Sri Lanka Railways

Monster monopolies

Untitled design (1).png

In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Dilshani N Ranawaka

Rukshani, is a small business owner running her own grocery store. Her peak hours of business are when everyone gets back home from their jobs around 7-8pm after working in Colombo. Unfortunately, she has been struggling to make ends meet as of late, due to power cuts that are also scheduled in her area around the same time as her peak hours. With just candles lit during these hours, refrigerators and coolers switched off, it adds an additional cost for her to operate her business.

Thilina, who works in Colombo faces a challenge of getting back home as the workers of the Railway Authority have decided to go on strike asking for a pay raise. Even though trains are over-crowded, they are unfortunately the fastest way of commuting back and forth. Alternatively, Thilina has to resort to the next best solution in his capacity; buses, which incurs an additional cost to reach home.

How is that Rukshani and Thilina have no say over the situation? Why does Rukshani have to suffer losses during the peak hours of her business and why should Thilina have to look for alternative transportation for something they are capable of paying, but somehow is beyond their control?

Trains and electricity are two vital services for the day to day functioning of the country. Why do these authorities continue to function when they are failing to provide reliable and efficient services to their customers who pay for these services? They have a monopoly over this service, hence they exploit it.

As of 2017, Sri Lanka Railway (SLR) sums up for Rs. 7.5 billion in losses. The Central Electricity Board (CEB) projects of Rs. 89 billion in losses for 2019. An island-wide poll by Sparkwinn Research, commissioned by Advocata Institute indicates that 81% of the sampled population are not satisfied with the performance of the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). As the numbers have spoken, people are clearly not in favour of having these underperforming SOEs.

Poll on SOE satisfaction

Would a private institute still run under these terrible, burdening losses?

The issue mainly starts with the monopolistic control over services complemented with organized trade unions within these public institutions. The fact that these services do not have competition, offers a fundamental background for wage increases and other demands that usually result in strikes which influences the entire population.

The initiation of these services dates back to the years when the private sector had inadequate resources to facilitate these services. In such conditions, the government established these entities for the benefit of the population. However, due to the monopolistic nature of these establishments, workers were able to unionize forcing the government to lose control over these institutions.

To add on to the burden of failures, is the fact that all these are controlled and heavily subsidized by the government. The lack of incentives to improve their efficiency and productivity are therefore felt heavily by the government.

There are common practices of addressing the issues on monopolies of the economy. Incentivizing merger policies, regulating and controlling the quality of these monopolies and price caps are some of the methods developed countries use to provide better services.

The “P” word; “privatization” is a taboo in Sri Lanka, although it is commonly agreed that the process of privatization paves the way towards an answer to address these issues that burden the entire economy.

“Privatization” in Sri Lanka is identified as “transferring an institute from public ownership towards private ownership”. This is only one such form of privatisation and is known as a “complete privatization”.  However, there exists various forms of privatizations such as transferring assets, Public-Private Partnerships and franchising.

Path towards privatization

The process of privatization should be methodological. Montreal Review (an independent online magazine) identifies few principals that would lead to an efficient privatization process.

  1. The purpose of privatisation

  2. The need to review different methods of privatisation

  3. The extent of the privatisation

  4. Recognising constraints

  5. Finding a buyer

  6. Implementing an investor friendly environment to attract investors

How the United Kingdom excelled in their privatization process of trains and telecom are case studies which could be replicated in Sri Lanka. The United States government remained in control of quality control and maintaining standards while the operations were handled by private sectors. On the other hand, the United States had successfully privatised industries with natural monopolies such as water and electricity supply by the privatization of operations with the government remaining in control of providing the role of maintaining standards while removing excess burden on the budgets.

However, given the extensive amount of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), an initial step towards privatization could be to list down possible institutions or even better, towards creating an index which could be a measurement towards qualifying for privatization process.

Can we breakdown these natural monopolies? Are monopolies simply an excuse that gives the governors the luxury of political lobbying? Something to think about.

“The very term “public consumption products” is an absurd one. Every good is useful “to the public”, and almost every good may be considered “necessary”. Any designation of a few industries as “public utilities or services” is completely arbitrary and unjustified”  - Murray Rothbard, a prestigious American Economist.


#StrikeSL; A call for rail privatization?

Originally appeared on The Daily Mirror and Daily FT

By Anuki Premachandra and Dilshani Ranawaka

THE BACK STORY

The Railway strikes are over. At least for now. On August 8, several railway unions called a sudden strike in the afternoon hours, right before tired office commuters would flock the Fort railway station to head home after a long day’s work. For the rest of the week, the railway trade unions crippled a key part of the transportation system in the country. The headline “Railway strike continues” overwhelmed papers, news and social media alike.

This was the 14th time since 2017 the railway unions decided to strike, putting their demands ahead of the needs of more than 350,000 daily commuters. But this time, commuters have had enough! Angry commuters turned against the unions and the government, some even calling for the privatisation of the train service. This most recent 5 day strike is said to have caused a departmental loss of 64 million rupees leading to an increase in future railway ticket fares by 15%.

