The Derailed LRT, KVL Projects

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 17 2020
Focus The Derailed  LRT, KVL Projects

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

For socio-economic growth, the public transport system is key and as of 2020, Asia pacific region tops with high-speed rail lines and it is predicted that by 2050, passengers will travel almost 50 trillion km on urban transportation networks globally. Sri Lanka is straddled with old railway lines built during colonial times with some refurbishment. But what is surprising is that there is not a single electric train in the country and when there was a plan to introduce the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project from Malabe to Fort and a plan to redesign the Kelani Valley Line (KLV) they were shelved for reasons that are not clear or understood by the public. 

The public outcry is that these were the only two mega projects that directly benefited the ordinary man’s day-to-day life but it has been subjected to such ordeal. 

The current state of public transport is not very convenient and the need for comfort is a far cry (despite completed mega road project and many more to come) with blooming skyscrapers and international projects that have taken off several years back due to not generating revenues as they should. 

The LRT project funded by a Japanese Governmental agency, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), came to a halt recently after the Sri Lankan Government said it was too costly. The LRT Phase 1 was 16.7 km from Malabe IT Park to Fort.The Feasibility was also completed in 2018 with the Economic Internal Rate of Return over 20 per cent confirming that it is a project that has high economic benefit for the country in terms of travel time savings, fuel savings and emission savings.   

LRT by JICA is effective and reasonable says Senior Lecturer, Transportation Engineering Division Department of Civil Engineering, and University of Moratuwa, Dr. Dimantha de Silva.

Dr. de Silva, who was one of the consultants to the PMU of the LRT project funded by JICA (Purple line), explained that his assessment of the facts have been misinterpreted. He also said the cost factor per km quoted by the Chinese is also around the same price JICA quoted.

Talking to Ceylon Today he explained the basics of the loan facility. Firstly, he explained the loan secured for LRT was US$ 1.8 billion with 0.1 per cent interest for 40 years loan with 12-year grace period. The Step-loan condition was with 30 per cent needing to be Japanese products (Majority of that will be rolling stock to which we have world benchmarked prices to compare with). The consultancy fees for the project was 0.01 per cent interest and the loan was to be taken in tranches. The first tranche US$ 273 million taken in 2019 and the first loan instalment was to be paid in 2030 after six years of operation generating economic benefits, with the last instalment to be paid in 2058, he added. 

The entire project cost estimated at feasibility stage was US$ 2.2 billion which included around US$ 300 million of value added taxes (VAT) and another 300 for price escalation and price contingency. It is incorrect to compare with other projects and other proposals based on total project cost since they don’t quote VAT or other contingencies in their price. Therefore, any cost comparison has to be based on construction cost. The per km cost calculated by dividing the cost by distance has been presented  as the ‘high cost’ by some “transport experts” as US$ 140 million per km, which is a total misinterpretation and makes us wonder whether it is intentional, he added.

The construction cost within this total was US$ 1.4 billion. Therefore, the cost should have been quoted as US$ 85 million per km. The cost is relatively higher because the length is relatively short of 16 km where any metro system optimizes to a route length of around 30 km taking into account system costs such as communication, signals and costs for rolling stock and a maintenance yard will be fixed for the full 30 km. He said it has been estimated in the FS study that once the JICA LRT is extended up to 30km with possible extension from Malabe to Kaduwela and Malabe to Kottawa (via Athurugiriya) per km cost will come down to US$ 61 million per km. Now after completion estimates cost is down to US$ 1.0 billion, the per km rate is at US$ 62 million per km even with relative short distance and possibility to go down to around US$ 50 -55 million per km further with planned extensions. 

A proposal from a Chinese investor under private-public partnership (PPP)  for LRT suggested to be around US$ 2,000 million for 32.4 km which makes it US$ 65 million per km and the engineer challenged that it was not half the price of what JICA claimed.   

Dr. De Silva noted that though JICA’s US$ 1.8 billion was secured, the final amount would have been known only after competitive tendering processes were completed. Around US$ 27 million has been spent and by shelving the project, the Government will probably have to reimburse that amount immediately, he added. 

He said that the Malabe corridor is one of the most congested roads in the country and has the highest vehicle growth. In 2012 there were 80,000 vehicles travelling daily and in 2019 it had increased to 136,000, a staggering eight per cent growth per annum. It is the only major corridor which does not have a railway connection thus a sustainable solution cannot be provided other than providing just that. Faced with the lack of lands and the heavy traffic that would create if the railway line was to criss-cross busy roads, the only option left was to elevate the tracks above the road’s centre line. 

