The Colombo Light Rail Transit (LRT) project which is the first of its kind in Sri Lanka, would be constructed with the financial and technical assistance from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), by the end of 2024 and would be ready for commercial operation by early 2025. The project is to be constructed with an estimated total investment of US$ 2.2 billion, where investments for direct costs is provided by JICA.
In an interview with the Daily News Finance, Project Director, LRT Project - JICA, the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development Engineer, Commander (Rtd) Chaminda Ariyadasa said that with the construction of the LRT, a major portion of traffic prevailing within the Colombo city, would be reduced since it would only take 30 minutes to travel from Malabe to Fort, thus ensuring a timelier and efficient public transportation system within the country.
In order to find a remedy to this problem, we have received financial assistance from JICA in 2013, to study traffic corridors to Colombo with the intention of introducing the Light Rail Transit (LRT) to the most congested corridor. So seven corridors were studied and in the end it was found that the most congested corridor prevailing is the Malabe corridor. Thus, it was decided to construct the first ever LRT project in Sri Lanka from Malabe to Colombo Fort. The previous route that was decided was from Malabe via Thalahena, Battaramulla, Borella, Fort up to Kollupitiya.
In 2017, JICA did another feasibility study for the Malabe corridor where it was found that the Economic Internal Rate of Return (EIRR) was more than 20%, even though the Financial Internal Rate of Return (FIRR) is not so, considering the nature of the Public service, where EIRR precedes over FIRR.
Parallel to the feasibility study, the resettlement plan for the affected families was also carried out which is vital if we are to follow JICA guide lines. Finally, with approval gained for the report from both studies by JICA and Government of Sri Lanka, we were able to secure a Special Terms for Economic Partnerships (STEP) loan with an initial estimated investment of US$ 1.85 billion from JICA.
The STEP loan which is provided with an interest rate of 0.1% for construction and equipment per annum, an interest rate of 0.01% for consultancy services provides a repayment period of 40 years with a grace period of 12 years. Unlike other loans, STEP loans are ‘Tied’ and the borrower is to comply with some conditions of the donar. Thus on March 11, we signed the loan agreement for the first two years and on March 13, the contract was awarded for a consortium led by the Japanese firm, Oriental Consultants Global, where they mobilized the work on April 1.
Q: When is construction starting?
Currently, we are in the detailed design and preparation of tender stage. There are seven packages for construction namely, procurement of rolling stock, procurement of signaling equipment, construction of depots, construction along the road which is divided in to three packages and finally utility diversion. At present, the preparation of tender documents for these seven packages is going on. By January next year, we would be able to call for tenders for rolling stock and tenders for other packages would be called by May 2020.
Once tenders are ready for voting by May 2020, then we would have to carry out Cabinet approval, which process would take about eight months. However, we are planning to award the contract for the purchase of the rolling stock at the end of 2020, whereas construction of the rail line would begin in early 2021.
Q: Do you wish to integrate local labour or foreign labour for construction work?
Unlike some other loans, the STEP loan has not specifically mentioned that the borrower should utilize Japanese labour for construction work. Hence, the borrower has the discretion over labour mobilization.
Further, we also encourage Sri Lankan construction giants to make joint ventures with these Japanese firms, so that the prevailing capacity of engineering knowledge could be expanded, especially considering that this is the first experience of an LRT system in the country.
Q: What are the social and technical challenges associated with the project?
The number one technical challenge that we are facing so far is managing traffic during construction. The heart of the road would be occupied for construction of the rail track which is 16 kilometres in length. At present, with the aid of high tech software applications and expertise knowledge, we are working on macro level and micro level simulations in order to come up with the possible alternative routes to divert traffic, mainly during day time. We are also planning to carry out construction work during the night time to reduce inconveniences caused to some extent. It might also be required to widen the alternative routes since the traffic flow through Malabe is huge. A traffic management plan would be in place to be carried out by contractors during the construction period which would be guided by the Project Management team.
For the construction of the depot, we are to acquire 50 acres of land from the Pittugala area, which is already in progress. Furthermore, the main road from Malabe to Koswatte, needs to be widened to accommodate four lanes to provide space for columns of the rail track which are 1.7 metres wide. Thus, the business environment along the road would be disturbed which challenges the land acquisition process. The constructing of the road is undertaken by the Road Development Authority (RDA).
Another challenge we have to face is how to attract people to use the train once in operation. Since the majority of people around this area uses either their own vehicles or public transport, such as buses to travel from Malabe to Fort, attracting them to travel by train, will be challenging. However, the people need to be encouraged to use this mode of travel by providing facilities such as introducing buses to carry passengers to and from stations. Furthermore, policies should be made to make the public use this facility more appropriately, as charging a reasonable parking fee for vehicles parked in the station’s vehicle park. By doing so, we wish to limit the number of vehicles entering the city per day and encourage safe and efficient public transport to the people.
