Southern expressway and intelligent politics of mass transportNovember 27, 2011, 7:33 pm
By Chandre Dharmawardana
The Southern Expressway is an example of the government’s policy "to ensure that all segments of the country receive the dividends of development", as stated in the Daily News article announcing the "Gateway to Wonder" (Daily News 26-11-2011). The integrity and governability of a nation depend on its transport system. The Romans knew it. The British were quick to build roads and railways, to move troops and haul commercial products to imperial markets. Since then, Sri Lanka’s roadways stagnated at the level of the British era, while the gross population quadrupled.
The road usage increased much faster. Hence any type of road improvement is an essential step. The present government has done wonders in the Eastern province, and things are moving mightily in the North.
However, it is also time to look to the future - even just ten years from now. The southern highway is the first and longest unit of the proposed network of expressways for Sri Lanka. Naively, one would think that this would unclog the roads, and the expressways would enable people to get to any part of Lanka in no time.
Gasoline (petrol) is cheaper than Coca Cola in the West, thanks to compliant or subjugated Arab nations. Los Angeles is full of six to twelve-lane highways and has impressive flyovers. Nevertheless, all American urbanites dread the ‘carmageddon’ that they have to face every morning and every evening . My prediction is that in Sri Lanka too, these expressways would very soon become no different to the clogged Colombo roads of today. We need to consider the environmental degradation, foreign exchange for petroleum products, vehicles, the carcinogens and heat emitted by the engines, mortal accidents etc.
The costly upkeep of these highways is well beyond the modest tolls proposed. The final cost per kilometer-ton of persons and goods moved becomes immense. As the highways get clogged, the kilometer-tonnage asphyxiates to a trickle. This has been proved every time, in every nation enslaved by the car.
The answer to this carmageddon is the building of public transport which uses electric vehicles. The most efficient and ecologically clean way to do this is via very fast electric trains running on dedicated overhead tracks. It is not necessary to quote studies or expert opinion, as most engineers, environmentalists and urban designers know all this. Densely populated Europe, China and Japan have already invested in fast ‘bullet’ trains and similar public mass transport (see attached picture from Japan, where the train had a maximum speed of 580 km/hour in 2003). Sri Lanka’s population density is similar to Holland, and it badly needs public mass transport, rather than the existing mayhem of privately operated buses belching fumes as dangerous as from Fukushima.
In a talk I gave at the Presidential Secretariat sometime ago, I pointed out that within a few decades the shoreline would be meters underwater due to global warming (a power-point of this talk may be accessed at http://dh-web.org/place.names/posts/dev-tech-2009.ppt). We need a dyke around the country, roughly 800 miles long that would keep the sea out, protect the land against erosion and tsunamis, and provide the base of a ring road for a fast electric train. Internal spokes can connect the whole country to the ring road. Such a system would soon pay itself, and would not enslave the country to petroleum and Pajeros. Cost estimates per kilometer-ton of mass moved, environmental suitability etc., always favour the electric trains, compared to road-car systems that are vastly more expensive in the long run. The raucous politics of devolution and regional segregation would yield to the technological solution (already known to the Romans) when a man from Vaddukkoddai (Batakotte) finds that he can reach Colombo in 40 mins, in an air-conditioned Japanese-style bullet train! Today it takes 12-14 hours by bus.
Unfortunately, the VIPs always think of expressways with the freedom to horn their hubris and launch their luxury limousines. Even the train service from the Katunayaka airport to Colombo has been killed by the unreasonable fares, when it should have been under Rs 100 (less than a dollar!) per person. While there is every justification for a good road network, especially for a country striving to promote tourism, it has an even stronger over-arching need for an intelligent, fast, cheap mass transport system.