Is the call for rail privatisation practical? Financials of Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) for the past few years show that the losses made are as persistent and routinely as the losses made by Sri Lankan Airlines.

If SriLankan airlines is in “restructuring” basket, why isn’t Sri Lanka Railways?

DECIPHERING THE FINANCIALS

Sri Lanka Railways Performance Reports and Central Bank Annual reports show that SLR has been incurring operating losses of 7.7 billion rupees in 2015, 6.8 billion rupees in 2016 and 7.5 billion rupees in 2017.

A big component of Recurrent Expenditure, that makes up a portion of ‘Operating Expenditure’ is salaries and wages. This recent train strike by railway trade unions erupted due to a demand for higher salaries for railway staff. Recent pay sheets published by the Ministry of Transport’s Media Division, shared vehemently via Social Media, show that the monthly earnings for certain categories of staff at Sri Lanka Railways are many times the wages of the average worker in the private sector.

Sri Lankans are naturally outraged that the money pumped into the system both as commuters and taxpayers are having such a poor return of an inefficient service and sudden strikes.

Another side of the coin are the low fares charged by the commuters. Fares per kilometre range from 50 cents to a maximum of Rs.2 for 2nd and 3rd class travel. 1st class fares range from Rs.1.60-3.60 per kilometre.   

The result is that railway revenues are not even sufficient to cover the salaries of workers.  In 2016, salaries exceeded revenue by 32%. This is not a recent problem. Expenditure of the railways exceeded revenue by 52% in 1968, roughly the same as 2016.

Successive governments have preferred the status quo over bold reform, which will face resistance from both unions and commuters.  

But reforms are needed. What are the options?

IS THERE A SOLUTION IN PRIVATISATION? 

Given political realities, wholesale privatisation is not a realistic option. Even if politics can be maneuvered - an unlikely scenario - the government would be hard pressed to find a private investor willing to take on such a large and risky investment.

The World Bank in a discussion paper on railway restructuring and privatization, identified certain significant models driven out of case studies of the developing world, that could be applicable to Sri Lanka. A few successful reforms are to offer stocks to separate companies (based on various scenarios such as geographical factors, purpose etc.), design multi-phase enterprise development programs and, restructure and concession loss making SOEs.

In the case of SLR, the restructuring process could be through Private-Public Partnerships (PPPs). Realistically, short-term reform objectives should be to introduce competition where possible, and structural reforms that increase accountability.  Private sector involvement could help in areas such as freight, real-estate management, catering, and tourist or “luxury” coaches as experimented earlier. A system that welcomes private involvement and breaking the state monopoly is the long-term solution to service delivery issues on railways.

A likely success strategy is to get the private sector involved in a more advanced train service altogether. Work on the Colombo Light Rail project is currently underway and this is an example of where the asset’s ownership will lie with the state, but the private sector will run the operation of it.

Currently,  the SLR operates as a monolith department.  It’s official classification makes it a notable absentee from the list of 55 ‘strategically important’ state enterprises compiled by the Finance Ministry.  

A first step towards accountability is to split the rail track and station operations from the actual running of train services. This allows for an environment where private operators could enter into train operations and other services on their own terms, resulting in a more competitive system. Competition will no doubt increase service delivery and choice.  

The alternatives are not entirely new and like in the past, even this limited proposal will be opposed by the unions. But, reforms tend to happen in crisis; when people reject old ideas and look for new ones. With organic calls for privatisation, that time may be approaching for Sri Lanka’s railways.

Sri Lanka Railways: A snapshot of issues and ideas for improvement

Originally appeared on Daily News

By Ravi Ratnasabapthy

Several railway trade unions launched a lightning strike last Wednesday over salary anomalies. The strike was called off after four days but hundreds of thousands of commuters were stranded. Angry commuters took to the streets, some called for privatisation of the railways.

Sri Lanka faces a huge problem with public transport which is driving commuters to use private transport. A study by W.J. Weerawardana [1] estimates that 65% of the road space is used by 38% of the passengers; the increase in the use of private vehicles is the major cause of traffic congestion.

At rush hours and school times the traffic is almost at the point of gridlock. Parking is a also a problem. If even a half-decent public transport option were available many more commuters would use it

Standards of service at the railway are shoddy and reforms to railways must form a part of a larger plan to fix public transport. A summary of some key issues follows, with some ideas for improved services.

