Dr Lawrence Perera’s name has gone down in the annals of the history of Sri Lanka as the first man to manufacture utility motor cars in Sri Lanka and is one who risked and took up the challenge of first local manufacture of cars and the product - economical and affordable ‘Micro Car’ is now fast selling in the local market and expected to export soon.
A man with 30 years of experience in the field of transport saw that there is an infrastructure built in since 147 years in the Sri Lanka Government Railway without maximizing its efficiency. He said that road transport can serve only a limited way and it would not serve the masses of the country properly. This reason prompted him to use his expertise, pick up the vast technology available internationally in designing a prototype train which can carry many people at the same time – to establish Lanka Econo Rail Project.
As they did not have the right kind of total technology in Sri Lanka, they have obtained technical assistance from a world renowned manufacturer Bombardier Transportation from Denmark and also the other company involved is ZF AG transport manufacturers from Germany for the engine. He said that they tied up with this company to manufacture the first prototype train in Sri Lanka.
The system called ‘Diesel Multiple Unit System’ (DMU), where every three carriages is powered with a medium horse power, Power Pack. It is not one engine carrying the entire carriages and this system is ideal for a country like Sri Lanka, as now energy is used to run 10 compartments. He said that Sri Lanka has the highest mountains in broad gauge and climbing up to 1,700 meters. He said that in this context the proposed DMU is ideally suits the local conditions, which is ideal for pushing and pulling and the weight of the train on the track would be minimal.
DMU is very much economical and affordable for Sri Lanka as instead of spending huge sums of money for power-sets at costs ranging from Rs 300 million for one engine. If the DMU is turned out locally the cost would be around Rs 50 million and also the maintenance cost would be low and economical in value because the system is run on diesel hydraulic.
Dr Perera said that the original offer was that the Micro Cars that it would undertake the cost of the first prototype power-pack to be borne by them and the Railway Department could test the first train and on satisfactory operation the payment could be made. Dr Perera said “I do not think that anybody in the world would have given an undertaking to the government to bear the initial cost of the trains, but I undertook because that I am too sure that the system works”.
On 11th November 2004 the Sri Lankan Government approved the first Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) manufacturing project to manufacture Lanka Econo Rail. This project was jointly designed developed and was to be manufactured by Micro Cars Ltd and the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR). This was revealed by Dr Sarath Amunugama, Minister of Finance on that day at a press briefing.
The Minister went on to say that the Treasury had promised to fund this project and hoped to commence services within nine months. He said that this project would bring a huge saving and it was also a source of income to the government.
Dr Perera commenting on the transport system in the country said that it is in an utter chaotic situation, mainly because; we have not capitalized the massive infrastructure available in the Railway Transport network.
Econo Rail proposed that the first few prototype trains could used the discarded under-frames which are now sold as scrap iron, which are lying all over the railway yard at present. Dr Perera said “We would use three under-frames and six bogies. If scrap iron is used the maximum amount would be rupees one million. There are about 30 such under-frames available now and about 10 power-sets could be manufactured. He said that they have prepared full technical and commercial proposals for these prototypes.
He said that the DMU system has penetrated to almost all parts of the world during the last five decades where well over 9,000 such DMU power sets are in operation now, covering all kinds of terrains with an annual approximate distance of 300,000 to 500,000 km showing a new trend in the rail industry which is heading towards a new era, where DMUs are being used instead of costly conventional locomotives.
If a locomotive of 1500 HP handles a train of 10 coaches, then for each coach approximately 150 HP is consumed from the engine power. Instead of having the 1500 HP locomotive in front, same train could be powered by 10 of 150 HP engines, under slung, on each coach. When the passenger load is less accordingly engines could be switched off.
He said that this would work as a private public joint venture. He said that project design was started in 2003 and the proposal was submitted early in 2004. The government accepted the proposal and the Cabinet appointed a committee to handle the project.
As the whole issue of the DMU has received wide publicity, the country would be thinking that the project is underway which could make a tremendous impact on the present chaotic transport system in the country. The actual situation is far from that. In the final analysis of the process that has taken place, it is apparent that certain officials have sabotaged this vitally important national project and now it has reduced to correspondence only.
Dr Perera said that as far as he know, the Cabinet paper was misinterpreted by the Railway Department as when the Cabinet approval was given to handle the project, it was misinterpreted in such a way as to evaluate the project by a committee of 8 members. He said that he was not blaming the politicians at all as the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Science and Technology and the Minister of Transport have valued the project very much. These officials have misled to the extent that this project would not take off the ground.
Thoroughly depressed Dr Perera said that it was not a loss to Micro Car, but the project not coming up would be a national calamity. These officials first came up with a theory that the project could be handled by the Railway Department. The original estimated cost was Rs 40 million, but it went up to Rs 50 million. These officials pointed out that the railway department could do it at a cheaper rate. But after their evaluations, the cost exceeded more than Rs 50 million.
Dr Perera said that only on 19th January 2005, Micro Car received a communication from the Ministry of Finance which is a copy of a letter addressed to the Chairman, National Procurement Agency (NPA) indicating that Ministry of Finance has encouraged Micro Cars Ltd to enter the field of production of cars and Econo Rail, since it is a local company making use of local expertise.
The Minister of Finance has drawn the attention of the NPA to the fact that there was a study on purchasing 100 new carriages and diesel locomotives from China and said that there was a fear that such a study would exclude the possibility of Lanka Econo Rail from participating in the development of the railway system.
The letter which was under the Minister’s own signature indicated that the Econo Rail could be accommodated in the area of commuter transport as Lanka Econo Rail seems to be a very promising development regarding rapid transportation of urban travelers. The Minister therefore has urged the NPA to integrate the proposals of the Micro Cars with whatever recommendations the NPA makes regarding the Chinese proposals.
On 14th July Micro Cars have addressed a letter to Minister of Transport Felix Perera drawing his attention to the proposal submitted by Micro Cars on the Lanka Econo Rail Project a year ago. In response to this letter, Secretary to the Ministry of Transport wrote back to Micro Cars by his letter dated 30/6/2005 indicating the matter was referred to the NPA for evaluation. The entire matter is now on hold with a reply by NPA indicating that it has submitted a report.
Several pioneering manufacturers who risked large investments has said that though it was the bounden responsibility of the government to assist them, while not only the government agencies failed to provide any assistance, there had been occasions that some of these agencies were really sabotaging and tried to prevent such ventures.
It is high time that the country must identify and weed them out as their continuance would make serious further damage to the development process of the country.