Sri Lankan transport professionals are lobbying for rail transport priority, saying the government was wasting tax payer money by building an expressway to the hill country Kandy city at high cost when upgrading rail links was more viable and cheaper.
Rail travel from the capital Colombo was even now faster than travelling by the clogged artery to Kandy with traffic jams in both cities only set to increase as more vehicles are encouraged if the proposed Central Expressway is built, they told a forum.
It was pointed out at the forum that restrictions on the type of vehicles allowed on Sri Lanka’s expressways meant 70% of travellers like those using normal buses, three-wheeled auto-rickshaw taxis and motorbikes would not be able to use them although all tax payers bore the cost of the projects.
“Train travel is much faster than road even now,” said Priyal de Silva, former general manger of Sri Lanka Railways, the railway department.
He proposed upgrading the track and increasing the frequency of trains to cater to anticipated travel demand between the two cities at the forum held by the Sri Lanka Society of Transport & Logistics (SLSTL) with the Mechanical Engineering Sectional Committee of the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL).
The forum on ‘Railway Development as a Viable Alternative to the Central Expressway Extension to Kandy’ investigated how a modern railway is a cheaper, effective and sustainable alternative to the proposed expressway which has become controversial.
De Silva, a former president of IESL and former chairman of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, Sri Lanka, said the immediate improvements he proposed will get commuters to Kandy in 110 minutes and the frequency of trains increased to 20 from 13 today in each direction.
Ranjith Dissanayake, a former chief engineer, headquarters at the railway department, proposed an entirely new high-speed partly elevated double-track railway to Kandy that would do away with level crossings for vehicles that now impose speed restrictions on trains.
The new trace would make use of hillocks near the coast to reduce the gradient of the climb to the central hills that in some places on the existing track are too steep for high speed travel.
Dissanayake, also a former personal assistant to the general manager of railways, said the technology was available and speeds of 150kmph would be enough for Sri Lanka’s requirements for inter-city train travel.
Amal S Kumarage, Senior Professor at the Department of Transport & Logistics, University of Moratuwa, said the proposed Central Expressway to Kandy was far too costly, based on uncertain traffic demand estimates and badly designed.
Traffic demand estimates had come down in the latest studies for the project from original ones while the number of lanes had been increased to four from two and costs had soared as well, said Kumarage, also president of Sri Lanka Society for Transport and Logistics (SLSTL) and a former head of the transport planning commission.
“Traffic demand had been over estimated because we have not grown that fast,” he told the forum. “We can see certain variations in traffic estimates also. This highwy is costing us over Rs4 billion a kilometre.
“I can’t understand the logic of how when estimated traffic demand comes down, the price goes up, and the expressway project goes from two lanes to four lanes.”
Currently travel time on the Colombo-Kandy road, according to Google traffic data, averaged 230 minutes whereas the inter-city train goes in 150 minutes, Kumarage said.
“So railway already has a speed advantage,” he said. “Now speed is not a problem running to Kandy – we need more trains and more people will go.”
The proposed new high-speed rail using a new trace would improve rail speed even more while rail fares could be competitive with those of buses.
“So railway can be a cost effective, competitive and commercially viable option,” Kumarage said.
None of the studies on transport to Kandy had considered alternate modes like rail.
Kumarage said improvements to roads were necessary to cater to anticipated demand as the island economy grew and incomes increased.
Money for the proposed rail projects could be found as enough money was available for the costly Kandy expressway project.
“It depends what we spent money for. If we don’t spend money on things we don’t need am sure we can find the money.
”The idea here should be to get people between Colombo and Kandy fast. That’s what people want. Not to build a highway.”