You probably would have seen the news by now. But in case you haven’t, the Railway Department has gone haywire over a land dispute with Trace Expert City. It got so serious that the railway workers launched a 2-hour strike forcing commuters to quite literally walk home. So what exactly is the issue that’s threatening one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic IT parks?
The big fuss to stop Trace Expert City
The issue came to light when the Railway Department began protesting over a plot of land in front of Trace Expert City. The Railway Department wants to utilize this plot of land for a building. This building would be the new Colombo Train Control Center and Railway Operations Headquarters. And it’s part of a bigger plan.
That bigger plan is the Colombo Suburban Railway Project. The project began in 2016 with the support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Its purpose, in a nutshell, is to modernize the railway system in Colombo to meet passenger and freight demands for the next 2 decades. This involves upgrading existing railway lines, modernizing processes, transitioning from diesel to electric engines, etc.
The main components of this project are of course the railway lines themselves. But there’s also a range of subcomponents for this project. These range from modern radio systems for railway stations to an online ticketing system. This includes a new control center and operations headquarters, which the Railway Department is building for two reasons.
The first reason is that the existing train control center located inside the Maradana Railway Station has become too congested. This apparently due to the addition of too many new systems and facilities. Additionally, due to the lack of space, there isn’t any space to train new railway controllers and any other staff.
The second reason is that officers of the Operating Department of the Railway Department are scattered. As such, the Railway Department wishes to bring all these officers under one roof. Furthermore, as part of the process to convert from diesel to electric trains, a power control center is also set to be constructed next to the new control center.
However, regarding this dispute, one must note that construction of this new train control center won’t begin any time soon. According to the implementation schedule of the project, its construction is scheduled to begin in 2019. Its construction is expected to end in 2022. Needless to say, it’s a long way off.
But in a nutshell, the Colombo Suburban Railway Project is a grand one with the aim of modernizing the aging railway system in the city. As part of it, a new Colombo Train Control Center and Railway Operations Headquarters. But the proposed site for the train control center is a plot of land utilized by Trace Expert City, which it aims to utilize for expansion.
What TRACE is saying about the matter
Speaking to ReadMe, Mangala Karunaratne – CEO of Calcey and a Director of TRACE said, “Do we need to have a train control center on prime real estate in Colombo? The Railway department owns land all over the country. In this digital era of fiber optic cables, why can’t they keep it in Anuradhapura or Dematagoda?”
Nonetheless, TRACE has decided that it won’t oppose any aspect of the Colombo Suburban Railway Project. Rather, it has they agreed to work towards a compromise and wishes to integrate the train control center without disturbing existing operations at Trace Expert City.
Trying to combine the Railway Department’s plans into Trace Expert City
Speaking to ReadMe, Nikita Samaratunga – Advisor at TRACE explained, “TRACE, recognizing the importance of this project for national interest has expressed its willingness to propose an alternate development proposal which will integrate and blend the Colombo Suburban Railway Project within the existing landscape, so no disruptions will occur to the environment that has already been created.”
Furthermore, she shared that proposals were submitted to the UDA earlier this year to utilize the land being disputed to expand Trace Expert City. Last year while exploring the history of Trace Expert City, we learned that the project is yet to be completed with multiple phases planned. To execute these remaining phases, the proposals submitted by TRACE must be approved by the UDA as it is the owner of the land.
And this expansion has become a necessity for many of the tenants of Trace Expert City. Mangala shared with ReadMe that Calcey is eliminating its reception. In its place would be a new conference room. Why? Because the only space remaining for Calcey’s new recruits is the existing conference rooms.
Nikita shared with ReadMe that Calcey isn’t the only company with such woes. There are tenants at Trace Expert City wish to eliminate the auditorium. Instead, they want TRACE to open it up as a workspace for companies. However, TRACE has denied this request with Nikita explaining, “We want Trace Expert City to be a place that promotes collaboration among the industry.”
The discussions between TRACE and the Railway Department
Yet after submitting proposals to expand Trace Expert City, on the 11th of May, TRACE was first informed about the plans for the new train control center. Following discussions involving TRACE, the Urban Development Authority (UDA), and the Railway Department. Ultimately, TRACE decided that it would be best to integrate the train control center into Trace Expert City.
However, TRACE wanted the Control Center building to have the same style as the existing bays. This is because for TRACE the bricked design of the bay is one of their key unique selling points. Therefore, TRACE had asked its architects to meet with the architects designing the train control center. Thus, hopefully reaching an acceptable compromise.
Additionally, Nikita also shared with ReadMe that there was another meeting regarding the matter held two weeks ago with officials from the relevant stakeholders. Even then, TRACE had assumed they were working towards a compromise between themselves and the Railway Department.
But suddenly, on the 25th of July officials from the Railway Department had approached TRACE. They informed TRACE that a Cabinet Paper had stated that the disputed land was transferred to the Railway Department. When TRACE spoke to the authorities they were told it wasn’t a cause for alarm.
