the current situation of these services and how are you going to improve them further?

A: We are doing many things to attract tourists. Railways and the Transport Ministry one year back introduced a luxury compartment. They are very popular with companies. We imported trains with air conditioned compartment from China. Now, trains with names such as 'Uda Rata Menike' and 'Podi Menike' are run and tourists can travel to upcountry areas by using those trains. We are gradually improving the Viceroy special train run by steam locomotive for which we are working with a private party. Like that we are developing the train services for the tourists and we have used the IT technology for the convenience of the public. For example Mobitel is undertaking all the reservations of the seats by now. Anyone can reserve train seat by Mobitel. We are going to introduce the reservations of the retiring room at the railway stations through via online. We have rooms in Anuradhapura, Kandy, Batticaloa , Trincomalee etc. Now what happens is that people have to go to that place or send the money through somebody and get it booked. Now with ICTA we have developed a project and in another two weeks time we are going to introduce that to the online. Anybody can reserve the station room online. Like that we are providing these facilities little by little and that will benefit the tourists. If a person abroad is planning to come to Sri Lanka next month can make reservation through the online.

Q: To attract more tourists you need to improve the quality of the station because some places the toilet facilities are not enough. Are there any plan to improve the facilities at railway stations?

A: We have introduced a new project for this . We are introducing new benches removing old style wooden benches. Waiting rooms have been renovated at many place. At many places through platforms there is no overhead bridge to go to the other side. At Tudella station a school boy died very recently because he could not jump to the platform though he crossed the track. We have constructed six such overhead bridges and we have identified and we are improving them little by little. ATM machines we have introduced. Station cleaning have been improved. But there is a problem with the toilets. Toilets we have renovated at some places. Some of the people are not doing their job properly. So I have identified that and I really took action to get the private sector into after calling tenders to do the cleaning part by the private parties.

Q: The unprotected level crossing is one big problem relating to the Railway system in Sri Lanka. Is there any special programme to install gates at these level crossings?

A: We have counted 775 unprotected level crossings in the country. Out of 775,149 are bamboo gates manned by people and that is also we consider as unprotected because one day we have to remove that. Forty five unprotected level crossings we have given to a private company on tender. They have started the job and this year they will complete the job. Another 30 we are calling tenders and that also within a month or two we can award it. Hopefully that also we can award within a year. But out of the 775 all are not critical. But at least half critical. Last year we called tender for 200. But due to some disputes in the bidding documents these 200 could not be awarded. Then we recalled it and the Cabinet of Ministers and this year we will be able to offer the tenders and next year we will be probably starting the installation And within the Department we have ordered some material without giving anybody. This year we will be able to complete about 15 and next year also about. Like that we will be able to cover about 300. That will solve the problem very much.

Q: What are the plans for the restoration of the Northern railway lines?

A: We are starting train services upto Madhu road on May 14. After that Thalaimannar track will be completed by the end of the year. Our plan is to complete the track upto Kankasanthurai in April next year. We have planning to start train service upto Kilinochchi somewhere in August or within next three months. That is the plan. After that we think we will get more income. People like to travel to Jaffna by train and we will get more revenue from freight transportation also. Petroleum Corporation is telling us that they are having a depot and they ask us to transport oil upto Pallai. We will be able to run another train for this. When we go to Kankesanthurai and Jaffna we can get freight transportation.

Q: Is there any plan to start the ferry service to India with the commencement of the train service upto Thalaimannar?

A: We are constructing the Thalaimannar pier. Earlier the ferry was operated from Thalaimannar to Rameswaran. Now in Rameswaran also the jetty is there. We are hoping to start the ferry service otherwise there is no point of having a pier. But, we need to have lot of bilateral discussions with the Indian Government how we should plan out the ferry service and who should own the ferry. We have to come into agreement. That we are hoping to do it. At the Government to Government level decisions has to be taken. There is a transport agreement among the SAARC countries. They have an agreement with the SAARC countries heads of States that the SAARC transport links should be provided from country to country the rail has to be linked. But as an isolated country the only way that we link is by the ferry. We have given our consent to operate a ferry service. That is there in the SAARC agreement. Therefore, definitely that should be done.

Q: Is there any plan to improve the Kelani Valley line?

A: There is a proposal from China and we are evaluating it to straighten the KV line but not fully. It aims at reducing the curves and have dual track to Padukka. Remove all the encroachers to facilitate the project. The Chinese Government is there to fund this project under credit line. Now that is under evaluation stage and that is in our intermediate plan. That should definitely be done because lot of public travelling by train. From Avissawella there are 34 stations and every station train is stopping and running very slow with the curves. Therefore, it takes two and half hours to come to Colombo. If we bring up a project and improve the line speed remove all these people and have double line very quickly people can come within one and half hours. We also can attract more commuters.

Q: Is there any decision by the Government to increase the train fare?

A: That is a decision to be taken by the Government. So far there is no indication about such proposal. The first thing we have to do is to provide a better service. Now we have improved the train service to a reasonable level and more people are travelling by train. More people are daily travellers and season ticket holders who are coming to office. If we increase the fair that will also affect the people. On the other hand diesel prices are going up and we have to face that situation also. What we did was the increase the reservation charges. I have authority to increase the reservation charge and that I have done in April. The person who is going on reservation are not travelling on daily basis. They reserve seats when they are going on a journey or any outstation. He has to pay because his seat is reserved. If you go to bus what will happen sometime is they do not get a seat. They have to pay 50 per cent more than the railway price. What we thought is we increase the reservation fare. Still the reservation charge and the ticket fare is not exceeding AC bus fare. That I think is reasonable.

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