Expanding the Railways | Sunday Observer

Expanding the Railways

We have all heard the common refrain that ‘not one inch’ of new railway line has been built in post-independent Sri Lanka. While this is not 100 percent correct (see below), it is true that practically all of the existing railway lines have been built during the British colonial period, starting from the Colombo-Ambepussa line in 1864.

The exceptions are the Anuradhapura-Mihintale line during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure and the broad gauging of the Kelani Valley line. In fact, we have the rather singular and dubious distinction of actually partially destroying the railway line that existed all the way to Opanaike (the Kelani Valley line now ends in Avissawella). Plans have been discussed to redo this line, though.

It is in this context that we should laud the commencement of services on the new railway line from Matara to Beliatta, 27 Km away.

Parliamentarians from both sides of the House joined the Transport Minister, Arjuna Ranatunga, for the first trip to Beliatta. That was indeed heartening, for development is and should be a bipartisan effort.

The VIP guests were on board the inaugural train that traversed the new line, amid the cheers of thousands of residents in the area who were waiting for decades to see this happen. The first commercial runs began to meet the Sinhala and Hindu New Year travel rush, with up to four trains to and from Beliatta. This is likely to be expanded. That is not all – the line is being extended all the way to the sacred city of Kataragama, almost in line with the extension of the Southern Expressway. The second phase of the project is the 48 kilometre stretch of track from Beliatta to Hambantota and in the third phase, the track will be extended by another 39 kilometres from Hambantota to the Holy City of Kataragama. The total length of the new line is 114.5 Km. The total length of the Colombo-Hambantota-Kataragama line will be around 275 Km.

The railway project, funded by a US$ 278 million loan from the China EXIM Bank, was built by the China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation and China Railway Services Company under the supervision of CentralEngineeringConsultancy Bureau. Main railway stations have been constructed at Kekunadura, Bambarenda, Wewrukannala and Beliatta while there are also two other sub stations at Piladuwa and Veherahena. Work included the signal system and level crossings.

Among the other notable highlights is the fact that trains can run at a maximum speed of 120 Km per hour on this newly-built line and Sri Lanka’s longest rail tunnel from Naakuttigama to Kekanadura. There are several long bridges as well. The Beliatta railway station will also have a total length of 300 metres, while passengers can use an underpass to move between platforms instead of an overhead bridge. The railway line will save around one hour off the road travel duration, at least until the parallel expressway opens.

This is indeed a landmark development in Sri Lanka’s transport history. The South received a better connection to the rest of the island thanks to the Southern Expressway and it will become closer to Colombo and the rest of the island with the commencement of services on the Colombo-Matara-Beliatta line. We hope construction would be completed without delay on the rest of the line up to Kataragama. This would give pilgrims, tourists and other travellers a better transport option. Air-conditioned First Class carriages with cabin service must also be installed on the Beliatta (and eventually Kataragama) trains. The Government must explore the possibility of extending some other railway lines and adding new ones. There was a proposal to extend the Badulla line too all the way to Kataragama and build a new line from Jaffna to Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Expressways in themselves are fine, but the reality is that a train can transport around 1,000 passengers at once and has a lesser impact on the environment. Thus priority should be given to new railway projects.

There is more good news on the railway front, as the Cabinet has given approval to the Colombo-Malabe Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, work on which is slated to begin next year with Japan International Cooperation Agency assistance. Japan and Sri Lanka have already signed the relevant agreements for this service. The 21 Km above-ground line will drastically cut travel times between Colombo and Malabe (to around 30 minutes), which is not served by the train network at present. The trains will be air-conditioned and comfortable, so workers would feel refreshed when they get off in Colombo.

Piliyandala, another town not served by the train system at present, is also a candidate for the future expansion of the LRT, which is eventually envisaged to have seven colour-coded lines radiating in different directions from Colombo. Some of the LRT stations will be hubs that connect two or more lines. The LRT will be a much efficient and comfortable way to travel to Colombo and has the potential to take off at least 1,000 cars off the road during rush hours.

Furthermore, the LRT is a much cheaper alternative to an underground metro (excavation is a very expensive process) – many cities from Dubai to London already have LRT systems. We hope the tickets will be priced at affordable rates. The Government must also go ahead with the much-discussed plans to electrify at least some parts of the rail network – Colombo to Veyangoda has been cited as the first option – so that trains could run faster, almost silently.

The railway is a much better alternative to road travel.

The fuel savings alone would be substantial. But we have not realized the full potential to the railway system yet, despite the fact that rail fares are cheaper on an average than the corresponding bus fares for much the same distance. Delays, overcrowding and unclean carriages are among some of the shortcomings that prevent more people from choosing the train as their preferred mode of travel despite the cheaper ticket prices.

We still have not warmed up the idea of ‘Park and Ride’ popular in many other countries, where the commuters stop their cars at the railway station and then take the train to their offices.

This would help prevent traffic congestion and also save money for commuters. Moreover, the train is ideal for goods transport, though we have not made much headway there either.

Developing the railway passenger and freight network is an investment that pays for itself. We hope that Beliatta would only be the first step in a massive expansion and transformation of the local rail network.

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