SLR Financials Table
  • The railways lost 6.7bn in 2016 (7.7bn in 2015). The railways appear to have been losing money since 1947 [2]. The expenditure of the railways exceeded costs by 10% in 1950 but by 1968 this had grown to 52.4%. The wages policy of the government and the policy limitations imposed by the government in the pricing of passenger and goods transport were factors that contributed to this situation [3]. This has not changed much: in 2016 costs exceeded revenues by 49.4% (2015: 45.09%) for broadly similar reasons.
  • Fares per kilometre range from 50 cents to a maximum of Rs.2.00 for 2nd and 3rd class travel. 1st class fares range from Rs.1.60-3.60 per kilometre.
  • Revenue does not cover even salaries. Salaries exceeded revenues by 31.89% in 2016 (28.9% in 2015).  
  • Only 42% of the trains run on time (39% in 2015). Delays exceeded 10 minutes for 43% of the trains (46% in 2015).
  • The assets of the railway or poorly utilised. Income from leases of railway land was Rs.119.58m in 2016. Lease arrears not collected amounted to Rs.1.8bn at end 2016 [4]. The Auditor General notes [5]: “Lands  about 12,000 acres in extent belong  to  the Department  of  Sri  Lanka Railways had remained idle for about 150 years without giving on lease or utilizing for another purpose”

COMMENT:

Fares are priced well below operating costs, the trains grimy and overcrowded. Maintaining rail fares at uneconomically low levels is politically attractive but has lead to the deterioration of the rolling stock and infrastructure due to a lack of funds for new investment.

There has been a steady increase in passenger numbers from just under 100m in 2011 to 136m in 2016, but the service does not appear to have been able to respond adequately to new demands for expanded services or improved quality.

Based on the current operating and cost structure fares would need to double to just to meet recurring expenses and rise still further if the capital expenditure is to financed.  The Government spent Rs.30bn on capital expenditure in 2015. (2014: Rs.34.6bn, 2013: Rs.20.2bn). While a significant fare increase is needed and may be accepted if accompanied by improved service, passengers cannot expect to pay for inefficiency. For example, the COPA [6] has questioned excess staff recruitment (of 1588) and payment of overtime in contravention of the Establishment Code.

Thus there is a need to restructure of operations to improve service quality and efficiency. In a lecture delivered last year at the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport, Dr Priyanka Seneviratne claimed SLR’s weaknesses stem mainly from lack of timely investment in fleet replacement, technology, and workforce development in the past. The Ministry of Internal Transport [7] confirms that 65% of the rolling stock is over 30-35 years old which increases the likelihood of breakdowns, increases maintenance costs and impairs service quality.

Dr Senevirate identified the following measures to enhance revenue:

  1. adjusting fares and tariffs to better reflect costs and improved services;
  2. leasing more real estate and advertising space at market prices, and
  3. partnering with the private sector to provide freight and ancillary services such as catering, courier, and real estate management.

The railway currently partners with the private sector to provide a luxury carriage on selected routes. This could be expanded to cover other routes or possibly even to a whole train, covering for example additional services at peak times to cater to office commuters. Service contracts where, for example, railway catering is contracted out could provide increased revenues and improve service. Operations of toilets, canteens could be handled in a similar manner. Idle land could also be redeveloped in partnership with private developers. 

The dilemma is ensuring that a public-private partnership is beneficial when corruption is endemic and state capacity is limited. The following principles are an outline of process that should be followed:

  1. Open bidding- public-private partnerships must be procured by competitive tendering.
  2. Public consultation: submission of the draft invitation to tender and the draft contract to public consultation, which should be advertised in the newspapers and in electronic media, informing the arguments for contracting a partnership, the scope and term of contract, its estimated value, setting a minimum period of thirty days for comments and suggestions.
  3. Capacity and institutional integrity in contract design. Some PPP contracts can be extremely complex and public officials may be overwhelmed. Capacity building within the public sector is essential. Setting up an independent PPP advisory unit within government staffed by competent people is advisable. Judicious use of external advisors may be necessary, depending on the nature of the contract.
  4.  Where possible standardising parts of the contract reduces conflict, enhances, predictability, minimises misspecification and reduces transaction costs. 
  5. Public disclosure of principal contract terms.
  6. Post implementation monitoring of contracts to ensure value is delivered.

Sri Lanka’s railways are a drain on the treasury. With tight budgetary constraints the Government will face increasing difficulties in allocating adequate resources to maintain, let alone develop, the railways.  The railway is an important component of transport infrastructure and improving its efficiency will contribute to the overall productivity of the economy.

Creating competition and private participation in the in the supply of services, utilisation of idle assets and supply of railway infrastructure could enhance efficiency and improve service. The Government should explore these options.


[1] Weerawardana W.J., Reduction of traffic congestion in Colombo city by improving public bus transport.

[2] Enhancing the Efficiency of the Sri Lanka Railways and its Contribution to Transportation, Sisira Kumara, Economic Review Aug/Sept 2011

[3] Ibid

[4] Auditor General’s Department, Annual Report 2016

[5] Report of the Auditor General on Head 306-Department of Sri Lanka Railways-Year 2015

[6] First Report of the Committee on Public Accounts (from 01.01.2016 to 07.04.2016).

[7] Ministry of Internal Transport, Performance Report 2014