Tuesday, 14 October 2014 01:50
President Mahinda Rajapaksa travelled to Jaffna to inaugurate the Yal Devi returning home after the lapse of 24 years. While the politics involving the Government and the Northern Provincial Council grabbed the most attention, the impact on public transport needs discussion as well.
Despite significant improvements to the country’s infrastructure since the end of the war in 2009, public transport remains mired in issues. Perhaps this was best exemplified by the crippling railway strike launched the days ahead of Rajapaksa’s visit. Unions and Government officials were locked in a stalemate that not only inconvenienced thousands of commuters but also potentially cast a pall over the President’s visit to the north to open the Indian-funded track. Suspended by a court order, the strike is likely to rear its ugly head at some point in the future.
Strikes by officials are only one dimension of the problems facing the sector. Successive accidents over the past 14 years prove how ineffective authorities have been at preventing accidents and improving railway safety in Sri Lanka.
On 19 August 2001, a train derailed because of high speed and overcrowding, killing 46 between Alawwa and Rambukkana. In January 2002, the Intercity Express heading to Colombo from Kandy derailed near Rambukkana, causing more than 15 deaths. The accident was due to malfunctioning of the braking system, it was reported. On 13 June 2002, a train derailed whilst coming into Alawwa station, killing 14 people. The list continues. On 17 September 2011, near Alawwa, two trains collided, killing five people and injuring over 30 people. On 17 May 2012, two trains (after one train crashing into a stopped train) collided between the Wandurawa and Keenawala Railway Stations in Veyangoda.
In early 2010, the Government launched a 10-year Railway Development Strategy to bring the Railway back to satisfactory condition. It started by ordering new Diesel-Multiple Units (DMUs) to replace the current trains. In 2010-2012, the Railway upgraded the track on the southern line, which was damaged in the 2004 tsunami. The track was upgraded to handle trains at 100 km/h, allowing for shorter journey times. It is also currently rebuilding the northern line and is also extending the southern line from Matara to Kataragama, with the intention of ending up in Hambantota. Yal Devi was another iconic development.
Yet many of the key problems have remained, dominated by Victorian-era infrastructure and ageing equipment. A substantial amount of expenditure goes to rehabilitating poorly-maintained assets, as opposed to regular maintenance. In addition, the Railway Department is chronically in debt. In fact according to some records the Department last made a profit in 1943 and continues to make losses each year.
Politicisation of the service also means little or no training, few incentives and low productivity. Corruption has also become endemic in the railways, much like everywhere else, with many complaints being made of substandard or unsuitable equipment being imported for fat commissions.
This same set of problems is largely seen in the bus transport system as well. Pundits have long-opined road development will only take infrastructure development so far in Sri Lanka and significant funds need to be allocated to improving the quality of public transport. Yet, successive Governments have balked at streamlining public transport and assimilating it with international standard technology. True, the Government is considering expensive options such as a metro system, but not only is it long years in the future, a stumbling public service would make implementation harder. Perhaps the time has come for quality over quantity.