Engine Drivers Boycott Made-in-China Train Compartments
By Buddhika Samaraweera
On 1 February, locomotive engine operators decided to withdraw from running trains with Chinese-made compartments. The issue with Chinese compartments was not a recent one but a problem that had been talked about for years.
They pointed out that trains with Chinese compartments are particularly prone to accidents, and that such trains must be properly maintained in order to operate in a way that they meet local standards. However, these Chinese-made compartments were not imported for a small fee, a sum of USD 24.7 million was spent to import them and a team of Sri Lankan experts were sent to China to inspect their quality before importing them, a senior official of the Department of Railways said.
In such a situation, it is really questionable how these compartments are unsuitable to be operated and why the experts who were sent to China to test their quality at great expense could not find out if they were actually suitable to be run on Sri Lankan tracks. Another serious problem is how it took more than 10 years to realize that these compartments, which were imported at great expense, are placing passengers at risk.
According to Kasun Chamara, General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Station Masters’ Union (SLSMU), on 9 November 2005, with the approval of the then Cabinet, an agreement was signed between a Chinese company and the Railway Department to purchase 100 train compartments with air brakes.
According to the agreement, 100 train compartments manufactured by the said company were supplied to Sri Lanka in a several stages. The first consignment arrived in the country in August 2007. The total value of the order was close to USD 24.7 million and the compartments imported included first class compartments, second class compartments, third class compartments, break compartments, restaurant compartments with small dining cubicles and observation compartments.
The first set of such compartments imported to Sri Lanka in 2007 was set to ‘Ruhunu Kumari’ train which runs between Maradana and Matara. Also, the company provided maintenance services during the warranty period and it ended in 2011, Chamara said.
“Another set of these compartments was added to the Colombo-Kandy intercity train in 2008 and it was observed that their brakes were not sufficient to stop the train on sloping tracks after about a month. Accordingly, on the instructions of the then General Manager of Railways, Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, the trains with those compartments were stopped from operating to Kandy. Also, on 25 November, 2008, the then Additional General Manager of Railways (Operations) recommended that trains with these compartments should not be operated on high sloping railway lines above Rambukkana Railway Station,” Chamara explained.
Locomotive operators decided to stop operating trains with Chinese-made compartments when they saw that they coasted for fair distance before coming to a halt when the brakes were applied on the engine, Secretary of the Locomotive Engine Operators' Union (LEOU), Indika Dodangoda said.
He also said that until concerns raised over Chinese compartments are addressed, engine drivers won’t operate them. The LEOU also pointed out that nearly 200 mishaps had been reported in the recent past due to faulty brakes on Chinese-made train compartments.
Also, last September, Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge had instructed the Railway Engineering Department to submit a report on faulty Chinese train compartments in Sri Lanka. Minister Lokuge had instructed the Railway Engineering Department to inquire and submit a report as a number of complaints were filed by train engine operators in this regard in the recent past.
According to reports, air brakes have been in use for trains in Sri Lanka since 1975. Air brakes are also used in the S8 and S9 power sets imported in 1991 and 2001. Therefore, the air brake system is not something new to Sri Lanka. Also, air braking is considered to be a more efficient method than vacuum braking, which is one of the most widely used braking systems in the world today.
However, an official of the Railway Department told Ceylon Today that the brakes of the air brake system used in these Chinese- made compartments in question are applied not to the wheel but to a disc connected to the wheel axle. He added that there are no compartments with such disc brakes in any of these trains operating in Sri Lanka. As a result, more brake force should be applied to stop a train with these compartments in a sloping area, he said.
Also, in the event of a sudden compartment disconnection while a train is running, the brakes on the disconnected parts of the train must be activated automatically following a breakdown of the air pressure in the brake system. However, it has been observed on several occasions that such automatic braking does not occur in these compartments and that the power of brakes is not sufficient to stop the train.
Also, during a Media briefing recently, President of the Sri Lanka Station Masters' Union (SLSMU), Sumeda Somaratne claimed that administration of the Railway Department was preparing to house these compartments at railway stations in other areas as there were no facilities to house them in yards in Colombo. However, he said that in the face of a shortage of nearly 4,000 employees in the Railway Department, station masters could not be held responsible for the safety of these compartments and objected to parking them at railway stations.
Accordingly, the Department had cancelled the decision to house the compartments at railway stations and it is learned that a programme has been implemented to modify them, said Somaratne. He said that about 15 compartments are now operational and that many more are yet to be modified.
He also pointed out that some of the faults in these compartments are caused by condition of the railway tracks in Sri Lanka. Railway track conditions cause faults not only for trains with these compartments but also for all types of trains. He also said that in all those cases, the station masters are the ones who work most closely with the people and they have to face many difficulties.
Somaratne also said that usually when buying such compartments, a team of train operators, guards, and other experts go to the relevant countries and check their quality. Therefore, a formal inquiry should be held to find out how the approval was given for the purchase of faulty compartments in this manner and whether someone got a commission and gave approval for it, he said. He said such irregularities had taken place during all governments. However, he emphasised that it was important for the Government to look into the officials responsible for these incidents and take necessary action against them.
When contacted, General Manager of Railways Dilantha Fernando said that work related to modification of the Chinese compartments in question has already begun. He said that out of 100 such compartments imported to Sri Lanka, about 99 are in usable condition and said that most of the trains are housed at nearby stations, which could lead to erroneous situations. He also said that the condition of the railway tracks could also cause faults and it is hoped that all these compartments will be operational after the modifications.
However, there were reports in the recent past that the Chinese company that supplied these compartments had rejected claims that Chinese-made train compartments pose a threat to passengers. It had also stated that these compartments have been operational for more than 12 years. The company had also expressed its consent to provide service in modifying these compartments and enter into a maintenance contract.
Despite the various opinions expressed by various parties, the public money was spent on importation of these train compartments. In addition, teams of experts travelled to China to check quality of the compartments at public expense. So the ultimate goal of spending public money should, of course, be to take all possible steps for the public’s convenience. But unfortunately, it is the people who are at risk, as claimed by train operators, due to these compartments. Also, it is the people who suffer from train delays due to faults with these compartments. So shouldn't the authorities take action against those responsible for wasting public money in this way, buying these and endangering the public itself?