To save the Upcountry Line

Wednesday, 20 April 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Redefine the primary purpose of the Upcountry Line to that of serving domestic and foreign tourists. Redesign the carriages, making some/all of them moving hotels. Cruise tourism works; why not train tourism?



The express train from Badulla to Colombo takes 11 hours to complete its journey of 292 km. That is an average speed of 26.5 kmph. By road, the distance is 225 km and the time taken would be around six hours. 

The extra distance reflects engineering and economic decisions taken in British colonial times. Trains are not good at traversing steep gradients, so they tend to meander, keeping to contour lines on the map. Also, the purpose of the upcountry line was transportation of tea. So it made sense to cover as much of the tea country as possible.sdrysdr

But still, 26.5 kmph is pathetic. On the Main Line, the Intercity Express covers the 413 km from Kankesanthurai (KKS) to Colombo in seven hours at an average speed of 59 kmph, more than double average on the Upcountry Line. The distance by road is only slightly lower at 407 km but the time taken by road is longer than by train. The reason for the slow speed on the Upcountry Line is the condition of the track. It’s curvy and it’s expensive to maintain (thus it is not maintained to international standards).

After many years, I took the Upcountry Line almost to its terminus. The many hours spent on the train gave me more than enough time to reflect on the sad state of our railway network. It also made me realise I was not designed to travel happily at 26.5 kmph.


Railway losses approaching Samurdhi outlays

According to the most recent Central Bank Report (2014), the government railway is a peculiar beast. In 2014, the year that rail connectivity was restored to the Jaffna peninsula, it operated more kilometres, carried more passengers and freight, and even increased its revenue by about Rs. 500 million, relative to 2013. But most stunning was the increase in operating expenditure and operating losses: Rs. 16,943 million expenditure from Rs. 10,586 million in 2013; and Rs. 11,034 million loss from Rs. 5,163 million in 2013. 

The loss is almost double the total revenue for 2014. It is approaching the total spent on Samurdhi payments in 2014, Rs. 15,042 million. Samurdhi is justified. But unlimited taxpayer infusions year-after-year to commercial enterprises badly operated by government are not. 

Generally, passenger railways cannot be operated without subsidy. Freight transport alone can make money (e.g., USA), as can freight and passenger transport when efficiently combined (e.g., India). Sri Lanka’s railways carry minuscule amounts of freight, around two percent of the total, so we have a problem.

I have previously written about how the Main Line (Ragama-KKS) and its spurs could be carved out and made viable as a public-private partnership focusing on freight and fast passenger transportation. But what could be done with the Upcountry Line? 

One cannot imagine a significant amount of freight returning to the railway from the declining tea plantations. One cannot also imagine how the money could be found for the necessary improvements to the track to enable greater speeds, let alone double tracking. So the alternatives are to close down the Upcountry Line or embrace its slowness.


Embrace the slowness

The value proposition of the Upcountry Line is its beauty. Even now, it attracts a significant number of tourists. The Observation Car is fully booked. The private carriages that make up, in some cases, half the train, are doing well too. If the objective is not that of efficiently getting from Point A to Point B but of savouring the journey and the scenery, speed becomes irrelevant. In fact, speed is inimical to the main purpose. The TGV and the Shinkansen trains are so fast that what you see out the window is a blur, not scenery. 

So, redefine the primary purpose of the Upcountry Line to that of serving domestic and foreign tourists. Redesign the carriages, making some/all of them moving hotels. Cruise tourism works; why not train tourism? 

Develop attractive and secure sidings in locations like Nanu Oya and Ella, so that carriages can be kept overnight for tourists to sleep in. Tourists pay good money to sleep on kettuvallam in the Kerala backwaters. Why not on trains?

They come in the train; the carriage is shunted into a siding; vans, taxis and tuk tuks provide excursions, they return to the carriage for dinner or sleep. Then the carriage is attached to another train and the process repeats. Same model as cruise-ship tourism.

If the service is redefined as scenery, good accommodation, gourmet food, and romantic transportation, appropriate prices can be charged. The significantly higher revenues can be used to maintain the track and rolling stock at appropriate levels so that the ridiculous 15 kmph speed limits that apply to significant stretches of track can be lifted, and even perhaps to cross-subsidise some carriages for people travelling between upcountry stations. 

Considerable new investment will be required to upgrade the rolling stock, bring the track up to international safety requirements, build the secure sidings, and conduct an international marketing campaign. Obviously, this is not an activity that can be undertaken by the Sri Lanka Railway, which somehow manages to increase operating expenditures by 60 percent and operating losses by 114 percent in one year. 

For this, it will be necessary to carve out the Upcountry Line, ideally from Polgahawela, but at least from Peradeniya or Nawalapitiya up, as a public-private partnership. The track will continue to be owned by the government, but maintenance and train operations will be handed over to the train operator. 

The concession contract could specify the terms of general passenger transportation among upcountry towns and for the occasional tanker train. The tourist carriages will be owned by different operators. There need not be a limit on how many. Given the power asymmetry between the many carriage operators and the train operator, some form of regulatory oversight may be needed. 

As said above, this is simply a distillation of the public-private partnership that has emerged organically over the past few years. It’s nothing radical. The train I travelled in had six carriages, of which three were private, one was a reservation-only observation car and only two were for general carriage. 

But it is the only alternative to closing down what many consider a national treasure, even if they never use it. If we do not do something creative, the shovelling of increasing amounts of taxpayer money down a second-rate and bottomless railway pit will not end. The national treasure will continue to be a drain on the national treasury.

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