NewsRailway electrification and modernisation

January 21, 2016

Project ready for implementation

• First trains to run by 2021


No, no, it is not another ‘supplier driven’ project, the more decent phrase to identify projects offered by companies from countries with “friendly” governments, offering loans for the project at double the market interest rates, repaid in ten years. Only if Sri Lanka awards the contract to their chosen contractor, on a platter! No competitive bidding. If the count is right, going by the headlines in state-run newspaper over the past 10 years, we must have already built two express train services from Colombo to the airport, and one more Colombo-Negombo express train service, and two (not one) expressways to Kandy. There are also such “supplier driven” light rail and monorail services from Ratmalana to Colombo-Maradana-Borella, hidden under the bushes along Galle Road, as we cannot see any such service. Investors came and went, from time to time, got our politicians excited, generated only newspaper headlines, but no railway project.

Passengers continue to dangerously hang on to the bars at the doors, trying to get to work on time. Back to the footboard in the evening, to catch their connecting bus to get to the village. Their grandfather did so 50 years ago; and the grandchildren do that today, on the footboard. On our suburban train services,which have not seen any major improvement over the past 50 years or more. Yet,about 300,000 people travel daily in the suburbs. Half of them get in and get off in the Polgahawela-Kalutara South sector, Colombo being the main terminus. What if we can double that number to 600,000 per day, meaning 3000 bus-trips would not be required to run? Or 100,000 car-trips need not be done. Travel time will be saved. Energy will be saved. If you want to have more reasons, say that greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced.


Close your eyes: imagine you travel on your motorbike to your nearest railway station, Panadura. A smiling parking attendant accepts your motorbike for full-day parking, and charges a concessionary fee, chargeable on your train ticket, when you come back in the evening. The car park has no signs to say “parking at your own risk” but instead, the signs say, “Welcome to park and ride, we will take good care of your vehicle. Yours faithfully, SL Railways”. A smiling ticket counter clerk issues an electronic ticket, which can be used in the train, connecting buses, and even to pay parking fees at station car parks. Electronic displays show the next train time, and even the time to the second train on line. As all Sri Lankans can read, noisy announcements at stations are no more, replaced with good, bright signs. The five-carriage electric train arrives, the destination “Veyangoda” shining brightly besides the SLR logo, brakes smoothly owing to regenerative brakes, doors open. The train floor and station platform are both at the same level, and you conveniently get in. The train is air conditioned, and off you go! The train gets crowded, but not packed, averages at 50 km per hour for the suburban run to your destination, meaning that it comes from Panadura to Colombo Fort in 30 minutes, even with so many stops.

As you approach the Colombo Fort, you hear that a family member has been taken ill and you need to immediately go to Ragama hospital. No need to get off in Fort, to buy a ticket to Ragama and scramble back on to the train; you continue on the same train to Ragama, and pay for the additional run when, after a further 20 minutes, you exit at Ragama, with your electronic ticket.

End of a dream? Not really!

No more a dream

Electrification and modernisation of the suburban railway network was approved by the Government earlyin 2015. Soon thereafter, upon invitation by the Government, the Asian Development Bank, has committed itself to finance the project preparation through a grant. This will happen in 2016. Then in 2017, the detailed technical designs will be done, followed by procurement, and construction work will be done over 2018-2021. The entire project will be financed by the Asian Development Bank on concessionary terms, and would be done according to the designs prepared in consultation with Sri Lanka Railways. So,as you see, the time table and the road map is now set to modernise and electrify the suburban rail network of Sri Lanka.

The sector selected for electrification and modernisation first will be the Veyangoda-Panadura sector, which will run a through-service across Colombo. This means, trains will not terminate in Colombo, but will continue to Panadura and vice versa, thus reducing the frustrating congestion in the sectors close to Colombo in the present service. Obviously, the service has to be extended from Veyangoda to Polgahawela, Panadura to Kalutara South, and Ragama to Negombo, in its subsequent phases of development.

Project construction, though not technically challenging owing to the technology being well established, will be difficult because construction has to be done while the existing services continue to operate. Track improvements to achieve higher speeds, safety improvement at crossings, raising the overhead bridges or lowering the tracks to accommodate power lines, station improvements, electronic ticketing and parking facilities at stations, would all be part of the project. So, it will not simply be a case of hanging a wire above the tracks and running an “electric power set”. It will be a complete transition to a modern, suburban railway network and a world class service.

What happens to your beloved express trains, the “Kumaris, Menikes, and Devis”, and the mighty “office trains”, when a part of the network is electrified? No problem; they will continue to be “diesel power sets” or drawn with diesel locomotives, run on the same tracks, now much improved to accommodate faster electric trains. Obviously, they will run express in the electrified sectors, much to the delight of the long distance traveller. Stage by stage, our entire extended suburban network, may be even up to Chilaw in the NW, Kurunegala in north, Rambukkana in the central, and Aluthgama in the south, should all be covered by the electric suburban service. These require more studies, as we go ahead with the Veyangoda-Panadura sector, to evaluate the benefits Vs costs. Why only Colombo suburbs? Kandy, Jaffna and Galle too have busy suburbs, that require thought and analysis, and electrification.

