Railway opts for US locomotives

A multi million US dollar tender has been awarded to General Electric (GE), an American multinational conglomerate, for the purchase of 12 locomotives to service the upcountry routes.

However, railway experts told the Sunday Observer, that the Sri Lanka Railway (SLR) will soon buy second-rate diesel locomotives at an exorbitant price without making use of this opportunity to acquire new generation engines.

They point out that the locomotives are being sold to SLR for around 36-64% more than similar GE engines that were purchased by Indonesia in 2014.

The experts also argue that the tender specifications were inexplicably weighted towards those of the GE engine to limit the number of eligible bidders.

However, they point out that the purchase of new locomotives is certainly a necessity, as the only Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) engines capable of pulling trains over steep hills are the M6 models, which were acquired in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These machines are well past retirement age, and it is often necessary to use two of them at once to operate the trains, thereby limiting the availability of the locomotives for other tasks.

While the procurement of modern equipment is welcome news, the diesel engine that will allegedly soon be bought, the GE 7FDL, is not ideal for Sri Lanka’s railway conundrum, according to several sources.

First built in 1956, the 7FDL diesel engines are no longer manufactured for US railroads and have not been since 2003. They are, however, still built for export and are used in Indonesia, Pakistan, and China, among others.

Globally the 7FDL engines haveexperienced “catastrophic failures that have resulted in significant damage and locomotive fires across the globe,” according to a railway expert who has worked on railroads both in Sri Lanka and abroad and who wished to remain anonymous.

“GE is offering a second-rate diesel engine that has repeatedly broken down in Pakistan and Indonesia and is no longer used in the United States. There is no good reason to buy these locomotives, as the SLR has not been offered the benefit of buying new generation engines,” said the same expert.

In addition to the quality of the engines it has also been pointed out that the GE models are considerably more expensive than several of the other locomotives submitted for consideration.

According to documents, obtained by the Sunday Observer, the cost for twelve GE locomotivesis about US $4.1 million each. The price for twelve locomotives is at least US $10 million more than several other bids that were disqualified during the tender process.

Comparatively, Indonesia bought GE CM20-EMP locomotives, which use GE 7FDL engines and have similar specifications to those called for in the local tender for between US $2.5-$3 million in 2014.

“There is no explanation as to why these locomotives would cost so much more when they are so similar,” said a second railways expert who spoke on condition of anonymity.

However, officials from the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation defended the decision to purchase the GE locomotives.

“The technical procurement committee decided on the technical specifications, and we intend to award the tender to GE, which offered a locomotive that was in line with these specifications,” Nihal Somaweera, Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, told the Sunday Observer

The General Manager Railways, B.A.P. Ariyarathna also stated that the winning engine was the only technically feasible option.

But critics allege that the tender specifications wereinexplicably weighted towards those of the GE 7FDL engine. A particularly contentious aspect of the tender is its specification that the locomotives length should be “approximately” 15,500 millimeters (mm), which is exactly as long as the Indonesian GE CM20-EMP locomotives.

Another alleged issue with the tender technical specification lies in its requirement for medium-speed engines that operate between 900-1200 revolutions per minute (RPM).

“It is my belief that the medium-speed engine specification was inserted to limit the number of eligible bidders. The Chinese and European companies that were involved were offering only high-speed engines, so they were disqualified immediately,” said yet another railway engineer familiar with the tender process.

However despite the criticism the SLR and the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation are standing by the decision.

“The losing party is free to lodge an appeal with the Tender Appeals Board,” said Ministry Secretary Somaweera. 

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