A  Chinese investor submitted proposals for the other three LRTs (red blue and green) to the last Government under a PPP. One line, 

32 km in length, was estimated to be around two billion Dollars, US$ 62 million per km, which questions the claim that the Chinese can build at half the cost of the JICA line.  

PPP models are very hard to be materialised since considerable portion of capital, around 40 per cent of the construction cost, has to be provided as a gap financing by the Government.  If it is a two billion Dollar investment, around US$ 800 million will be borrowed through a commercial loan or else provided land in return. Finding prime land in Colombo could be problematic. In addition, other conditions such as ridership guarantees sometimes disguised as operational cost can be present amounting to around 100 US$ million per year to the Government. Therefore, if a PPP model is considered, a careful review of the proposals have to be made considering all of the factors above. 

Japanese Embassy

When we contacted the Japanese Embassy they said they will be meeting the Government authority very soon on this matter as they have not yet received any official cancellation request. “We are aware of the Press release regarding the Cabinet decision on the cancellation of the LRT project, and will talk to the Government of Sri Lanka about this matter,” a senior Embassy official noted.  

Dr. De Silva further added, “We don’t have to recover the loan through ticket sale. None of the projects recover capital costs by ticket sales in short term. Based on the proposed ticket price of Rs 100 from Malabe to Fort, LRT would have recovered the operations costs and contributed to recovering the capital cost to pay the loan between 40-50 years.  Do we recover cost of the expressway construction by toll fees collected in short term?  We need to look at the economic benefit or the EIRR which will benefit society. I was surprised that Dr. Gunaruwan who is supposed to be a person with an economic background mixes economic return against financial return.”

The KVL

The Government treasury sent a letter to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to cancel the funding. Also IESL together with Dr. Gunaruwan called it a costly project and that it runs on elevated track which cannot be used for cargo/goods transport. However, the CSRP at present has reached completion of its detailed design and bid document at preparation stage. 

Dr. De Silva noted that the KVL Project cost misinterpreted by some parties as US$ 2.5 billion which was an initial cost based on an initial estimate, not based on detailed costing. The ADB and the Project Unit were the first to respond and later by the Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka (IESL), that the cost was too high and that it needs to be re-assessed. When the study was completed, the final project cost was at US$ 1.424 billion with construction cost at US$ 1.25 billion. He also explained the reason for US$ 2.5 billion seeing a reduction to US$ 1.424 billion was due to two folds. “The exchange rate initially considered at Rs150 per US$ corrected to Rs 179 per US$ and once the detailed cost estimations with all nitty-gritty, the estimated cost reduced.” However, the IESL for some reason continues to claim the credit of reducing the cost although they have been explained and provided with details on more than one occasion.

“It’s a complete misinterpretation by Dr. Gunaruwan that there is just five minutes saved after the KVL upgrade. The current travel time of KVL between Homagama and Maradana is 68 minutes which is scheduled to reduce to 42 minutes; which will save 26 minutes for a commuter. While the savings for a car and bus passenger transferred will be over 70 minutes. He added that Dr. Gunaruwan failed to highlight that the major saving comes from existing car and bus passengers who will make up 90 per cent of the new commuters on KVL. 

Level crossing causes heavy traffic. For example, the Baseline Road closes for trains every 20 minutes; backing up traffic 450m. With trains passing every seven minutes, it is simulated that queues will be over one kilometre. There are 148 level crossing from Maradana to Avissawella, 75 to Padduka and 56 crossings up to Homagama, out of which 20 major crossings see more than 12,000 vehicles a day which will require either the road or the railway to be elevated. Some flyovers cannot be built in places including Kirimandalamawatha and Narahenpita since the ramp will touch downhalfway on the main road. Safety concerns at level crossings and the cost to society must be considered separately. The alternate ‘surface’ option proposed by IESL is estimated to add an extra US$ 200 million, more than the cost of elevating the entire section up to Malapalla, raising some eyebrows as to the technical knowhow of the proposers. The width of the surface line is 14m while it is just 12m when elevated. Plus, 9 km of parallel roads along the track such as Railway Avenue will have to be closed to allow a grade railway line needing considerable additional acquisition.  

