Light Rapid Transit and electrification of Colombo rail project areas | Sunday Observer

Light Rapid Transit and electrification of Colombo rail project areas

Even though belated a vital decision has been arrived at by the government to implement Mass Rapid Transit systems in view of the congestion of roads faced within the Colombo city limits. Political leadership as well as every single citizen has now realized that there is a wide gap in the country’s transit capabilities; and improved carrying capacity, much higher than the upper limit of buses, is necessary to get over the issue, and Light Rapid Transit is the solution.

The areas selected are from Padukka to Colombo on the K.V.Line / Kalutara South to Colombo on Coast Line / Colombo to Rambukkana on the main line and from Ragama to Negombo on the Puttalam line – all through the Ministry of Transport and Sri Lanka Railways; and the next project is the LRT on the CBD through the Ministry of Megapolis catering to commuters in the densely populated areas in Colombo and the suburbs.

However, it is regrettable that the same principle has not been applied to the city limits of Kandy where we see a worsening situation day by day. An attempt is being made to construct a by-pass underground road from Getambe to Katugastota area; for which conducting a feasibility study alone is a waste of time and money. Sri Lanka cannot afford the most expensive mode of going underground.

To overcome the problem of congestion around the city, government has stepped forward with LRT projects which are very effective solutions of congestion. Besides this, LRT is an efficient alternative to reduce and avoid pollution since the system also used modern technology with electrically-powered trains. LRT network connected with important key positions such as banks, government offices, sport complexes, hotels, light industrial area and shopping mall which facilitate citizens for easy movement.

Useful guide

One idea behind adopting light-rail transit is that some automobile drivers will choose rail transit over their personal vehicles, thus alleviating traffic congestion, decreasing commute times and increasing highway safety.

In arriving at the above decision, pros and cons of the Metro systems (MRT) and Light Rapid Transit (LRT) systems monorail and underground metro constructed internationally has to be taken into consideration by the consultants by way of a comparison.

However as a former S.L.R., employee I have given below, information on various MRT and LRT systems installed the world over, over BRT’s and Monorail. ( It is an accepted fact that Monorails are ideal only for short distance travel and BRT’s form a feeder service to MRT’s). This article is intended to be a useful guide to civic leaders and to the general public to assist the Rail experts who have to explain these initiatives to stakeholders beforehand.

Rail transportation systems are characterized by their feeding of obligatory points or locations and the markets they serve, and how their infrastructure if configured, the types of vehicles they use and how they operate.

Light Rail systems by and large, generally provide regional services connecting suburban communities with Central Business Districts (CBD’s), typically in the range of 20 – 25 miles (32 – 40 Kms) with rail stations spaced at 700m to 1 km distances apart. It is observed that Internationally 191 cities in the world will be boasting of their LRT/ MRT’s by 2019.

LRT features include:

LRT is a low cost, low axle load, eco-friendly’, electrically propelled system with no local pollution, and low noise and vibrations. Light Rail Vehicles, LRV generally have a top speed of around 65 Mph or 100 Kmph, though mostly operating at much lower speeds, more akin to road vehicles.Passenger Vehicles are typically longer (80-95 ft) and wider to accommodate around 200 seated and standing passengers.

Utilization of LRV’s in short trains( 4 – 6 vehicles per train) in the Right-of-Way often separated from other traffic at regular intervals; and requires a signal system to maintain a safe distance between trains and possible control train speeds and at frequent intervals. In addition, traffic signals and level crossing barriers are required for road – rail crossings at grade, and requires significantly more communication equipment between trains and central control office linked by fiber optic cables.

Steel rail vehicles operating on steel rails and are almost operated by electricity delivered through overhead lines; with possibility of operating on batteries for short lengths; or with a center third rail where it gets powered only under the vehicle; with high or low level platforms. Electric Power provides greater acceleration, making it suitable for operations with closely spaced stations. Steel rails laid flush with road surface or ballasted like normal railway track making light rail the only system which can operate on both city roads and jointly with conventional rail services. There are several countries where main line railways and the LRT’s operate on the same gauge which facility too should be considered in arriving at a decision. LRT differs from the Metro Rail in that the train length is short / segregated right of way is not essential / may have road level crossings / coaches can go around sharp bends.

