By Namini Wijedasa The Chinese contractor building the Matara-Beliatta railway track is embroiled in a bitter battle with a powerful Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) union which claims the company is following unacceptable practices and standards. The China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CMC) this week hit back at allegations by the CECB Engineers’ [...]


Matara-Beliatta railway track: Chinese contractor, Lankan engineers’ union trade barbs


By Namini Wijedasa

The Chinese contractor building the Matara-Beliatta railway track is embroiled in a bitter battle with a powerful Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) union which claims the company is following unacceptable practices and standards.
The China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CMC) this week hit back at allegations by the CECB Engineers’ Association (CECBEA) that it is not qualified for the contract. The extension of the railway line from Matara to Beliatta was given out to CMC as an unsolicited proposal under the previous administration. The CECB, which falls under the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, is project consultant.

On a June 7 news conference, the CECBEA claimed that the track extension contract was not only overpriced but that several instances were identified of CMC using substandard materials and construction methods.

The CECBEA said the contractor had tampered with a concrete beam, even shearing off rods that were essential to guarantee its strength; had allowed concrete to be diluted beyond acceptable levels owing to construction being done in heavy rain; had caused certain works to be performed over and over again by not using suitable methods and machinery; and gave inflated estimates for material and manpower.

This week, the Chinese contractor issued a strong, two-page rejoinder signed by Project Manager Wu Fanyu. It insisted it was qualified and experienced in railway track construction and rolling stock supply. It cites two successful projects (including a 158km high speed railway in Turkey built in 2006). The fact that these were funded by the China Exim Bank reflected the “confidence and high regard” it had for CMC as an international contractor.

The Chinese company accepts that the CECB is “an excellent and experienced engineering company with a workforce that includes some excellent and committed staff” but says it had no experience in building entirely new railway lines in Sri Lanka. This “lack of new railway specific experience and knowledge” affected, for instance, the time it took to launch girders.
“The proposal by the former team leader of CECB would have entailed a launch of only one span of girders every two weeks,” the statement said. “The CMC proposal, which also addressed all international railway construction standards and safety requirements, resulted in an actual launching speed of 1 span of girders every two days.”

The former team leader referred to is Engineer M.M. Akram. He oversaw the project since 2012 and repeatedly flagged concerns. Instead of taking these up, however, the CECB recently removed him from the position and replaced him with an engineer who had no experience in railway or track works.

CMC denies it tampered with concrete beams. All the materials and proposals of the project have to be approved by CECB before being used in permanent work. Each step of construction is also supervised by CECB. So there cannot be so-called substandard material and quality as alleged by the former team leader, it asserts.

On the specific allegation that there was a dilution of concrete during heavy rain, CMC maintains that it does not concrete during rainfall. But it admitted that there was “unexpected heavy rain” after concreting began. The contractor then, on its own accord, abandoned and replaced the affected girder with a brand new casted girder, the statement said, adding that all casted and launched girders are approved and certified by CECB.

The CECBEA also alleged that CMC had disregarded instructions. The Chinese company rejected this saying, “the contractor never has and cannot disregard the engineer’s instructions to maintain acceptable standards during construction”. But it admitted that “when occasions arise whereby the engineers’ lack of experience and practical knowledge in new railway construction [sic], the contractor is contractually obliged to highlight the most appropriate process in railway construction to expedite progress, while at all time adherence [sic] to quality standards.”

The CECBEA demonstrated how the contractor was charging inflated rates for material and manpower. CMC says all prices were passed by a Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) attended by CECB, and a Cabinet Appointed Negotiating Committee (CANC) after review and negotiation. They reflected current and internationally acceptable rates and approved by Cabinet.

Engineers have also said they were harassed by CMC’s employees. But the CMC says its own workers were intimidated “by the non-professional and non-cooperative attitude of the former team leader”. This caused confrontations with consequences to both parties of employees and affected the smooth progress of the project. On numerous occasions, CMC employees subjected to burglary, assault and grievous bodily harm requiring hospitalisation, surgery and even transfer to China, the company claimed.

