ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lankan transport professionals have praised a plan to electrify the railway but want more careful study and inclusion of multi-modal connectivity, freight and station accessibility to ensure the investment’s best use.
Preliminary designs for the electrification and modernisation of the railway between Veyangoda, north of the capital Colombo, and Panadura on the coast to the south are almost ready, said Rodolfo Martinez, a consultant to the project.
The modernisation will be done according to the Colombo suburban railway master plan, he told a recent forum held by the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport, Sri Lanka.
The modernisation, catering mainly to passenger transport, will result in a better and more reliable suburban commuter railway service, along with upgrades to stations, Martinez said during the 15th John Diandas Memorial Lecture.
The government’s Western Region Megapolis master plan covering the Colombo metropolitan region shows potential demand available in Colombo for rail travel, he said.
“If you provide the service, demand will come because demand is there. The plan assumes the Colombo metropolitan region will continue to grow.”
Martinez said Sri Lanka cannot afford not to modernise the railway and improve public transport given increasing congestion on the roads.
The railway was already a big asset Colombo has and could be better used with modifications and modernisation, the results of which would be seen in three years.
Martinez said stations will be modernised with better passenger information, electronic ticketing but that integration with buses remains to be done.
However, transport professionals at the forum pressed for a more wide-ranging study and project that would include station accessibility, multimodal links between rail and other modes like bus, and freight carriage.
“The study should be realistic. This country has a lot of examples of putting capacity where we don’t need it and not having capacity where we need,” said Amal Kumarage, senior professor of the University of Moratuwa Department of Transport & Logistics.
The feasibility study should include forecasts of railway patronage with station development with bus accessibility and without, he told the forum.
“That’s why we need to include bus and railway station development. That’s the scientific way forward. Saying that’s another study is not the best way forward,” Kumarage said.
The Megapolis project growth rate forecasts had turned out to be “highly optimistic” and below what was projected in the feasibility study two years ago.
“We know the Megapolis plan numbers have not been validated,” Kumarage said. “We need high, low and moderate growth scenarios. It seems only the high growth factor was looked at.”
Good connections to railway stations and speeds between stations were needed to make rail attractive compared with road transport.
“People make door-to-door decisions, so speeds are important. You may not have much margin over bus travel. So the investment may not be worth it unless you have good speeds between stations and very good connections to railway stations. That’s why the access aspect seems a bit underrepresented in this study. That’s critical.”
Kumarage said the feasibility study should also consider rail fares in the modernised system to see if higher prices would affect potential demand and how big a subsidy would be needed.
“I don’t think any country makes money on urban passenger transport by rail. The benefit is in the economy.”
The suburban railway master plan should consider better connectivity, he said, noting how railway connections to the island’s ports and international airport had been neglected.
“in Sri Lanka the railway to the airport stops 100 metres from the airport, the same way rail goes up to the wall of Colombo port. It’s a unique situation. We have to look at connectivity, multimodalism, freight connectivity.”
Palitha Samarasinghe, Railway Electrification and Modernization Project director, said freight transport was not covered within the scope of the project but be done in a separate study.
“We need at least 50km distance to move freight for it to be commercially viable for the railway department.”
Kumarage said passenger and freight transport should not be looked at separately but in an integrated manner.
“Colombo is unique with the port right within the city. So we cannot exclude goods movement from the railway network.
“Goods movements are mostly in the Western province so a lot can be connected with railway since the aim is easing congestion. It may be better to move freight by rail.
”The feasibility should consider it. This is where we go wrong –leaving this for another study. We might solve the passenger problem and keep the freight problem and might never be able to use the system for freight. That’s what has happened for the past 40-50 years –the railway gradually lost money-making freight and got loss-making passengers.”
(COLOMBO, August 11, 2017)