Railways to the fore | Sunday Observer

Railways to the fore

Having seen huge queues for fuel for personal cars and three wheelers, the one thought that occurred to me was that the lack of good public transport options can be disastrous for any economy. If Sri Lanka had a world-class, reliable, comfortable and punctual integrated public transport system, many people would have opted to keep their cars at home, regardless of the fuel situation.

We must bear in mind that Sri Lanka is a net importer of fuel, to the tune of US$ 6 billion (approx) every year, which is almost equal to total expatriate remittances. Since the local refineries are also constrained due to various factors, more finished petroleum products have to be imported. If a diesel passenger car can haul five people, a bus can transport at least 25. One can see the impact of public transport from this example alone. Thus, not having a world-class public transport system has cost us dearly. Unfortunately, it takes something like a fuel shortage for us to realise this stark truth.


The first thing that comes to mind when the term public transport is mentioned is a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, which mostly runs underground. Many countries from Singapore to Canada have successful MRT systems. However, some countries may not need such a complicated system, which is a huge investment.

A Light Rail Transit (LRT) system often does the same thing, at a lesser cost. There is no tunneling involved (the most expensive part of the construction) since a LRT system often runs on elevated pillars. It is also electrified, emitting no noise or noxious gases. After careful consideration of the costs and other factors involved, Sri Lankan authorities have settled for LRT systems for major urban centres in the country, starting from Colombo.

There will be at least six LRT lines, but priority has been given to the Malabe-Colombo sector which has no existing train service. A train can accommodate more than 1,000 commuters at once and each train has the potential to take at least 250 cars off the road during rush hours. LRT trains are generally much smaller, but a single LRT train will be able to take around 300 passengers.

With trains coming every four minutes at each station along the proposed Malabe-Kollupitiya-WTC LRT route, thousands of commuters will be able to travel the 21 km from Malabe to Kollupitiya-Fort in just 40 minutes. The approximate route which would be covered by the study runs through Malabe – Battaramulla – Rajagiriya – Borella – Union Place – Kollupitiya and Fort. This LRT line should hopefully drive many motorists to the train.

The good news is that work on the first LRT line in Sri Lanka is likely to begin soon, not long after the opening of the Rajagiriya flyover which itself has the potential to reduce and streamline traffic. The office of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Sri Lanka has commenced the preparatory study for the first elevated Light Rail Transit (LRT) line in Sri Lanka between Colombo and Malabe which is due to be completed by 2021.


JICA says, the study will address key aspects such as, current and projected traffic patterns, environmental and social impacts, economic viability, financial implications, optimization of the route, inter-modal connectivity, implementation schedules and operation and maintenance. The final optimum route would be determined with special focus on environmental and social considerations, and inter-connectivity with other public transport modes.

Meanwhile, there are growing calls by transport experts to pay more attention to developing the railway sector, which has been seemingly put on the backburner, while roads get all the fanfare. Their argument is that rail development is much cheaper than road construction. This is true enough, because railways already have additional lands that can be used for adding tracks without the need for land acquisition.

Electrification, which is a must for the local railway sector, will be costly initially, but would pay for itself in the long run.

Railways are also inherently faster than any form of road transport. Rail travel from the capital Colombo is even now faster (150 mins approx) than travelling by the clogged A1 road artery to Kandy with traffic jams (4 hours approx) in both cities. It has been pointed out that upgrading the track to boost speeds up to 150 Km/hand increasing the frequency of trains will nudge more people to travel by rail between Colombo and Kandy. There are also suggestions for an entirely new high-speed partly elevated double-track railway to Kandy that would do away with level crossings for vehicles that now impose speed restrictions on trains.This does not mean we should abandon any of the ongoing expressway projects. Improvements to roads are necessary to cater to anticipated demand as the island’s economy grows and incomes increase. A good road gives a boost to the economy.

The Central Expressway was planned long ago, but the Southern Expressway was given prominence. There are people who will always prefer a road trip by private car. Who does not like to travel to Kandy in just two hours ? One can imagine the amount of fuel wasted by motorists stuck in traffic jams on the Kandy Road every day. The Central Expressway will resolve this problem. Likewise, plans have already been drawn up for the Ruwanpura (Ratnapura) expressway.

But going forward, the authorities must re-evaluate the need for any further expressways after a traffic flow study. Widening and improving existing freeways will probably suffice in most, if not all, cases. As the transport experts have suggested, it may be better to develop the railway network instead. More attention should be paid to freight transport via train, which is almost non-existent, except for fuel.


As the experts have rightly pointed out, restrictions on the type of vehicles allowed expressways meant that 70% of travellers like those using normal buses, three-wheeled auto-rickshaw taxis and motorcycles would not be able to use them although all tax payers bear the massive cost of the projects. On the other hand, anyone can travel by train. The train services to these cities can be complemented by ultra-luxury articulated buses, which are like mini-trains.

We need a balanced mixture of road and rail transport as we head into the future. The multi-modal transport interchange now under construction in Kottawa is a harbinger of good things to come.

This is the first time that Sri Lankans will be seeing this concept in action, but it is likely to be implemented all over the country in the next decade.

A seamlessly integrated comprehensive public transport system will help take thousands of cars off the road at busy times and cut down on fuel wastage as well. 


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