Colombo, October 20: There is a video in circulation in which Colombo University Economist Dr. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan is seen reporting to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that the travel time saved, once upgraded on a 23 km section between Homagama and Maradana on the proposed Kelani Valley (KV) line, is only five minutes.
“This is a complete misrepresentation misleading the President,” said Dr. Dimantha De Silva, Senior Lecturer at the University of Moratuwa and a consultant to the CSRP Project, in an interview.
In a note on misconceptions in relation to the KV line project, Dr. De Silva pointed out that the current travel time on the line between Homagama and Maradana is 68 min, but this will be reduced to 42 min once the line is upgraded to a modern one.
“We know how he (Dr. Gunaruwan) got the numbers mixed up which was pointed out to him by officials in the Treasury who had done a cross-check. But the question is why he is hanging on to his mistake as seen in his latest video released on ‘A5 Channel Sri Lanka’?” Dr. De Silva said.
30 second stop criticism
With regard to the criticism that a 30 second stop has been assumed at stations in the travel time calculation, Dr. De Silva said that it is done with train simulation software.
“It is very common in modern metro rails to operate with 30 second stop time, enabled with same level platform and train floors, wide doors and with around three to four doors in each compartment allowing many people to get in and out at the same time. Even at Shinjuku station in Japan, which is the world’s busiest station with more than 3.65 million passenger using it daily, the stop time is 30 seconds and only goes to one minute during peak times. All in other stations around the world that have similar passenger demands, 30 seconds is considered more than enough,” Dr. De Silva pointed out.
He went on to say that it is understandable that some people are using the current train system to question the 30 second stop time it, but people who have travelled abroad and used modern trains would not question it.
“It is true that there are only 30,000 passengers using the KV line currently as it is the most neglected railway line with constant breakdowns and therefore very unreliable. But going by train is faster than by car or bus even now. The reason why people don’t use rail is because they can’t, even if they want to. The trains are already full. Its single track and outdated signal system do not allow more trains to be added. The trains in the current KV line are also very unreliable, as the delay data shows that they have a delay close to 15-30 minutes,” the expert explained.
The KV line now caters for eight trains in the morning (three in the peak hour running at 20 min frequency) and eight trains in the evening (three in the peak hour). Therefore, all the trips are taken during this six-hour peak period.
“But with the number of daily trains increasing by more than three times to 60 trains and peak time headway of seven minutes, running throughout the day, there is enough supply to attract demand. Reliability, the station upgrade, better connectivity to stations and comfort with AC, will attract the passengers to the train,” he assures.
Computer simulation and modelling undertaken based on scientific methods estimate that the demand between Kirilapone and Nugegoda, which is the section with maximum demand, will have 176,000 passenger trips in 2025 and 202,000 passenger trips by 2035, De Silva said.
The total passenger demand on the KV line will be 273,566 per day in 2025 and 365,731 in year 2035 as per the final feasibility report released on 11 April 2019, he added. The question on variable demands as alleged by Dr. Gunaruwan in his video released recently, could be because he had mixed up the numbers defined as sectional volumes and the number of total passenger trips which was used technically to calculate the number of trains required, De Silva explained.
“These are clear to an experienced transport planner but can be sometimes confusing to a person not engaged frequently in such projects,” he added.
Issue of cost
Once the detail design was completed, the final project cost was reported in the final feasibility report, released on April 2019, as $ 1.424 billion. It is alleged that the project cost of $ 2.52 billion was reported in September 2018 and that it went down without any reason just because the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL) reported it. In reply Dr. De Silva said: “It is confusing as to why this comes up over and over again when it had been explained and detailed well enough to members of IESL since late 2018.”
He further said: “The issue of cost being high was first raised by the ADB and the PMU of the project on 18 September 2018 on the day of the progress presentation and along with the initial report submission, which was later highlighted by the IESL as well. It is common to have multiple submissions of project reports during the study period which allows the clients to provide feedback as we progress in the study. The reasons were explained. The $ 2.5 billion cost was an initial estimate and the price was estimated in LKR at an exchange rate of 150 LKR/USD. Once the detail cost estimations were completed and the exchange rate was corrected at 179 LKR/USD, the cost came down to $ 1.4 billion.”
