Wed. Dec 2nd, 2020

By Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

The writer’s article on the above which appeared in The Island of 09.11.2020 brought some responses among which is reference to the Megapolis Transport Master (MTM) Plan released in November 2016, prepared by the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development under the former regime. This Master Plan has forecasted future demand for transport in the Western Province up to 2035 and proposed ways and means of meeting the demand by road, rail and water transport systems.

Though the terms of reference for undertaking the feasibility study of the Colombo Suburban Railway Project (CSRP) discussed in the writer’s above mentioned article said “Collect and review all available relevant studies, reports, materials, documents, and information including findings from the project preparatory team”, it appears that no reference whatsoever has been made to the MTM Plan in the CSRP Feasibility Study.

NEW RAILWAY LINES PROPOSED IN THE MEGAPOIS MASTER PLAN

The MTM Plan has proposed two new railway lines in the Western Province, one from Kottawa to Horana and a second from Kelaniya to Kosgama linking with the KV railway line. Regarding the first, the Plan says “The detailed design and implementation of Kottawa–Horana new rail line (22km) is planned to be commenced after six months and before three years to be completed on or before 2020. The estimated project duration for the whole project is three years and the cost is estimated to be USD 309 million”. Once completed (if at all), this railway could draw passengers now using the 120 bus route for travelling from Horana to Colombo. The proposed Ruwanpura Highway will also have an exit at Horana which will be an alternative route to travel from Horana to Colombo via the proposed elevated highway from the New Kelani Bridge to Athurugiriya via Rajagiriya. This could affect the forecasted traffic expected to use the railway from Horana.

The more relevant new railway line is the second option, that is from Kelaniya to Kosgama. The MTM Plan has marked out this railway line shown as a crow-flying path, touching Sapugaskanda and Biyagama Export Processing (BEP) Zone. About the line, the MTM Plan says “The Kelaniya to Kosgama via Biyagama, and Dompe (30km) to be constructed which gives access to the proposed plantation city at Avissawella. This project is to be commenced as a long-term intervention. A feasibility study needs to identify the demand and finalize the trace. This can be either electrified or use the locomotives that are taken out due to electrification on other lines”. It will be necessary to build a bridge across Kelani River close to Pugoda for this railway line.

 

ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF THE PROPOSED NEW RAILWAY LINE

The railway line from Kelaniya to Kosgama targets both passengers as well as freight transportation. The line passes the Sapugaskanda oil refinery which makes it possible to use it for oil transportation as well. As a matter of fact, a railway line up to Sapugaskanda was planned several decades ago, and land acquired, but the project was abandoned and the land slowly got occupied by encroachers.

The present refinery built in 1969 meets only 25% of the country’s oil requirement, producing about 1.6 Mt of refined products annually (Petroleum Ministry website). Presently, the refinery is served by two pipelines built in 1969 to transfer crude oil from the Port and refined products to the Kolonnawa Petroleum Storage Complex (PSC). However, the design life span of these petroleum pipelines is only 25 years and hence these need replacements. However, with problems of land and environment clearance, laying of new pipelines is no easy task. Efforts to replace leaky pipelines from the Port to Kolonnawa PSC have been planned for over a decade but still nothing could be realized for various reasons.

As an alternative to a new pipeline, transport of oil to and from the refinery in bowsers could be considered. Assuming one road bowser could hold 20,000 litres, transfer of 16 Ml of oil a day will require 800 bowsers a day. However, if rail wagons are used for transporting oil, using 50,000 litres capacity wagons, a day’s output could be transported in about 320 wagons. If all this oil is transported to the Kolonnawa Complex by pipelines or wagons it will saturate the storage capacity there. Instead, it will be more convenient if this amount could be transported directly to consumer points.

 

PLANS FOR EXPANDING THE REFINERY CAPACITY

Plans for the expansion and modernization of the refinery were made over the last decade, and according to Petroleum Ministry’s Performance Report for 2012, the cost of such modernization was estimated to be USD 500 million in 2010. However, the matter was not pursued that time as the technology offered when bids were called was found unsuitable. It is very likely that the cost of the project with the latest technology would exceed USD 1 billion today. The Cabinet approval was granted on 02.11.2020 to call for fresh bids for modernizing the refinery and expanding its capacity to 100,000 barrels (16 Ml) per day or 5.0 Mt per year. This is about three times the present capacity. However, it appears that authorities have not given thought to the optimum way to transport away the expanded output of the refinery.

Currently, the Corporation maintains 11 bulk depots island-wide out of which 10 are built adjoining railway stations, and oil is transported to them from the Kolonnawa Complex by railway. If a railway line is available to the refinery, refined products could be transported direct to regional depots from the refinery itself. This could be done by using several trains each carrying about 20 wagons. This will ease the congestion at the Kolonnawa Complex in handling the entire oil distribution to the country by itself. The proposed railway link to the refinery will meet this requirement.

In addition, the containers presently transporting goods from the Biyagama EPZ as well as Seethawaka EPZ on road vehicles to the Port for export, could use this railway line after building suitable facilities for loading containers on to the railway carriages at the Zone. This will ease the congestion on highways presently experienced when a large fleet of containers use the highways through the city.

