By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
Investments exceeding US $ 1.5 billion would be required to resurrect Sri Lanka’s ailing railway network, according to a top official of Indian government’s rail construction subsidiary Ircon International Limited.
He said this at an event organised to celebrate the completion of seven years of operations by the company in Sri Lanka.
“The track network requires immediate upgrade wherever it has not been done. A complete upgrade of the rail network would require US $ 1.5 billion if you want to travel to Kandy or Trincomalee at 120 kmph,” Ircon International Limited Executive Director S.L. Gupta said.
He added that the investment estimate had not included some of the secondary lines such as the Kandy-Badulla route, as he had not conducted studies on them.
Gupta said that Sri Lanka should actually start to look beyond 120 kmph trains and reach a level on par with Indian trains, which are now starting to travel at 350 kmph in some areas.
“I will always ask all governments to build rail transport, because it is the backbone of an economy. When the tourists come to Sri Lanka, they don’t go to Trinco or Jaffna. If there are good railway services, they will go and those parts will develop. Most people in developed countries travel by train,” he added.
Gupta noted how currently in many sections of the local rail network, speeds are limited due to poor maintenance deteriorating the tracks.
“Rail is fuel efficient and has less resistance than on the road. Currently, trains are creeping at 30-40 kmph. The question is whether we should go at such a rate in this day and age?” he asked.
Ircon restructured the 114 kilometre Matara-Kalutara stretch of the Coastal Line, which was damaged during the tsunami, as well as 265 kilometres of the northern network starting from Medawachchiya, which was damaged during the civil war.
“In the South, you can now go at 100 kmph and on the Northern tracks you can go at 120 kmph,” Gupta said.
He noted that if the entire track from Colombo is upgraded, the Colombo-Jaffna trip could take four and a half hours including stops, instead of the current six and a half hours.
Ircon has now completed all of its projects in Sri Lanka and is in a two-year defect liability stage, during which it is also training local railway industry personnel on Ircon’s benchmarked practices.
The track restructuring was financed through a concessional US $ 800 million loan given by the EXIM Bank of India.
Meanwhile, Gupta added that a metro system in Colombo would cost around US $ 4-5 billion but Sri Lanka’s tight finances would not give it fiscal space to launch such a project.
However, local experts have pointed out that Sri Lankan governments are more likely to back expensive projects over cheaper, simpler options and that has led to the creation of a highway network instead of a modern, cheaper rail network.
A metro system is likely to feature in the government’s flagship Western Megapolis plan.
Gupta warned that metro systems around the world are usually run by the state and are loss-making entities, since politicians set lower rates to please residents, despite the customers’ ability to pay more.
Meanwhile, he said that though their projects in Sri Lanka were over, Ircon would submit tenders for rail projects if the government decides to go ahead with such projects.
Irncon shuns allegations
Ircon defended itself against the allegations that have been pointed at them since the company started operations in Sri Lanka.
“Criticism is always there but it is limited to a limited section of society. Maybe only 0.1 percent of the railway community criticized. If you ask the public, they are happy.
On the Northern Line, trains are full, and tickets aren’t available,” Gupta said.
One of the main allegations was that Ircon got Sri Lankan projects without going through a tender process.
“This was the situation in the country then. We asked the government if they want to compare rates, to go through a tender process. But if there was a tender, it would have taken five years more - when the international community was looking at Sri Lanka to connect with the North,” he said.
Former Internal Transport Ministry Secretary Professor Lalithasiri Gunaruwan had alleged that Ircon had refurbished the tracks at US $ 2.5 million per kilometre, while local experts could have done the same quality of work for US $ 0.5 million. “It was US $ 2 million per kilometre. Certain people say that there is local expertise and capacity. Then why haven’t they reworked the Colombo-Kalutara section? That section is still in the dark. Sri Lankan repairs are not done to real standards. They are quick fixes to restart services soon,” Gupta said.
He added that there is a vast difference between the fixes of the local experts and Ircon’s renovation, as the company had replaced old slippers, rails and fittings with modern parts, filled up 12 inches of ballast and used new welding techniques.
“The Northern track is a new track. All bridges were replaced; we gave six new locomotives, new buildings and platforms. All this adds up to the US $ 2 million. Sri Lanka Railways hasn’t reconstructed anything,” Gupta pointed out.
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