The strike begins
Yet, the very next day officials from the Railway Department had attempted to build a fence on the disputed land. This alarmed TRACE. Why? Because as per Sri Lankan law, a person can build a fence around a plot of land to make a claim to it. While this can be disputed in court, the fence they built results in a stronger case in their favor.
As such, had the Railway Department built a fence it would’ve meant that TRACE would effectively have no rights to that land. Seeing this happening in front of them, TRACE had requested the officials from the Railway Department to produce the Cabinet Paper claiming the ownership of the land had been transferred. But the officials couldn’t produce this Cabinet Paper when requested.
Towards the afternoon Dr. Harsha De Silva – Deputy Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs appeared at Trace Expert City. He had asked the officials to halt construction of the fence. The officials from the Railway Department agreed to halt construction of the fence. However, things were about to take a turn for the worse.
What the Railway Department said
Soon afterward, the Railway Trade Unions began a 2-hour lightning strike. “There has been construction happening in a land belonging to the Railway Department had to stop owing to Dr. Harsha de Silva interfering and threatening government officials of the Railway Department. If these threats continue, if the construction work continues to be interfered with, we will take trade union action in the future”, is what the representatives of the Railway Trade Unions had to say.
And so as commuters were heading home, their trains came to a screeching halt in the middle of the tracks. The engine drivers then disembarked and went home leaving the commuters stranded. Meanwhile, at the train stations, things weren’t looking better. Furious commuters had smashed windows as they screamed at any officials they saw.
Beyond the statements they gave during the strike, the Railway Department has now been silent on the matter. We tried to contact the Railway Department for an official response. However, we’ve yet to receive such a response.
What the government has said since
The first government response came from Dr. Harsha De Silva on Facebook. He had stated, “Yes, I did go there and discuss with all parties and conveyed the message that Minister Nimal Siripala and PM and other stakeholders will meet on Monday and by Wednesday agree on a fair compromise to build the Railway Control Centre building without destroying Trace City.”
Dr. Harsha later edited his post to mention, “Yes, Cabinet approval has been obtained a couple of weeks ago to give the land to Railway, but not all aspects had been considered. In fact, Minister Nimal Siripala was not aware of the existing approved plan for Trace expansion on that same land.”
Later on Thursday evening at a press conference, Dr. Harsha elaborated on the manner. He shared that the Railway Department owned 5 acres of land 200 meters from Trace Expert City and said that the train control center could be built on one acre of this unutilized land. Furthermore, he also reminded everyone that the construction of the train control center wasn’t set to begin until next year. This is following the fact-finding mission, which isn’t set to be completed until October 2018.
Later the UDA, which owns the disputed land released a statement. Dr. Jagath Munasinghe – Chairman of the UDA stated that Trace Expert City will not be relocated from Maradana. Commenting on the matter, Dr. Jagath said, “We have been talking to Railway Department officials since May and we told them we are prepared to come to a mutually acceptable solution.”
Building on one of Dr. Harsha’s points, Dr. Jagath also stated, “The Railways Department has many under-utilized lands in the vicinity to build the control tower. I know the hassle they may face with some of these lands, but I’m sure if they do their homework they will realize that they can make do with one of the alternative lands.”
Stop protesting for every damn thing!
Ultimately, the government would (ideally) be meeting all the stakeholders today. If all goes well, then the parties would come to an acceptable compromise regarding the dispute. And this time it would be a compromise every party would actually accept. After all, an expanded Trace Expert City and a better railway system is beneficial for everyone.
However, it’s utterly ridiculous that the Railway Department is being territorial about one plot of land. But what’s even more ridiculous is the sudden decision to launch a 2-hour strike. Drivers suddenly deciding to abandon ongoing trains isn’t fun. Particularly when you’re leaving hundreds, if not thousands of commuters stranded.
All because Dr. Harsha de Silva “threatened” the railway department officials. It’s as if a baby started crying simply because they got half a marie biscuit instead of the entire marie biscuit. We sincerely hope that the individuals of the Railway Trade Unions grow up soon.
How can we as a nation progress and promote a digital economy if the very government entities that we rely on have nothing better to do than strike for everything? Before talking about a digital economy, we should first assess where everyone’s priorities lie.
Ultimately, we hope things turn out favorable to both parties. Because at the end of the day, whether it’s an expanded Trace Expert City or an upgraded Railway Department, progress on any level shouldn’t be discouraged.
Update 1: Trace Expert City to be completed?
This update was added on the 02nd of August 2018
It’s been a week since the protest was held and the fiasco began. Once again, Dr. Harsha De Silva held a press conference. Here he gave us an updated response on the matter regarding Trace Expert City. He announced that the project would proceed with its second and third phase.
Elaborating on the matter Dr. Harsha said, “Phase two and phase three will be done in Trace City. No one will approve the construction of a building for the Railways Department. Minister Champika Ranawaka had not approved the construction of a Railways Department building. Both buildings will be constructed in the two adjoining lands.”