I take the train to work.

Like a lot of people, I wake up every morning and cast a bleary eye on the clock. There’s a train at 8:10. Good. I can reach the station at 7:50 AM, enough time to buy a ticket and realize that there’s nowhere for me to sit. All is normal.

Sri Lankan trains are divided into “Express” and “Slow” variants. The difference is that the express trains only stop at designated ‘major’ stations, like Gampaha, Ragama, Dematagoda, Maradana and Colombo Fort. The slow trains are meant to pick up those from the little stations that pepper the land in between – like Horape, where I live.

I suppose in theory, this was meant to quickly and efficiently move the larger populations between popular hubs and let us peasants take the slow trains. It makes sense, right? Places like Horape are where people come from.  Nobody really wants to go to Horape.

Unfortunately, whoever designed this system forgot to tell people to stop reproducing. What happens is that a veritable wagonload of people get on at these ‘little’ stations, like Enderamulla. These people are stuffed into cramped, sweaty carriages, packed like poorly dressed sardines in a can.

Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

This is where the Sri Lankan ‘bus mentality’ comes into full play. You will be pushed against. You will be pressed. Various people will hang on to you for dear life. That one dumbass will spread-eagle himself in front of the doors, jamming an elbow right in front of your face. That other dumbass will pull down a window, presumably with the intention of speeding up death by CO2. There will be, and this is statistically guaranteed, a bunch of women hanging onto that pole in the middle, preventing anyone else from actually getting more than a few feet into the carriage.

Then  there’s at least one person with ridiculously smelly hair oil doing to your lungs what CFCs do to the ozone layer. There will also be a handbag jammed up your ass, attached to a scowling woman who thinks your left buttock cheek is trying to rob her lunch money or whatever.

That’s if the train arrives on time.

Let me point out here that the chances of a  slow train actually arriving on time are approximately equal to Miley Cyrus winning the Sri Lankan National Lottery – that is to say, zilch. The 8:10 train may come at 8:20; it is equally likely to come at 8:30, 8:40, or even not arrive altogether. In a world of ever-changing realities, there is one unchanging absolute: the train will never, ever be on time.

Why bother? Because, at the end of the day, the train is a lot cheaper than a 8-year lease on a Honda Vezel. 5-6 million commuters agree every day.

Now if this was all, my morning commute would be no different from that of so many thousands of others, and I’d have to find something else to be angry about. But no; this is where things get interesting.

Our Railway is a mess, and not just because of grannies with handbags the size of the Titanic. Look at these statistics from the Central Bank, published in 2014:

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What do they tell us? That the Railway made Rs 4,487 million off passengers. That’s almost 4.5 billion rupees. How much did it count as expenditure? Rs 10,586 million.

That’s over 10.5 billion rupees, over 6 billion more than it makes from passengers. Even if you examine the other statistics, like earnings from goods delivery, they don’t come close to even wiping this gulf. Our Rail system is running at a colossal loss – around Rs 5 billion.

The irony of this is we are running at a colossal loss while being smaller in every possible way compared to 2004. In 2014 we had 202 broad-gauge locomotives. By 2013 we had 137. We had 1,152 passenger coaches in 2004. 2013? 740. We had 2,135 goods wagons in 2004. By 2013 we had 800.

It gets better. In 2004 17,000+ people worked for the Railway. By 2013 this number had dropped to less than 13,000.  Working expenditure in 2004 was a little over Rs 4 billion. This number skyrocketed to Rs 8 billion by 2008 and, get this, held more or less constant up to 2012 – and until 2011 there were over 15,000 employees working at the Railway. Even accounting for inflation, which seems to have been slightly over 7% through the 2004-2015 period, that doesn’t add up.

To be fair, this report does not tell us anything about the schedules, running frequencies and conditions and upkeep of the rolling stock. TL;DR: we’re doing a lot, lot less with a lot, lot more.

In an interview with Ceylon Today, S.P. Withanage of the All Ceylon Railway Employees’ General Union points out that:

a) There was a massive lack of skilled labour in the Railway, on the order of tens of thousands of jobs.
b) The then-Minster of Transport would hire his lackeys for unskilled labour.
c) Rail lines were laid by Indian and Chinese companies at astronomical costs, while SLR could have laid them for a lot less.

So Politics Killed the Railway Star? Yes. Our rail system isn’t just inefficient, it’s horribly out of date: we’re still running those old Canadian diesels: the General Motors EMD G12, developed in 1952.  Look around in Colombo Fort for an old engine with a nameplate bearing the word “Vancouver”.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, that engine is older than you are. I’m no expert in engine design, but I’m pretty sure that in the past 60 years we’ve come up with faster, more economical engines.

Now, what can be done?

Sometime back, Indi Samarajiva shared a rudimentary sketch of improvements to public transport, some of which are probably feasible – the part about splitting up the long-distance travel might work. The rest is not – because the problem is that in the sphere of rail, we don’t really need trains shuttling around Colombo. The people who use the trains are people commuting from outside Colombo.  Inside Colombo, there’re buses – and while not perfect, they do a reasonable job.

What needs to be done, at least at the start, is more basic:
a) get the trains to run on schedule.
b) make more of the express trains run the Slow beat. This, if done right, prevents excess buildups of passengers along the lines.
c) upgrade trains to larger passenger capacities and install more trains to run the rush hour lines.
d) Increase the bottom-end ticket prices. I think it’s ridiculous that you can get from Ragama to Maradana for 15 rupees when the same price will barely get you halfway there on the bus.

Going forward, we can look at electric and other options, but for now, just pick up the damn passengers on time.

There is absolutely no question that rail in this country should be developed. As Gustavo Petro, the Mayor of Bogota, Columbia, said: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” 

We have a traffic problem to deal with, so building roads and adding buses, while good, is not going to solve traffic: one only has to look at New York and Robert Moses to understand that. We need the rail running.