Matara-Beliatta Railway: Costlier than Katunayake Expressway

Friday, 6 December 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The construction of the Matara-Beliatta section of the Matara-Kataragama Railway Extension project commenced on 28 October with the laying of the foundation stone by Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa at Beliatta. The Matara-Beliatta section is the first phase of the Matara-Kataragama railway extension project, a 26.75 km long single line rail track, and is expected to be complete by 2016. The line will have four railway stations at Kekanadura, Bambarenda, Wewurukannala and Beliatta, with two sub-stations at Piladuwa and Weharahena. According to the Railway authorities, trains will travel at a speed of 120km/h and the travel time between Matara and Beliatta will become 20 minutes. The extension of the new railway line from Matara to Kataragama will be carried out in three phases – Phase I from Matara to Beliatta, Phase II from Beliatta to Mattala and Phase III from Mattala to Kataragama. Funding of the project For funding the $366 million worth Matara-Beliatta section of the project, a loan agreement was signed in February 2013 with Exim Bank of China, to provide US$ 200 million under Preferential Buyer’s Credit facility and US$ 78.2 million under Chinese Government Concessional Loan Facility. The balance will be borne by the Sri Lankan Government. The loan facilities will be provided at an annual interest rate of 2% with a repayment period of 20 years, including a five-year grace period. The construction of the project has been entrusted to China National Machinery Corporation under the Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) mode; and the design has been sub-contracted to the Consortium of Parsons Brinckerhoff, China Railway Fifth Survey and Design Institute Group C Ltd. Second and Third Phases The railway line would be extended from Beliatta to Mattala in the second stage and to Kataragama in the third stage. The railway trace has been shifted inland from the initial proposal, now passing through Angunakolapelassa, Wetiya Junction, Andarawewa, Mattala, Lunugamvehera to Kataragama. Stage II will also feature bridges at Walawe Ganga, Kirindi Oya and Kirama Oya. The shifting of the line has been approved by the Cabinet; a feasibility study and an environment impact assessment for the revised route is to be prepared. The project will facilitate cargo transport to and from Hambantota Harbour and Mattala International Airport. Colonial history Ceylon’s first railway line was opened between Colombo and Kandy in April 1867. During the British rule railways were developed to facilitate transport of plantation produce such as tea, rubber and coconut. The last major rail-track constructed was from Polonnaruwa to Batticaloa, completed in 1928. Meanwhile, over 125 kilometers of lines were closed and dismantled, with the Avissavella-Yatiyantota railway line closed in 1941; Udupussellawa railway closed in 1948 and Avissavella-Opanayaka track closed between 1976 and 1978. A 14 km short track from Anuradhapura to Mihintale opened in 1993. Railway to Matara and beyond The coastal line from Colombo to Matara was built in stages and the section from Galle to Matara was opened in December 1895. Extending the railway line beyond Matara was first proposed in 1894 to Hambantota, to allow pilgrims attending the Devundara (Dondra) festival and Tissamaharama festival (Kataragama) and to Beliatta as the first stage. The British Engineer Waring who conducted investigations for the railway informed that the proposed line between Dondara and Gandara “traverses by far the most difficult country I have yet seen anywhere so near to the coast in Ceylon”. Accordingly Dondra-Gandara was bypassed and Beliatta was proposed as an important centre for agricultural produce, brought from all parts of Giruwa Pattuwa; but the bridge over Nilwala River and the marshy area beyond was expected to be costly. Hambantota Railway report of 1923 The 1923 report on the Proposed Railway Extension from Matara to Hambantota refers to 49 miles and 56 chains line in two parts Matara to Polonnaruwa and to Hambantota. The proposal was for a broad gauge line with seven stations between Matara and Hambantota, i.e. Kumbalgama, Walasgala, Beliatta, Polonnaruwa, Ranna, Ambalantota and Hambantota. Kumbalgama was proposed for Devundara traffic, Walasgala for Dickwella people and Polonnaruwa for Tangalle. Two halting places were to be opened at Ratmale and Hungama. The populous coastal area (Dondra and Dickwella) were avoided due to the hilly nature of the terrain. The estimated cost per mile was Rs. 160,459.92 with rails weighing 80 lbs. The earthwork was expected to be heavy due to difficult terrain. It was proposed to pay compensation at Rs. 1,500 per acre for cultivated land. However, the commission appointed in 1925 saw no justification of the Matara-Hambantota Railway, as the area was sparsely populated and there was little or no prospect of the scheme paying for itself. The ‘Railway Construction Department’ was closed in 1929, after being in existence for 40 years, and it was considered that there would be no further extensions of railway lines in the country. The railway department map of 1928 marks the section from Matara to Tangalle as a proposed line. One mile maps of the survey department contoured and revised in early 1920s contain the Matara-Hambantota railway track in detail as a proposed line, with some of the proposed stations. Recent history R. Premadasa was elected as President in 1988. Premadasa, who was heavily involved in ‘Gam Udawa’ as the Prime Minister during the J.R. Jayewardene regime, continued his celebrations. Suddenly, realising that he had neglected the development projects, he proposed three projects: 1. Matara-Kataragama railway line, 2. Extension of