A curious advertisement appeared in local newspapers in the first quarter of last year. It invited expressions of interest for repairing building cracks and carrying out waterproofing treatment for various railway station buildings in the Northern Provine of Sri Lanka. The party that published the notice was Ircon International Limited, a Government of India Company [...]


All’s not well on reconstructed Northern Line

10,000 of 50,000 pre-stressed concrete sleepers show cracks

A curious advertisement appeared in local newspapers in the first quarter of last year. It invited expressions of interest for repairing building cracks and carrying out waterproofing treatment for various railway station buildings in the Northern Provine of Sri Lanka.

The party that published the notice was Ircon International Limited, a Government of India Company that had re-constructed the Northern railway line.

The closing date for applications was July 2015—well after the inauguration of the final phase of the project.

It was the first sign that all was not right. Why were the foreign builders of the celebrated Northern railway line searching for contractors to repair structures that were brand new? And shouldn’t waterproofing have been completed much earlier?

The Northern railway line was re-constructed in several phases. Most material, including sleepers, signals and other accessories, came from India. The project was financed through an Indian line of credit; that is, a loan.

The interest rate is London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) plus 0.5 percent—a manageable 1.25 percent. Repayment is to be in two decades after a grace period of five years. IRCON handled the design and build components of the project.

The inauguration of each stage was done amidst much political grandstanding. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then President, flagged off the Kilinochchi to Kankesanturai stretch in October 2014, just weeks before a crucial election.

The final stage from Madhu Road to Talaimannar was launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March last year.

It was a defining moment for the two countries and for its ruling politicians. But engineers were already uncomfortable with some developments on the ground.

In the fourth quarter of last year, IRCON took out another advertisement. It called for the manufacture, supply, transportation and delivery of 16,000 pre-stressed concrete track sleepers for rail sections in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. The closing date was December 2015.

The Sunday Times interviewed numerous officials of the Railway Department and the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB), who were consultants to the project. We also spoke with sources in the North.

They said cracks had started appearing in a large number of railway sleepers.

In one section, for instance, cracks were observed in 8,000 out of 140,000 sleepers. In another, there were 2,000 affected sleepers out of 10,000. As a total, however, the quantity of cracked sleepers amounts to just 4.2 percent.

The cracks have emerged despite some of the sleepers being tested for quality in Sri Lanka. Engineers are concerned that, should the defective sleepers be allowed to remain, there will be a durability problem in the long-term.

It is not usual for cracks to appear in pre-stressed concrete, said a senior engineer.

But IRCON has undertaken to change the sleepers before June. This has already been done in four sections on the Medawachchiya to Madhu Road stretch. There are other issues.

For instance, five bridges on the railway line are to be replaced later this year after the CECB found painting, fabrication and welding defects in them.

High quality paint is of essence in the construction of bridges, said one engineer, and it must be applied to a certain thickness to delay the onset of rust.

The bridges are now under fabrication in India. When the replacement process begins, the train service will have to be temporarily suspended. “They may be structurally safe but with corrosion, the expected lifetime reduces,” he explained.

There were complaints regarding quality assurance. “From bridges to signals to way-and-works, we observed that there was something wrong with IRCON’s quality assurance system,” said another source, requesting anonymity.

“So much of their material is prone to corrosion. Everything is corroding including rails, bridges, signals units, electronic systems and cables.”

Rust has been documented in outdoor cabinets, even after these were repainted several times. It has also been seen on rails, with some flaking. The problems are worse on the Madhu Road to Mannar stretch, officials said.

“We expect a signaling system to work for thirty to forty years,” he continued. “With the current rate of degradation, we don’t expect that kind of lifetime.”

The CECB has in reports identified numerous shortcomings in signaling and telecommunications. Level crossings are equipped with bell and light warning systems and are inadequate to prevent accidents.

In case of total power failure, the warning signals and alarms will not work. There are no additional safety precautions and indications to ensure safety of road user or train operator.

“We are worried about unreliability because there are failures at an unacceptable rate,” said a senior engineer. “We are negotiating with the contractor to rectify these issues.”

“Several times people have complained to me that the bell and light sometimes operate when the train is not there,” said N. Vethanayahan, Jaffna Government Agent. “So people don’t care about the bell and light now.