“It is childish for the IESL group to keep on claiming credit, and repeating a matter that was resolved at the end of 2018 after having been accepted by the ADB and the client. The committee headed by Dr. Gunaruwan appointed in May 2020 had, in its Terms of Reference, the evaluation of the final report submitted in April 2019. But it is surprising that a matter that had been resolved is being raised again.”
The vertical alignment
Critics also say that elevation is a waste of money and going at grade is less costly and a better option. But Dr. De Silva countered this argument.
He said: “There are 148 railway level crossings from Maradana to Avissawella; 75 crossings up to Padukka and 56 crossings up to Homagama. At grade level crossings, the delay to the road network would be very high. At Baseline road, a 450-metre vehicle queue is created even now running trains at 20-minute frequency. Just imagine the impact with trains running every seven minutes in the future? In this case, we used simulation software to evaluate the future impact and it found that the queue will be 800 m with current traffic and around one km with future traffic flow.
“Similarly the existing road network will be highly congested if not grade separated. Twenty major road crossings up to Malapalla have more than 12,000 vehicles per day crossing the level crossing surveyed in 2017. If increased further it will need either the road or the railway to be elevated.
“If flyovers are not included, safety concerns at crossings and the cost to the society and cost of operating the level crossings must be considered separately. The alternate option of going at grade with road flyovers was estimated at $ 200 million extra. This is because a 14.5 m width is required for at grade, while 12 m is needed for elevated viaduct. Therefore, going at grade will require additional acquisition all along the corridor which will in turn create problems like closing down nine km of parallel roads, including highly used roads such as Railway Avenue having access to houses and commercial properties outside the railway reservation.” Dr. De Silva pointed out.
Benefits not accounted for quantified.
The transport expert said that critics had not considered the other benefits of an elevated line. He pointed out that the space created underneath the elevated viaduct was proposed to be used as bicycle paths and walking paths connected with public spaces.
The additional land was proposed to be leased for commercial activities such as kiosks used as additional income generators for the operations on top of ticket revenue. In addition, electrification would require fencing if going at grade. The railway track itself would be a physical barrier separating communities. Extra connectivity was established between the communities in a highly-urbanised area by going elevated, he said.
Answering critics who say that the tight curves were not corrected in the elevated section. Dr De Silva stated: “It would have been ideal to straighten the curves, but the study team looked at the best possible return of investment. Straightening the curves would increase the speed to allow only a five-minute travel time saving compared to proposed design which straightens the curves as much as possible with minimum acquisition. The land acquisition cost itself would be over $ 24 million, and the total cost of straightening, even with the reduction of length by 1.7 kms is very high. Doing it for a five minute time gain with all the social impacts due to relocation in a highly-urbanised area was not the best option.
“The main reason behind no speed gain is because KV line has a specialty compared to other suburban rail, where the rail stations are located very close to each other. There are 24 stations in a 35 km length between Maradana and Paduka. The distance between the stations vary from 0.6 to 1.9 kms. Therefore, trains cannot achieve maximum speeds even with a straight crow fly line generated.”
The issue of freight movement has been brought in to slam the new plan. It is said that freight movement is not possible by elevation as loading unloading cannot be done. But Dr. De Silva said that less than 2% of Sri Lanka good transport is done with rail. Freight traffic has actually declined since 2010. 98% of the freight handles by rail is for cement inputs and oil products.
He pointed out that there is no current demand for freight movement along the KV corridor, except for parcel delivery. And there is no demand projected for future as well. The short distance fright hauling is anyways more economical by trucks.
“There is no need to provide loading unloading provisions at elevated section. If a need arises the facilities can be created. There is no restrictions for parcel movement happening right now and also there is no restriction even to container freight trains to run in the elevated track as assumed by some as the design has been done to accommodate the loads and size of container cars. In case freight movement is to be considered, that option is available,” he added.