KVL Horizontal Alignment 

The current alignment has many curves. The stations are located very close to each other. There are 24 stations in 35 km length between Maradana and Padduka and the distance between the stations varies from 0.6 to 1.9 km. Two options for horizontal alignment were considered. The first option was to straighten the curves as much as possible within the existing ROW with a minimum curve radius at 120m with a land acquisition cost of US$ 8.5 million. Option two was to straighten the curves completely and have a minimum curve radius of 300m with land acquisition cost of US$ 32 million. Although US$ 24 million is spent extra on acquisition, in addition to social impacts of displacing people on a highly urbanised corridor, the only benefit would be a reduction of five minutes travel time between Homagama and Maradana. With stations at very close proximity, there is no speed gain by straightening the curves. Therefore the first option was the obvious choice.


Project is unnecessary – Prof. Gunaruwan

Professor Dr. Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, who was appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to review several mega projects in the country, condemned the KVL project after assessing. He said that the team led by several other experts on economic transportation gathered information from various sources including the IESL. According to the information they received, the KVL project is unnecessary for the country. 

“We already have a KVL line and they only need to be upgraded, perhaps, new trains, new railway lines and a new networking system.” Dr. Gunaruwan further said he only volunteered to review these projects without expecting any pay. He said the KVL project with a massive loan obtained from ADB will find so many faults including a high cost. “Now how do you recover the loan?” he asked. He asked whether through ticket sale, “Can we recover?”. He also said, “How much can a passenger be charged?” Initially the consultant’s proposal for KVL suggested US$ 2.4 billion and in three months, in his second proposal, the cost came down to 1.5 billion. How is this possible? Also in the number of passengers using the KVL line he quotes two different total numbers of passengers.”

Dr. Gunaruwan further added, “Why should the KVL run on elevated levels (7ft) and why not on the ground?” Then further questioned, “how will a passenger load and unload his goods to the KVL if it’s that high?”  Dr. Gunaruwan said that the IESL had told him it was a wrong decision and inappropriate cost which he also found to be true. “I did my own findings too and what we need is an upgraded KVL only and the expenditure incurred would not be a colossal amount. How do we justify such proposals to be good for the country? Who will bear the cost? How is it viable? Who is going to repay?” The speed and capacity of this KVL is 30kmph. Even the design of trains is not suitable for the country. On the LRT, he added he was not given a copy of the proposal for review stating that the proposal had been already shelved. Hence, he has no say about it. “If you spend a Dollar, you must earn more than a Dollar in return.” 


No National Transport Policy up to 2050 – Expert

An expert in mobility economy, Sujeeva Premaratne said that LRT is not only a waste of money but will not even solve the problem. “We need all other possible avenues before committing to such a massive project. I am of the opinion that not only Japan, but we also shouldn’t be doing it even with China at this stage. Mass transit and LRT are good solutions for megacities and not for us,” he added.

He further said that even the expected mode-shift project will not materialise and what will shift is the bus crowd to LRT. Enough cars will not get ejected from the route. He added that the post-COVID situation is even more challenging and that the next decade will be lesser mobility. “Even afterwards people will get used to minimising their mobility needs and doing things online. We need doing first things first. Curb parking should be completely stopped, bus lanes and full lane discipline implementation should be permanent. Not just media hype or pilot projects. School drops and pick up space should be provided within the school, if not no private vehicles should be allowed. 

The next step could be institutions that need to move out of Colombo. That includes everything; from general hospitals to schools. That itself will solve half the problem.  However, the city needs to be there for pleasure, business, and recreation and I am not saying to chase all the people away. The KVL covers an existing major economic route and will be a prime channel to take the city to the suburbs. And I agree that local engineers should be able to conceive and deliver an electric heavy rail project.  Professor Amal Kumarage said the whole country’s transport problem can be resolved with just 1/8th of the LRT cost, within two years. The Government should invite/force him to reveal that plan / publish it. The biggest issue is that there is no National Transport Policy covering the period up to 2050. In fact, transport is somewhat outdated; ComTrans can be a good database, but the post-pandemic mobility is way too different than we ever dreamed of. Even the whole world is now moving out of mass transit measures like LRT, towards micro mobility in addressing urban mobility. But more than anything, we should focus on DEMAND SHIFT (Demand management),” he said. 


US$ 10M already spent – CSRP

An official attached The Colombo Suburban Railway Project said, “75 per cent of the designing of the railway line project has been completed, spending US$ 10 million already and there is only two more months to complete it. Resettlement of the people along the KVL line up to Padukka, has been completed and four million rupees worth houses are assured to them. We have done what we were assigned to do. I think it’s up to the Government to re-initiate the funding arrangements for the project.” When asked why the ADB funding was shelved, he said that the design of the KVL project had a number of options for vertical and horizontal alignment and that they selected the lowest cost option.

 

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 17 2020

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