Q: What are the key destinations of the railway track?
There are 16 stations proposed for the LRT, covering 16 km. The depot is to be located at the IT Park, Malabe. Key stations are to be located at IT Park, Malabe, Talahena, Lumbini Temple, Robert Gunawardena Mawatha, Palan Thuna junction, Battaramulla, Sethsiripaya, Rajagiriya, Welikada, Cotta Road, Borella, National Hospital, St. Joseph, Transport Center and Fort/Pettah. The JICA-LRT has strong connections with other transport modes at the east-end, west-end and middle of the route and covers the area that current has transport demand in the city center, along with areas with potential demand around Sethsiripaya and Battaramulla.
Q: How many trains would be deployed on the Malabe line? Would the trains be driverless or with drivers?
We are planning to operate 25 trains including four cars in each, which are scheduled every three minutes during peak hours. One car could carry a maximum of 200 passengers, which enables to carry 800 passengers in each train. Of course the trains are operated by drivers. We are providing the necessary training facilities needed for both abroad and local.
Q: How will this project create new job opportunities for Sri Lankans?
A fully Government owned company would be entrusted with the operations of the train which would create job opportunities for locals on financial, administration and technical fields. We are to recruit nearly 700 members to the staff, while the majority who needs training would be sent either to India or Japan. We are also planning to establish a Training Center in the depot, so that employees could be trained locally too with the assistance of those who had possess international training experience. Along with the rolling stock we are going to purchase simulators which are going to be installed at the training centre to support the training procedures.
Q: Have you looked at the LRT systems in other countries before deciding on the LRT network infrastructure here?
Yes, we looked at many LRT systems in many other countries and we have also visited countries such as India and Japan, to study how operations are carried out in these trains. In order to establish a Light Rail Act which is not there in Sri Lanka’s legislation right now, we studied the Light Rail Acts used in Delhi Metro India, Japan, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dhaka Metro. At present, we are sending staff related to the project group by group to study how operations are done in the above transportation schemes.
Q: What is the power source for the trains?
The trains are Electricity driven and the total capacity consumed by a train accounts for 30 Mega Volt Amp (MVA). The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has given assurance that they can provide power for the railway system. Two power feeding stations will be integrated so as to reduce the probability of a power breakdown as assured by the CEB. However we are not having much backup power supply due to the high expense involved but in case of emergency trains could be driven to the nearest station where the necessary technical and mechanical support could be taken.
Q: Are there any plans to integrate other infrastructure such as shopping malls, office towers etc with the LRT stations like in other countries?
Yes, but not in all stations, as the loan is granted by JICA only to establish the LRT systems and not for the development of the station area. So along as the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and our consultancy team are planning on how to develop station areas, either through Private/ Public Partnership, direct investments from public or investments from government entities. We are hoping to integrate shopping malls, kiosks and other utility infrastructure through the station area development.
Q: What would the fare structure be to travel from Malabe to Fort?
Affordability to the public and the cost incurred on the maintenance of the stations are considered when pricing tickets. For this, we have analyzed the present bus fare from Malabe to Fort, but if we go ahead with the same fare, then it would be difficult to even carry out minor maintenance operations.
However, if we take 2.3 times the current bus fare, then it would be sufficient to survive. Surviving in these types of projects, refers to the recovery of the operational and maintenance cost.
As estimated, we are planning to price the ticket from Chandrika Kumarathunga Mawatha to Fort for Rs 100, while this amount would be divided accordingly for the distance traveled. It should also be said that we have not thought of providing passengers with concessionary tickets as in the present transport system of the country, but we are planning to provide special benefits and limited concessions for special categories such as senior citizens.
Q: Do you wish to carryout similar projects in the future and also outside Colombo, such as in cities like Kandy?
Yes, we are going to construct three more lines within the Western region with private public partnerships and integrate them with each other.
They are from Ragama to Kirulapona, which is 32.4 km, Kelaniya to Moratuwa which is 28.7 km and Hunupitiya to Kottawa MMC which is 21.5 km. But the timeline is the biggest challenge, so for the moment we are constructing the Malabe line since the financial assistance is already in place and with the time we are considering in integrating the other three lines with the Malabe line.
However, we are not having any plans to construct similar projects outside Colombo, considering the cost of investment and passenger demand it is not viable to carry out similar projects outside the Western region at the moment.