By Emil van der Poorten –
That the fraud that claims that Public, Private Partnerships (PPP) are the greatest thing since sliced bread lends itself to ready transference across continents and oceans was brought home to me most forcefully recently when we were taken in by the advertising hype of one of these operations and bought (inordinately) expensive rail tickets to the Eastern Coast.
I am referring to the journey on ExpoRail from Kurunegala to Trincomalee on the 11th April and return on the 14th April 2013.
We bought two return tickets on the ExpoRail website on what seemed like a luxury train, judging by the pictures and description. To say that we were “taken for a ride” would be to seriously understate the case!
The Kurunegala Station was a ramshackle building – filthy, decrepit and falling apart – with no maintenance having been done for years. The “gardens” were overgrown and garbage was strewn all over. Commuters, packed like sardines, waited outside the still-to-be-opened ticket counter.
The only body that seemed to belong to the station was stretched out on an armchair, in an otherwise-deserted office, all swathed in cloth suggesting a recent escape from some set of The English Patient!
The train eventually arrived, more than an hour late, and we were informed by the Exporail staff in charge of the cabin that we could not board it with the Exporail printout we had. This printout said that when we produce it at the Kurunegala Station we would be issued a normal CGR ticket so we could board the train. There was much arguing between the ExpoRail and the CGR reps and by dint of persuasion by my partner, finally, very reluctantly, the ExpoRail rep.s, making us feel that we were the recipients of a Sri Lankan version of a Papal Dispensation, we were let on board.
Having clambered up a rather rudimentary ladder into our “carriage,” we were greeted by a rivulet of liquid of indeterminate origin emanating from the washroom/toilet on the train and leaving the same portal through which we had just entered. I suppose the good news in this scenario was that the toilet/washroom was not at the far end of the passage because then we would have had a little stream to negotiate each time we had occasion to leave our seats!
The toilets were a mess – water all over the floor, no running water to the washbasin and the flushes were not working!! When you had occasion to visit the toilet, the ExpoRail guy, seated at its door, would offer you a bottle of water to be utilized in any manner you wished!
Finally with a series of “leap-stop” lurches, our train seemed to want to leave the station. Having succeeded in avoiding violent contact with the wall in front of our front-row seats, we then began to experience the pitching, tossing and “shake-rattle-rolling” of our carriage, the like of which NONE of us had ever experienced before, anywhere, in any mode of transport.
This was not like the bone-jarring vibrations experienced on the Kandy/Colombo trains, caused by an unstable rail-bed. This was beyond imagining and threatened, literally, to toss us out of our seats. The fact that this turbulence subsided significantly once the train gathered speed, suggested that it had something to do with whatever suspension the coach rode on (or didn’t have). However, that respite was short-lived because it seemed that, for whatever reason, the train stopped at what seemed like the railway equivalent of bus stops to drop off or pick up goodness knows whom or what, in one instance, dozens of wooden boxes containing ‘day old’ chickens!! After every such stop, it recommenced its agonising torture to the passengers who had overpaid – grossly – for the “privilege.”
We were served a “buth” packet containing very cold yellow rice, 2 or 3 minute pieces of chicken, a sambol, and green pea curry (which had gone stale) This was beyond description in that any self-respecting “kaday-keeper” would have been embarrassed to serve this mess, leave alone charge you for it. Thank God we’d had a snack earlier! Then the “steward” served us with cups of coffee which we could not drink because the train was in a state of turbulence befitting a mid-Atlantic storm and we would have scalded ourselves if we tried. We sent it back and asked that it be served at the next stop. This did not work either because no sooner were our cups delivered, than the train’s inimitable motion re-commenced.
Also, as anyone of our age group would appreciate, a six hour journey requires at least one “pit stop.” At this point, let me suggest to the reader that waiting for a halt in the train’s progress to use the toilet is inappropriate, because, no sooner had I arranged my outer garments to facilitate that necessary bodily function, the train began its routine of lurch-stop and rock and roll. Suffice it to say that I discovered contortionist skills that I never knew I possessed in my efforts to, successfully, avoid severe embarrassment!
The three delightful days we spent at our destination were marred by the prospect of what awaited us on our return journey. And our worst fears were realized.
The same story was repeated on the 14th when we tried to board the train in Trincomalee to get back to Kurunegala. The ExpoRail guys just refused us entry with the internet document we had. My partner was physically prevented from entering the carriage. An attempt to get the ExpoRail Head Office on the telephone was unsuccessful because they were closed for the holidays! I am convinced that it was only because of the embarrassment created by our shouting and my threats to expose ExpoRail and their inefficiency by writing to the media that they ultimately let us on board.
To our horror we discovered that the toilet leaking water all over the place and an absence of running water to the taps and the toilets had still not been attended to. Three days later and no repairs had been effected! So much for concerns of even elementary hygiene by this “luxury train-service provider.”
To repeat what we went through on the return journey would be tedious in the extreme. Suffice it to say that added to the earlier misery was the fact that the stops were of longer duration and more frequent and we arrived in Kurunegala TWO hours late.
I would be remiss in my duty to readers if I didn’t describe the dinner served on our return journey. We, again, requested a “non-vegetarian” meal. This consisted of some lightly “tempered” rice – nothing more – no curries or even a sambol. When we asked the steward to identify the “non-vegetarian” element in the styro-box, he told us that since the rice was boiled in “chicken-stock” it met the menu description. I trust any reader of this column will not be surprised by our incredulity at this response!
To describe what was charged for this “experience” as a rip-off would be a monumental understatement in the circumstances and it would really be more appropriate for ExpoRail to COMPENSATE anyone boarding one of these “special trains” and trying to consume their “non-veg” meal and coffee than to actually CHARGE them for the experience.
While this experience is truly an appropriate metaphor for train travel (and life) in the Debacle of Asia I really wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy unless his last name happened to be ………!
A thought in closing, though, would not be inappropriate I think: is this yet another of the money-laundering enterprises that have become the rule rather than the exception in the Debacle of Asia, because that could be the only viable explanation for this travesty in travel.