Letters to the Editor
The following comments have been received from a reader in response to the news item titled “Railway Development as a viable alternative to the Central Expressway Connection to Kandy”, which appeared in the IESL NSW Chapter Newsletter of January 2018
Railway Development as a viable alternative to the Central Expressway Connection to Kandy
On the above topic which appeared in your newsletter, I wonder whether the writer (and/or the panel) had consulted the opinions of commuters between Kandy and Colombo. Also, whether the writer had taken into consideration the usage of the Central Expressway: (a) to reach destinations along the way, (b) to reach peripheral destinations located off the expressway, (c) for cargo transportation and (d) other uses, than merely getting from Colombo to Kandy.
To be sure, the railway link must be improved between the two cities, in speed, frequency, and efficiency. Apart from speed, frequency of trains is an equally important factor. A road link does not have a “frequency” factor. Vehicles can travel at any time. Public buses can run at intervals determined by demand. A study of commuter and cargo traffic, which includes not only number of people and volume of goods but also the time of the day when they travel and the specific destinations they go to will show that it will be very difficult to serve the overall public needs via a mere high speed rail link between Colombo and Kandy. Taking all that into consideration, an express road is most likely to have more benefit.
This is not to say that the railway network needs no urgent improvements. Even with the current dilapidated tracks, which are unsuitable for high speed trains, improvements in signalling can vastly enhance the frequency and efficiency of the rail network at the current running speeds. With modern signalling systems, trains would be able to run in both directions on a single track and crisscross at loops, and more so where there are double lines. Also, in terms of urban planning, existing railway lines radiating from Colombo and Kandy should be developed as growth corridors to ease urban housing pressures.
An expressway to Kandy will shorten the travel time to other destinations, like Matale, Gampola, and scores of other minor destinations beyond the end point of the expressway. Sure, a high speed railway will bring commuters to Kandy in a short time. But then, those going beyond Kandy will have to change to other modes of travel to get to their ultimate destinations, perhaps nullifying the time gained during the travel mode interchange.
One aspect of developing an expressway to Kandy is to shorten the travel time between the airport and those travelling to the central parts and the north and east of the country. It takes more time to get from Kandy to Katunayake by road than to fly to Singapore. Unless there is appropriate and frequent rail transport and efficient links to other destinations, the needs of such commuters will not be satisfied.
Sri Lanka has wasted huge sums on road infrastructure in the south when the real need was to improve the already congested A1 route to Kandy and then beyond to further north, east and the central hills. I wonder what comments the IESL made when heaps of money was spent on developing four lane highways to Hambantota (which are hardly used) at the cost of developing the real and current needs elsewhere in the country. Transport and other infrastructure development being part of IESL’s interest, lack of sufficient protest at the successive governments wasteful and megalomaniac projects is deplorable, given that all those projects were also built by taking massive loans which the current and future citizens have to pay.
The existing two lane A1 route can still be developed at a low cost by constructing overtaking lanes along the 115 km road. One reason for the slow average speed on the A1 is that lack of overtaking lanes. A slow moving truck blocks and slows the faster moving vehicles for miles on end. Overtaking on the on-coming lane is not only dangerous, but is also a major cause of frequent accidents. What is necessary, in my view, is to build 300 to 500 metre overtaking lanes by widening the existing road where possible so that the slow moving vehicles can allow the faster moving vehicles to overtake, There are plenty of places along the route where such expansions can be effected – certainly between Kadugannawa and Kadawatha and without paying huge amounts in land acquisition. Also needed are road expansions at bus halts. Further, building effective town by-passes along the way can shorten the travel time between destinations. But these by-passes, however, must not be allowed become defunct like the current Mawanalla by-pass.
Lastly, IESL being an important professional body, it must ensure that their studied technical input is taken into consideration whenever the country undertakes mega public funded projects. Their voice needs to be heard loud and clear and should reach the public at large. Whether one agrees with their stand or not on issues, the GMOA does this admirably. In short, IESL has a duty to educate the non-professional public on these matters. Had they stood up to this responsibility, the government may not have sunk the vast sums of loan money into projects of dubious benefit – such as the Mattala Airport and the Hambantota Harbour. Sri Lankan professionals have a duty to ensure all major projects undertaken by any government satisfy economic, technical, financial, environmental, geo-political and social considerations and not the political ambitions or the pecuniary interests of those who promote such projects.
Certainly, a fast, frequent, widespread and an efficient rail network is essential for country’s development. Until such a network is developed, a fast and efficient road network is also necessary to move commuters and cargo. There is no single solution. A multi-pronged approach is what is necessary.