I have also observed the bell and light ringing while the train is not there. We need to have gates.”

Worryingly, longitudinal cracking of rails has now been identified in 39 places. This was deemed an “unusual occurrence” by all experts interviewed. “We have never seen that on any rails anywhere in the country,” said a ground source.

The manufacturer of the rails recently travelled to the sites and collected samples for further investigation. A report is expected shortly.

Some pieces of rail have been removed also for local testing. Again, the concern is that neglect could lead to further problems like serious cracks. The affected rails are under observation. Action will be taken depending on the report.

On the Sri Lankan side, there are suggestions now to extend the defect liability period over fears that more problems might emerge after it expires in June 2016. Some payments to IRCON have been withheld until there is delivery on commitments.

The ‘performance certificate’, which is of great importance to the contractor, has not been issued. It is expected to be handed over once all defects are corrected.

Teething problems exaggerated, say IRCON officials

In an interview with the Sunday Times, IRCON officials said the issues experienced along the Northern railway line were “teething problems” that were being “exaggerated out of proportion”.

“The common man in Sri Lanka is very happy with the project,” said S.L. Gupta, theSri Lanka-based Project Director. “The Railway Department is earning a lot of revenue. The trains are running full.”

Mr. Gupta answered specific questions related to the Northern railway line. He said the cracks in the pre-stressed concrete sleepers were surface ones and had no bearing on their structural strength. He ruled out manufacturing defects “beyond doubt”.

And he said efforts were being made to find out the other probable reasons for the cracks, including flat-wheeled or defective rolling stock.

It was not usual for cracks to appear on pre-stressed concrete sleepers, he admitted, “but it is also not a rare phenomenon”. He claimed that there were “more than 25% cracked sleepers in the stretch where sleepers manufactured in Sri Lanka have been laid”.

Mr. Gupta also said it was not usual for longitudinal cracks to appear on rails, the way they had done in some parts of the Northern line.

The rails were supplied by M/s Steel Authority of India, the sole supplier to Indian Railways. An expert team from SAIL has already inspected the site and samples sent to their research centre in Ranchi, India for testing and evaluation.

“Though these cracks are not affecting the train movement, IRCON has replaced few defective rails and a few have been kept under observation. The cause will be known after investigation.

Referring to the replacement of bridges, Mr. Gupta said five of them had some “metalizing” and painting defect at interface surfaces.

While Ircon proposed a method for rectifying this, the relevant Sri Lankan engineer was not agreeable to it and “rather suggested a methodology which was practically not possible to adopt”.

Left with no option, Ircon decided to replace the “girders” or beams. The manufacture of new beams has already started in India and they will be in place by June this year.

Corrosion has become a widespread problem in the Northern railway line due to the extreme corrosive environment in the Northern Province and “poor maintenance practice by Sri Lanka railway”.

“It may be noted that in similar marine corrosive environment, same type of equipment are performing satisfactorily in coastal areas of India,” Mr. Gupta said.

“In marine corrosive environment, it is very much essential to ensure preventive maintenance which is not ensured here,” he asserted. “Sri Lanka Railways have not applied a single brush of paint in last two years, since taking over of project and revenue operation.

“Ircon has agreed to galvanise these (signals) equipment,” he added. “It is expected that, with this, the corrosion problem shall be arrested provided the Sri Lanka Railway takes up scheduled preventive maintenance as per specifications.”Mr. Gupta said there was no basis for extending the defect liability period as anticipated in some quarters.

Under the contract, the DLP can only be extended when the intended purpose of the project is not served due to a defect. The commercial operations of trains have not been affected.

As such, no such extension of DLP is required. “Not even a single service affecting (signal) failure has taken so far since start of revenue operation of the line,” he concluded.

Mohan Chahar, Ircon General Manager (Signaling and Telecommunication) said nothing has been compromised. Every procedure for operations and maintenance was observed.

But he and Mr. Gupta both claimed that Sri Lanka Railways did not give Ircon permission to do certain improvements. “Equipments are lying in our store and people are sitting idle,” Mr. Gupta said.

“We will not leave any grievance unattended,” he stressed. “We will address everything, we are working aggressively. But Sri Lanka has to ensure the maintenance part and training of their staff.”

“There is also no system in place for procurement, disbursement and transport of maintenance staff,” said Mr. Chahar.


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