the railway to Mihintale, which was carried out and operates services during the Poson season and 3. The highway/expressway to Katunayake, which was originally proposed by the Board of Investment to connect Colombo with the Katunayake Free Trade Zone and the Airport, but was stalled due to infighting between BOI and the Highways Department. The construction of the expressway had to be halted when challenged in court, due to non-consideration of environmental aspects. Having obtained environmental approval and just as the lands were about to be acquired, Premadasa was killed on May Day 1993. With regard to the Matara-Beliatta section, Railway engineers were jerked into operation under Premadasa’s orders. The railway was designed for 120 km/hour speed. The route was selected using the Survey Department contour maps and surveys, and acquisitions were underway for the Matara-Beliatta section, with the construction commencing concurrently. The reason for non-consideration of 1923 route by the Railway designers may have been the 120 km/hour requirement. When the acquisitions for route was in progress, the people protested that there were other lands that have been reserved for the railway and suspended from development by the British under 1923 reservations. But the protests went unheeded. The engineers involved in construction complained of the difficult terrain. Designers who went back over the selected route, realised that the route had been selected using 1:50000 contour maps; however, reference to 1:10000 maps indicated closer contours and highlighted their mistakes due to hurried route selection under pressure. Usage of maps showing closer contours would have allowed realignment of the route resulting massive savings on earthwork. But unfortunately, the public had been notified and acquisitions were in progress; there was no turning back. High speed railway The entire rail-track was designed to allow 120 km/hour speed. The distance from Matara to Beliatta is 26 km with six stations. No one seemed to have questioned the logic of 120 km speed in such a track. If one were to inspect the proposed route over Google map (photographs possibly taken over a year ago), it clearly shows the track trace with Matara to Wewurukannala (almost 16km) in a single straight line and from Wewurukannala to Beliatta with number of curves. Tunnel The rail-track also involves a tunnel 600m in length, between the fifth and the sixth km (from Matara) just before the proposed Kekanadura station, which would become the longest railway tunnel in Sri Lanka. Upon inspecting the tunnel location, the following become evident: the proposed tunnel does not pass through a mountain – it is in fact a small hillock, where people have been settled under a high-land settlement scheme. No heavy rock excavation is expected in the tunnel trace and the construction would be a cut-and-cover tunnel. If the route was moved 100m northwards, the tunnel requirement could have been averted. Progress made The construction of the Beliatta line was built up to Piladuwa station (actually a sub-station) nearly 2 km from the Matara station and opened in 1991 under the Premadasa Government, and a train ran from Matara to Piladuwa on the same day. The construction progressed on different locations throughout the route, except for the bridge across Nilwala River. Premadasa’s demise on 1993 Mayday, halted all work on the line. Environmental issues The railway construction in 1990 was without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) evaluation, although the legal requirement was in force. The EIA acceptance was sought in early 2000; however, the environmentalists objected to the bridge across Nilwala River and the line across marsh and the flood plain, claiming that the railway line would act as a dam preventing the flow of rainwater and causing flooding. The EIA findings required the extension of Nilwala bridge to facilitate drainage. Re-start in 2006 The stalled railway extension recommenced a decade later, with the laying of foundation stone for the bridge over the Nilwala River, in March 2006, by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The construction contract for the 170m long steel bridge (excluding sleepers and rails) was awarded to State Engineering Corporation and was completed in 2008 at a cost of Rs. 91 million, and is the longest railway bridge in the country. The Project The Matara-Beliatta railway will have railway stations at Kekanadura, Bambarenda, Wewurukannala (close to the famous Raja Maha Viharaya) and terminating to the south of Beliatta town, with two sub stations at Piladuwa and Weharahena (near temple). The Matara-Beliatta section will have 12 bridges and all road crossings would be through bridges or underpasses without surface rail crossings. Nilwala Bridge is the longest railway bridge in the country and beyond the bridge is the flood plain. The line passes through undulating plains and marshes, and involves huge amounts of earthwork. Almost the entire route has been acquired and the people living on the route have been resettled. As of July 2010, the Railway Department had acquired 1,411 land plots from residents for the railway line between Matara and Beliatta and paid Rs. 710 million as compensation to owners. The partly constructed and abandoned road was used by the villagers since early 1990s, and withdrawal of the facility will raise resentments. While the Matara-Beliatta sector will be single-track, acquisitions of lands for second and third stages to Mattala and Kataragama would be to allow double-tracking. The cost of the railroad The cost of the Matara-Beliatta railway is expected to be $366 million or Rs. 48,300 million for a 24.75 km long single line (26.75 km less two km and Nilwala Bridge already completed). The cost of the proposed railway averages to $14.78 million per km ($366 /24.75). Compare this cost with the recently opened four-lane dual-carriageway Katunayake Expressway, which is 25.8 km long, constructed over a marsh and filled with sea-sand dredged from the sea at the cost Rs. 45,000 million or $342 million, which in itself was considered very high. Thus the 26.75 single track Matara-Beliatta railway line is more expensive ($14.78 million per km) than the 25.8 km long, four-lane dual-carriageway Katunayake Expressway ($13.2 million per km). Comparison with international costs In the United Kingdom, Northern Central City Corridor Study figures released in 2002, costs double track surface rail at $1.9m/km, overhead at $0.8m/km and signalling at $0.8m/km. That’s basically $3.5 million per km of railway in 2001 dollars. Indexed to 2007 dollars, the cost is $4.12 million per km for above ground double track rail, assuming no property acquisition. Stations are not included. In one of the most difficult terrains in the world, in China, the Yichang-Wanzhou main line built in 2011, cost $9.1 million per km for a 377 km railway line, out of which 278 km were in either in tunnels or bridges. The following information was obtained from cost-of-chinese-railway.html: 1. Lagos-Kano railway modernisation contract in Nigeria, completed in 2012 by China Civil Engineering and Construction Corp (CCECC)’s $8.3 billion for a double track standard gauge 1315 km. at an average of $6.31 per km or $ 3.15 per km for a single track line 2. Afghanistan: a 75km project for $170m, or $2.26m per km (single-track). 3. Libya signed a contract in 2009 with China Railway Construction Corporation for $805 million for 172 km of railway on the Tripoli - Ras Edjer line ($4.7m per km). 4. In November 2009, CCECC signed a contract for 200 km stretch of railway between Abuja and Kaduna. This new project is estimated to cost $876 million, or $4.38m per km. with $500 million preferential export credit from China Eximbank. 5. The international average construction cost of railway is US$3.50m per km Compared especially with the Chinese, Yichang-Wanzhou main line built in 2011 costing $9.1 million per km with 73% of the railway line either in tunnels or bridges, shows the 26.75 km long Matara-Beliatta railway line at $14.78 million per km is more expensive than even the railroads built over much more difficult terrains. Reasons for higher costs Undoubtedly, the Matara-Beliatta route was over a difficult terrain as indicated by the British Engineer Waring as “by far the most difficult country I have yet seen anywhere so near to the coast in Ceylon”. As such the costs would be well above the average. But can a cost of $14.78 million per km be justified? 120 Km/hour speed The rail-track was designed to allow 120 km/hour speed in 1990. Then, the express train Ruhunu-Kumari took over four hours for the Colombo-Matara run. The completed railway would have mostly catered to pilgrims to Kataragama (Hambantota harbour was not even discussed at the time). High speed trains in the world cater to long distance travellers on generally under-populated flat regions with few stops. Matara to Beliatta 26 km apart with six stations does not permit such high speeds. The sleepy Railway Department would have been happy with the pre-selected and development prohibited route of their colonial masters. Thus the 120 km speed would have been prompted by someone to President Premadasa. The railway designers without the design experience of even a single km railway line over the past 70 years were pressurised into producing a design for a high-speed line over the most rugged terrain. The time-frame did not allow Railway engineers for a collective discussion over the selected the route. The hurried route selection by the designers who determined the route using 1:50000 contour maps made a huge mistake. The unwanted hurry, the commencement of acquisitions and immediate construction were the biggest contributors to cost escalation. If allowed, the first 16km straight line could have been modified to avert the 600m tunnel, also avoiding a number of marshes and hills. When the environmental proposal was discussed, environmentalists claimed that there would be ponding due to earth filling of railway line resulting in floods. The Railway engineers failed to point out that the control point of Nilwala River flowing to the sea is the bridge in the Matara town, which is less than 100 m wide and the 160 m wide proposed bridge has a much less effect. During the past six years the Nilwala Bridge with its access road constructed had been in existence and there were no complaints of contribution to flooding. Any layman would accept that the single track Matara-Beliatta railway line cannot be more expensive than the four-lane, dual-carriageway Colombo-Katunayake Expressway. Comparison of costs with worldwide railway constructions shows that the Matara-Beliatta railway line is prohibitively expensive, even with its difficult terrain. If the Railway engineers were given more time to select the route and design with internal discussions, a cost-effective design could have been produced. The unrealistic 120 km/hr speed decided by politicians without any knowledge of the ground conditions, resulted in abandoning the route selected by the British who had much more experience. The best course of action should have been re-assessing the British design under the new technological improvements in railway, new design criteria, consider new physical developments in the region over the past 60 years and affecting necessary modifications. Pushing engineers to unduly accelerate projects to cover up politicians’ own delays results in blunders and is contrary to the best interests of the country. (The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka. He can be contacted on [email protected].)

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