On September this year, Sri Lanka reopened its northern rail line that connected Jaffna to its commercial capital Colombo. This historic event took place nearly after 25 years of losing the connection and we all know why it happened.
The shape of the world’s fastest trains came from observing nature – the shape of the diving bird to catch its prey!
It is to be stated that this was made possible by the $ 800 million loan extended by the Indian Government and with technical support from a subsidiary company of Indian Railways. As such, the rehabilitation and renewal project obviously had more procurements externally than through internal production.
The absence of local manufacturing in supporting the completion of such an infrastructure project is striking after so many years of railway experience in Sri Lanka. The loan helped towards securing both technical and financial assistance from India.
The rehabilitation process had the use of concrete sleepers to support speed gain on rail. This bring to mind the efforts of Dr. A.N.S. Kulasinghe who was a pioneer in pre-stressed concrete, who pushed for a concrete sleeper factory to support the demand by railways – to no avail, as it turned out. It is important to have support industries available as otherwise costs are going to be exorbitant if everything had to be sourced externally.
The bullet train learnt from the kingfisher
Realising full potential
Recently COSTI organised a seminar along with the Export Development Board (EDB), in trying to come out with a national definition for high-tech products and services, which we lack at present.
Some participants were asking the reason for pushing for a definition. The current CEO and Director General of Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Eng. Mangala Yapa who was present had an illuminating statement in response, which incidentally is the basis for this write-up which I have titled as the ‘tale of two speeds’.
He stated that he had an interesting experience going up the recently-inaugurated northern line. He said that he experienced two speeds – as averages – on this journey. Up to Vavuniya, his experience had been a relatively slow speed of 40 km/h. Passing Vavuniya, which incidentally is the newer track, the train had accelerated to 120 km/h. He was quite philosophical when he narrated his experience.
It was the same train with a more modern engine and the rolling stock that had left Colombo for Jaffna. What sets the speed is the underlying infrastructure – in this case the track quality and the sleepers rather than the power of the engine. Once the underlying conditions improve, which is what happens after the train leaves the Vavuniya station, it can utilise its full potential.
Yet again Mangala Yapa went on to state that the availability of both the modern engine and the suitable track is not sufficient if the signal system is faulty. If there are many crossings and the potential of animals to be on track, again the possible high speeds are illusory which appears at this stage to be from Vavuniya to Jaffna. To improve intrusions thus compromising the railway, strong fencing appears to be a necessity. Ad-hoc crossings too are a potential risk.
All these points out that it is not simply one aspect or an investment that brings out true growth. The railway from Colombo to Jaffna has its own eco-system and if the components are mismatched the result is below par performance.
Mangala Yapa in essence brought out quite neatly the importance of being broadminded and the importance of detail in an analysis. At one time the track from Colombo to Vavuniya would have been considered as state-of-the-art. Having deferred modernisation by depriving investments, today the section is a testimony to neglect over time.
From Vavuniya to Jaffna it is the ability of another country to provide steel and the technology to bring a component of the system to an advanced state. This tale of two speeds provides us with insight on systems planning. It also emphasises the effects of neglecting investment on multiple areas.
We must also understand that completely relying on borrowings and external expertise jeopardises long-term sustainability. An example from modern times may be the Greek infatuation with German electric trains, but in hard financial times, payback on loans taken to implement the state-of-the-art becomes quite difficult.
To derive returns from an investment, one cannot expect organic developments subsequent to infrastructure placement. Active engagement in spin-offs in parallel is a must. We must not forget still 120 km/h is not a speed that someone would envy. Today we have trains having demonstrated 502 km/h in trials. The fastest Shanghai Maglev has an operational speed of 430 km/h with an average speed of 251 km/h. Our speed is not even the fastest in diesel sets.
Learning from Ceylon
When Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore observed then Ceylon, some of our systems would have been of some class and worth learning from. He did.
The Koreans also learned from Ceylon. For their famous research institute KIST, they took lessons from the CISIR (Ceylon Institute of Industrial Research) which today is known as ITI (Industrial Technology Institute). Over time the standards dropped and learners have placed much distance between them and us.
It is no good having a system which is momentarily state-of-the-art. All aspects need to be understood well and managed well continuously to ensure upkeep with time. Intelligent investments, human resource management are vital. Otherwise in no time the sparkle can disappear.
KIST and KAIST later on spearheaded the speed train development in Korea and they are keener on rail today than on road. That was done starting from scratch.
Synchronisation is key
Synchronisation and avoiding difference speeds within one system enables smoother operations. Organisations too can demonstrate different speeds. In the process of decision making and execution, if not carried out with equal aplomb, the organisation can face crises.
If a research organisation only looks after research and only encourages ideas, one can choke up the system with inputs. Ideas needs to be moved forward, managed and converted to action (i.e. commercialisation) for the research organisation to be truly successful. Like the rail with two track conditions, organisations may have their own versions which either delay or speed up processes.
In the connected world external conditions do matter as with signalling. If the signals are not positive but inhibitory – too much red (i.e. red tape) on! – it is easier to understand that the organisation cannot move forward.
Too many crossings with too many warnings reduce the speed, making it impossible to utilise the true power under the bonnet. One may pack an organisation with quality people but if they are constrained by red tape, the chances for that organisation to grow are slim.
Don’t we see this in our system? Many tales of multiple speeds can be talked about. It is important to know that to be a breakout nation, some escape velocity is needed. Keeping old rolling stock on old tracks but with a new engine has no meaning, no future.
Lack of analysis
The concept of the rate limiting step is well-known in chemistry. The slowest part of the process sets the speed overall. Hence, if one is to correct, an analysis and attending to remedy rate limiting step is necessary. It is precisely this lack of analysis that is stalling adding some speed to our economic processes.
Our institutional mechanisms do not recognise that we are in the 21st century. Some indeed display extraordinary speeds at times, indicating that if one wants, the possibility is there. However, ramping up the average speed of idea to execution needs to come in.
Today north is not just north and south is not just south. North and south are connected. To be quite accurate, reconnected. Merely connecting is not sufficient. Today you can accelerate towards Jaffna in one direction though in the other direction towards the capital you have to decelerate. Not a position that we should be happy about.
It is incumbent upon the planners to understand beyond what is obvious to realise the best of this connectivity. Some innovative thinking is necessary. Coming out of a conflict, this connection is symbolic and should be nurtured beyond its physical meaning.
Mass transit on a train is an environmentally-friendly mode of transport. The shape of the world’s fastest trains did come from observing nature – the shape of the diving bird to catch its prey! The bullet train learnt from the kingfisher.
Limiting our thinking, the passage of time may indicate that this is just a simple connection. We should drive for multiple gains as otherwise the investment would not pay off for the nation.
[The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on email@example.com.]