What about the KelaniValley line, presently running six trains packed to capacity, on a winding single track? The recently concluded Colombo Metro Transport Master Plan places the highest priority on upgrading the KV line, because it provides extremely high benefits to the travelling public, and thereby, to the economy. Therefore, the KV line development and electrification would be a complete stand-alone project, to be started immediately.

The Battaramulla-Malabe-Pelawatte elite, if we may call them so, would be delighted that a new railway to Battaramulla and beyond would also be built, shortly, though not firmly included in the upcoming project. It is your duty to get it included in the already approved project, if you want a joyful ride to work in the city and back. And from the city to Parliament and back.

Technically Speaking

A suburban train full of 1000 passengers uses only about 5.5 units of electricity per kilometre. Your electric car uses about 0.1 unit of electricity per kilometre, just for the two of you. Thus, the electric train is at least 10 times more efficient than your electric car. If we add regenerative braking, that means when the train brakes, energy goes back into the grid, rather than being wasted on the wheels, the electric energy use reduces by at least 20%. A longer, double “power set” will be even more efficient.

Electricity will be supplied to trains through a “catenary” wire, hung above the tracks. Current enters from the “pantograph” collector touching the catenary, drives the train motors, and current leaves through the wheels along one of the two rails. Will it be dangerous to walk on the tracks? No, not owing to electric shock, but with more frequent trains running at higher speeds, it would be very dangerous to walk on tracks. So what do we do? Fence the tracks, and control access, and wean Sri Lankans away from the habit of walking along rail tracks. We have fenced all the expressways, and people have come to accept it, so why not fully fence the railway lines?

What happens in a power failure? The national grid is more reliable than the roadside distribution line serving our households. Electrified trains will draw power from the high voltage grid, not from the roadside lines. To the credit of Ceylon Electricity Board, grid failures are becoming less frequent, although roadside lines are reporting increasing numbers of failures. The most recent grid failure was in September this year; the previous one was in October 2009. Both 2009 and 2015 grid failures were the result of technical errors (human errors) and not any weather-related cause. So, as our power engineers mature, grid failures will be even less frequent. However, in case the grid goes dead? Yes, for that, SLR would have several standby generators that would come-up automatically and power-up the SLR power network to provide a limited service. To accelerate an electric power set, it requires 1200 kilowatt, but that is for a few seconds, and thereafter, power requirement will decrease. So, even in a grid failure, a reasonably good service can be provided with about 5 megawatt of standby capacity. All these will have to be examined in the detailed design.

Remember the greater London blackout of 2003?Thousands could not get home after work, and slept on the pavements of London.

So what?

Remember, the construction work has not started as yet. Expect to see processions at Fort railway station against relocation of unauthorised dwellings and fencing the tracks. With the stringent social impact analyses required in projects financed by Asian Development Bank, such problems will be minimal.

Do you believe that your Government is firm with the decision to commence electrification and modernisation?

Any train passenger would have been happier if the electrification and modernisation project was included and specifically mentioned in the budget speech.No, it was not done, and instead, the budget speechspoke of hydrogen vehicles (still on the drawing boards, in research labs and pilot stage) and Helium vehicles (which even in the wildest dreams, no researcher would even think of using for transport). Therefore, your Government, or at least certain arms of the Government, is still not with you and with the project, to ease your transport worries, and give you a more comfortable, energy-efficient daily ride to work and back.

No politician, including the Megapolis Ministry, getting mightier by the day, has taken ownership of the project to modernise the railway network, as yet. Why do you think it is so? Have you heard the Minister of Transport saying, yes, let us do it, and promising to place his heart and mind and energy into getting the job done? NO. Megapolis Minister? NO. Prime Minister? NO. President? NO.

May be some arms of the Government think that the illusive self-appointed investors would come their way along with their local promoters, again, and generate a railway project of much bigger value, which will be beneficial to all above the heads of the travelling public.


Demonstrations at Fort Railway station to pressurise the government to implement the project with absolutely no delay, and run modern electric trains from 2021. Pressure the government to support Sri Lanka Railways, their engineers and staff, to manage this landmark project that came its way after a very long time, very well, and to think far into the future.

Also wanted are demonstrations by the Battaramulla-Pelawatte-Malabe elite shouting: “Include our new railway line in the upcoming project, link to Dematagoda and fast into Fort, Panadura, and Ragama-Veyangoda.”

By Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya

Source : The Island | Monday, January 4, 2016