There have been significant delays in completing the 27km track. CMC says this is because the Matara-Beliatta stretch is the first new track built in Sri Lanka for over 60 years and runs over challenging terrain. It includes the longest (1.5km) and second longest (1.1km) railway bridges ever constructed in the country as well as the highest concrete railway bridge and the longest railway tunnel.

In addition to the physical challenges, the contractor has had to “face the stubborn attitude of the former team leader, whose lack of experience in new railway construction and relative immaturity and unwillingness to cooperate with the contractor” caused delays in routine approvals and testing procedure.

The CMC denies it had Mr Akram removed as team leader. “The question for the public is that, if the allegations made by the former team leader were true and if the former team leader was in possession of any irrefutable facts, why didn’t the former team leader reveal these incidents when they occurred and wait till he was replaced to attempt to tarnish CMC’s reputation,” it concludes.

CECBEA stands by allegations, presents documentary evidence

The 400-member Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau Engineers’ Association this week affirmed its criticism of the way in which China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CMC) is building the Matara-Beliatta railway track.
The union presented documentary evidence to back each of its claims. Official reports show that CECB engineers had repeatedly warned the contractor to adhere to accepted standards, material and practices.

Just last week, Transport Minister Secretary Nihal Somaweera wrote to the CMC President in China stating that: “During the past months, performance levels of the Track Construction Project were low and were well below the level required for completion of the project by September 2017. This was never expected from a reputed organisation like M/s CMC.”
The Transport Ministry has continuously drawn the CMC President’s attention to the “inability of M/s CMC to complete the project within the agreed timelines and about declining of the performance levels of the project staff”, the letter says. Despite this, the Ministry has granted signaling and telecommunication work on the Matara-Beliatta stretch also to CMC.

The railway extension project started in August 2013 and has gone on for nearly four years. In 2012, the Department of External Resources of the Ministry of Finance notified the Transport Ministry Secretary saying CMC does not have the experience to undertake the project. The Sunday Times has seen the letter.

CMC used “archaic construction methodologies and unprofessional engineering practices” throughout the project period. “When CECB finds serious violations by the contractor, the contractor puts the blame on labourers and sends them back to China while imposing only fines on management staff who should be held responsible,” the union said.

For instance, fines of Rs 800,000 and Rs 200,000 were imposed on precast crew and one Guo Fengchao (in-charge) over a defective girder on the Nilwala Bridge. Hao Jintao and Wang Xuefeng were dismissed and sent back to China. Another worker named Wang Junfeng was dispatched to China as recently as April 2017 over the “unacceptable repair of T Girder P02P03R of Wattegama Bridge”. The Sunday Times is in possession of numerous documents related to similar matters.

“We have clear evidence that the contractor used substandard materials and downgraded the quality of the construction,” the CECBEA said. “Therefore, due to such type of wrongful acts of the contractor, CECB has to do a kind of security role other than the consultant’s duty.”

Concreting activity carried out in heavy rain was only halted on the engineer’s instructions. “The contractor did not abandon that girder on its own accord but were compelled to replace it after the repeated instructions of CECB,” the union said.
“Almost all the girders casted by the contractor were found with defects which could be categorised from minor to severe,” it continued. These were accepted by CECB after rectification under close monitoring for compliance. Nine other girders were rejected due to “very severe defects”.

The CECBEA provided serial numbers of T-girders casted during heavy rain. Reports and log notes were shared to this effect. In the case of one girder, it was found the contractor “removed the formwork and did repairs secretly using unknown materials and fixed the formwork again at night”.

The high rates cited by CECBEA had been only recently applied by the contractor for new work for which rates were not available in the contract Bill of Quantities. It was, therefore, incorrect and misleading to claim that these charges were approved by a Technical Evaluation Committee or Cabinet Appointed Negotiating Committee.

“For example, the rate included in the contract BOQ for grade 30 concrete is Rs 22,330.50 for one cubic metre whereas the rate recently applied by the contractor even for lower grade 15 concrete was Rs 58,400.00 per cubic metre,” the union said. Former team leader M M Akram was a qualified, experienced senior engineer who completed the railway project from Matara to Kalutara.

The above information and additional details were conveyed many times to the Transport Ministry and higher authorities by Mr Akram.

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