In recent times, there has been a spate of articles and other news items appearing in this forum on the state of motive power in the Sri Lankan Railways. Needless to mention, much of the locomotive roster is laid up due to lack of spares and other items and the railway is struggling to provide the daily services. If anything, the situation appears to be getting worse with little hope of improvements in sight, despite patch-up remedies being implemented from time to time. The question of what type of locomotive best suits Sri Lankan conditions has always been asked and this is not an easy one to resolve.
Over the years, since the Brush Bagnall M1s made their appearance in the early 1950s, the railways has been saddled with numerous makes of diesel locomotives requiring the stocking of a multitude of different spare parts, implementing of differing maintenance schedules and programs, etc, complicating the availability of motive power.
Often the country has been at the mercy of foreign donor organizations, being forced to accept poor quality and unsuitable products in order to make use of ready terms of credit that are been offered. Unlike developed nations, the country cannot afford to procure the best product at the best market prices. Again, politics and corruption as in all spheres of life here, have played their part, resulting in the dumping of totally unsuitable locomotives and millions of scare foreign exchange thrown down the drain.
Some of the classes of locomotives have performed well, others have not. It is not the intention here to discuss in detail the relative merits and demerits of each of the classes. These aspects have been well documented elsewhere. The Sri Lankan railways offer unique and arduous operating conditions such as tight reverse curves, 1 in 44 continuous gradients, altitudes of over 6,000 ft, etc, on the Main Line. Additionally, the hot, humid and dusty conditions would test out any make of motive power to the limit. The track has deteriorated to such an extent (again, a result of lack of cash and foresight perhaps) that speed restrictions bring trains down to a crawl and derailments are the order of the day. If anything, reduction in permissible axle loadings may even need to be considered to comply with the deplorable conditions.
It is generally accepted in all circles that the Class M2 General Motors (GM) locomotives have performed best of all the classes. Of the original 14 locos, 12 are said to be operating still after more than 50 years. The M2 is the export model G12 based on the GP7 general purpose locomotive introduced by GM in the late 1940s. It is no wonder the M2s are still in operation, many GPs and G12s are still in use all over the world, after decades of service. They employed simple yet sturdy construction, relying on the proven Electro Motive 567 2-stroke engine revving to a maximum of 900rpm. GM were unquestionably, the Number 1 diesel locomotive builders in the world, enjoying the status for nearly 5 decades. Our Class M6 and M7 locos too, though built by other manufacturers, have GM EMD engines and have performed admirably. Even in Britain, the birthplace of the railway and the locomotive, the private operators there have got down GM locos (Classes 59, 66 & 67) due to their far superior performance over other makes.
Unfortunately, things did not continue to be all rosy for General Motors. In the1990s, for various reasons, their traditional quality began to suffer and new locos, such as the SD50 and SD60 introduced in America proved to be failures. Further, railway operators began to look for fuel efficiency. The traditional GM EMD 2-stroke engine is inherently less fuel efficient than an equivalent 4-stroke. This is where General Electric (GE) stepped in. They revamped their loco line, improved fuel efficiency and became the Number 1 builder, overtaking GM, in the 1990s. Things continued to be bad for GM with quality and orders for new locos declining and two years ago, they were forced to sell off their locomotive concern, Electro Motive Division (EMD). Today, EMD is known as Electro Motive Diesels, and no longer owned by GM. EMD though, have in very recent times, started clawing back some of the market, especially with their high power SD70ACe and SD70M-2 models. However, in international circles, it is an accepted fact that currently, GE (General Electric) rules the world in diesel loco building.
There has been much talk about the recent tender for 15 locos. I am not sure what the ultimate outcome of this tender was. It appeared that the EMD offer was the most expensive, around twice that of other offers. No doubt, the locos would still offer superior performance, but they would not be anything like the good old M2s. EMD now offer microprocessor control as standard and the locos would require extensive electronic spares, strict maintenance and the required skills. Gone are the old knife switches, contactors, relays, and other components, old technology still fairly easily repairable, of the M2s. Under these circumstances, the expending of so much foreign exchange, which the country can ill-afford, on a relatively new model needs questioning, especially, if there are viable alternatives. Besides EMD, cannot any longer be considered as the old EMD under GM.
I know there is much sentiment against things Indian at present, especially with the proposal for getting down Indian labour. However, it would pay to look at the Indian scene. India has one of the largest rail networks in the world, relatively well run and transporting millions daily. They have a tradition of indigenous locomotive building for years. The Varanasi Diesel Locomotive Works has been building locomotives to an old ALCO design since the 1960s. These in various configurations form the backbone of the Indian network of 5’-6” and metre gauges with hundreds in operation. (Recently, they have even manufactured state of the art EMD AC drive locos). The Indian ALCOs are a relatively unsophisticated design (the North American ALCO ceased manufacturing in the 1970s) with the proven 251 series engine (some what heavy on smoke when accelerating). Our Class M8s and the MLW M4s have performed adequately, although having restrictions from weight and length concerns. It would be a relatively easy matter for the Varanasi Works to offer locos to suit our axle loading and curvature constraints and of the required power (1,800hp is sufficient for the heaviest work) from amongst their vast range. The costs too would be comparatively low and spares and after sales service should not pose problems.
This is a question of evaluating what best suits our requirements at the costs we can afford. If we could turn to our successful neighbour and get help, so be it.
Udaya Peeligama is a Sri Lankan now living in Sydney, Australia and has been a life-long railway enthusiast. A mechanical engineer by profession he had spent some time at the Ratmalana Railway Workshops in the 1970s undergoing practical training. Although not employed in the Railways, he has taken a great interest in the industry and is a collector of railway books and magazines. In his spare time, he visits preserved railways and museums and has even driven steam locomotives. He is a keen follower of the Sri Lankan railway scene.
Note from Sri Lanka Railways Forum Team,
we like to thank the author Mr. Udaya Peeligama for his great article,
Thank you very much sir.