When all these constraints are removed, the LRT becomes akin to Metro Rail. Indeed LRT is a flexible mode that fits between the Bus and the Metro rail and can behave like either of them.

Additionally LRT in comparison with Metro Rail is cheaper to build and operate.

New stops can be added easily after construction. Since light rail runs on the street, new stops can go just about anywhere along the street generally spaced at 700meter intervals. So that the maximum distance a passenger walks is 350 meters.

Other infrastructure consists of all items that feature in a Rail project. It includes Right-of Way; tracks, stabling yards, workshops, passenger stations and LRT Halts, electric power supply to trains, sub-stations, signal controls needed to provide safety of operations, communication equipment used for train operations, passenger information and fare collection equipment; passenger emergency phones and closed circuit television surveillance (CCTV). In wide open streets the LRT would have a totally separated strip of land; dedicated routes will cross roadways at grade, or elevated structures, overpasses & under passes or through cut & cover tunnels in city areas.

Its usually composed of steel rails fastened to concrete “ties” or sleepers supported on a bed of metal ballast; at some instances say for platform areas and level crossings, at areas of change of gradients - rails are embedded in concrete in lieu of ballast.

It normally has highly developed stations with platforms suitable for train lengths and height. Platforms are outfitted with long canopies or shelters; seating arrangements, dedicated lighting (mostly with photovoltaic cells on roof top); signage; accommodation for communication, fare collection and passenger information systems. Stations would comprise of “Park & Ride” lots; and intermodal – road vehicle and bus - transfer facilities.

The elements of power supply would embody sub-stations receiving high voltage commercial alternating current (AC) electric current from the local utility; and converted to medium voltage direct current (DC). DC power is distributed through overhead wires (Catenaries) above the tracks and picked up continuously by LRV roof mounted collectors known as “Pantographs” fixed on the vehicles.

Fare collection on LRT – it has a simpler fare structure, such that ticket choices are fewer and ticket vending machines are sized for fewer transactions; but are usually full service devices. Generally two ticket vending machine are placed at access points of stations with sufficient gates; and many at main stations where the passenger counts are high.

Proven technology

There are numerous successful light rail systems around the world and it has an excellent track record. But there are only a handful of monorail systems, outside of amusement parks or at Airports; but adding a monorail stop requires constructing an elevated platform with stairs and elevators.

It’s a heavy-investment mode, requiring strictly separated rights-of-way, and mostly elevated construction. Elevated passenger stations get you into big time construction costs, including elevators. In contrast, light rail is predominantly a surface mode, running on railroad rights-of-way, in grassy medians, even on streets. Light rail stations can be as simple as a bus stop.

Monorails are cumbersome.Vehicles and hardware are custom-designed and fabricated, not available off-the-shelf, whereas light rail equipment are readily available. Light rail uses standard, well-proven railway hardware. Switching trains to a different track is easy - a simple lever moves 2 rails just a few inches.

Although monorail technology was in existence, for over many decades it’s been used only in selected places like amusement parks, airports, etc. The number of cities in the world where monorails actually perform a general, practical urban transit function can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand -- and even there, it’s usually a single-purpose, point-to-point operation.

There’s no need to “reinvent the wheel”. Modern light rail is a highly developed, readily available, tried-and-true transit mode that can be implemented relatively quickly and at reasonable cost and it’s proven that people want to ride it!

However, in implementation of above projects, especially the LRT projects,(through two different Ministries) the need of utmost importance that had gone unnoticed, arises in the establishment of a Regulatory Body ( Rail Infrastructure Development Enterprise – RIDE )- consisting of knowledgeable experts in the field of rail transport decision making- for compiling a set of Rules and Regulations; (A to Z of it – references, standards, regulations, codes and guidelines) formulation of a regulatory mechanism in planning and designs, in the construction, in the procurement, in operation and maintenance, safety and security and for sustainability of electrified Light Rapid Transit system in Sri Lanka.

Ranjith L. Dissanayake.

Retired Personal Assistant to

G.M.R. & Engineer Headquarters.