 

AVAILABILITY OF A NEW RAILWAY TRACK TO AVISSAWELLA

A more significant factor is that the new route proposed in the MTM Plan will reduce the distance to Kosgama from Maradana by at least 17 km compared to the route via Padukka. If the Kelaniya–Kosgama trace is taken as a base line, the route via Padukka appears to be a semi-circle. So, naturally, it is about 50% longer. The British moved the original trace via Padukka because a direct route via Hanwella would be over flood-prone land. In building the High Level Road, considerable amount of land filling had to be done to avoid inundation by floods.

The stretch between Padukka and Kosgama is special in that there is no roadway parallel to the railway line along this stretch. Hence to cater to the villagers living in this area, Sri Lankan Railways (SLR) operates a rail-bus service from Padukka to Kosgama at regular intervals. This is an ingenious system developed by a SLR engineer, comprising two normal road buses coupled back-to-back with the road wheels replaced by rail wheels and driven by the normal bus engine. This is a much cheaper system apparently not to the liking of fellow engineers who preferred more expensive conventional locomotive system.

Under the project undertaken for the improvement of the Kelan Valley Railway line as a part of CSRP, it is proposed to build an elevated double track electrified line from Maradana up to Makumbura and from Makumbura to Padukka, build a double track electrified line at grade. The segment from Padukka to Avissawella will be a single track at-grade following the existing line with certain improvements. The total distance of the existing line from Maradana to Avissawella is 58 km. On the other hand, the proposed new track from Maradana to Avissawella via Kelaniya, Biyagama, Dompe and Kosgama will be about 41 km, thus saving 17 km.

 

AMENDING THE PROPOSED IMPROVEMENTS TO KV RAILWAY LINE

The development of the KV railway line up to Padukka may be undertaken as proposed in the CSRP. The stretch between Padukka and Kosgama could remain as it is with slight improvements where necessary to be serviced by rail-buses as done presently. If necessary, the frequency of this service could be increased with additional units introduced. It will be cheaper to use these than using diesel multiple units (DMU) at higher costs. However, if the rail-buses are not fast enough, DMUs may be introduced.

Under the CSRP, a passenger travelling to Avissawella from Maradana will have to alight from the electric train at Padukka and get into a diesel train to continue his journey to Avissawella. The entire journey is expected to take about two hours, excluding the waiting time at Padukka while changing trains. This does not look attractive enough for a bus passenger to shift to a train ride. The SLR also proposes to extend the KV line from Padukka to Nonagama via Ingiriya, Ratnapura and Embilipitiya. Hence, the KV line up to Padukka may be developed with this plan in mind rather than as a continuation of service to Avissawella, which could be serviced by the new line from Kelaniya to Kosgama.

 

ADOPTION OF A NEW RAILWAY LINE TO AVISSAWELLA

It is proposed that the Government adopts the new track via Kelaniya, Biyagama and Kosgama as the main railway line to Avissawella and include it in the SLR programme as a priority project. It is the shortest route with a distance of only 41 km compared to 58 km via Padukkaka. People will not want to waste their time travelling in a railway going on a circuitous track. This area North of the Kelani River has less population and less traffic flow than those covered by the present KV line. The new track between Maradana and Kosgama via Biyagama could be double track and electrified, but need not be elevated and hence built at lower cost.

The stretch between Kosgama and Avissawella could be developed as a part of the development of the new line proposed in the MTM Plan up to Kosgama. The topography of the area does not allow moving the track away from the present track very much as the A4 highway runs close to the railway line along this stretch and also the presence of hilly terrain. Also, the railway line crosses the A4 highway at four places and this should be avoided either with flyovers or re-laid tracks as decided by experts after studying the terrain.

If the new line up to Kosgama is built with double tracks and electrified, it is necessary to continue this system up to Avissawella, so that passengers will not have to change trains at Kosgama. The distance between Maradana and Avissawella along this new line being about 41 km and with a fewer number of stations, EMUs will be able to cover this distance in about an hour compared to two hours via Padukka even after improvement. If trains are available in short intervals, people will not hesitate to take a train ride rather than a bus ride to travel to Colombo, even if the fare is slightly high. The freight trains could be operated at night time when there is less demand for passenger transport. Spurs could be laid to link with the refinery for transport of oil as described previously and with the Biyagama EPZ as well as the Seethawaka EPZ enabling transport of containers between the EPZs and the Port or the Airport. This will ease the congestion of traffic on the highways.

 

CONCLUSION

It is a pity that the CSRP Feasibility Report has not looked at the MTM Plan prepared during the previous regime which had proposed a shorter track from Maradana to Kosgama via Biyagama. It will reduce the travel time from Avissawella to Colombo to about one hour compared to two hours with the trains proposed in the CSRP, and has the advantage to be able to distribute the oil production from the expanded refinery and transport containers from the EPZs at Biyagama and Seethawaka. The Government may give priority to develop this railway line and limit developing the present KV railway line under CSRP only up to Padukka.

The Western Region Megapolis Transport Master Plan was developed encompassing all aspects of transportation to provide a framework for urban transport development in Western Region up to 2035. It included recommendations for improving the bus transport system, railway electrification of main, coastal and KV lines and introducing the light rail transit system.

It is unfortunate that this master plan developed at great cost by local experts appears to have been discarded in favour of a plan developed by foreign consultants costing hundreds of millions of Dollars, yet found unsuitable for reasons described above. This just is one example where plans developed by one regime at great cost are discarded by the succeeding regime despite the fact that some of them have merit. Naturally, the country cannot show any progress if this is the accepted practice.

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By Editor

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