Reimagining public transport in Sri Lanka

Apr 02, 2013 (LBO) – Last week, I had the opportunity to moderate a powerful expert panel on transport at the LBO-LBR CEO Forum. Below is a revised version of the note that I circulated to the panelists as a frame for discussion.

March is the death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke. The main lesson I take from his life is that we must first imagine what we want to achieve.

My short introductory comments set forth a possible public-transport future for Sri Lanka. It is not the only possible future. But we must settle on a common vision quickly and then set about achieving it.

Urban transport

Imagine Colombo with a clean, punctual, reliable and affordable public transport system, capable not only of bringing people from the suburbs into the city, but also of providing intra-city transport options. The current railway tracks up to Kalutara, Avissawella, Veyangoda and Negombo would be transformed to form a mass transit system that can carry large numbers of commuters. The Fort and Maradana terminals would be converted into articulated public transport hubs with buses and taxis available to take passengers to any point of the city.

The main roads within Colombo would be served by Rapid Bus Transit (RBT). The RBT system would comprise busesrunning on dedicated lanes on schedules that would involve maximum waits of less than five minutes for most of the day. Three-wheeled and four-wheeled taxis would belong to associations that would self-regulate, subject to municipal oversight. On some routes, shared-taxi services would be organized by the associations.

Small roads not served by buses will be prioritized for shared-taxi service, with fixed fares and load limits. Rules ensuring that the first and last bus/shared-taxi will run on time will be strictly enforced for these services, as well as all bus services. This will build trust in the services.

Perennial squabbling over fares being raised to levels commensurate with input costs will cease with the adoption and enforcement of well-consulted and clear formulae for buses, vans, three- and four-wheeledtaxis. Except for bus and shared-taxi services, the published prices will not be mandatory, though they will be widely publicized.Even for buses, the mandatory prices will apply only to the basic service. The dysfunctional licensing system now operational for inter-and intra-provincial buses will be reformed. The government will avoid the temptation to become a cartel manager for taxis.

There would be no container trucks on urban roads. The Colombo Port would be connected to the Wijewardene Mavatha rail yards by a tunnel. Trains would carry containers to and from the Colombo Port to dry ports in Veyangoda and elsewhere. Containers from the regions would use the circular highway to avoid city roads and reach the dry ports.

City roads would be subject to variable congestion pricing that uses gantry-based fare collection that would not require toll booths and the congestion they cause. The revenues would be ploughed back into public transport in the metro region. All urban public transport, except taxis, would be subsidized from dedicated funds. User fees would be collected electronically through stored-value cards.

Similar articulated public transport systems would be established in the other major cities, with scheduled bus services bringing commuters from the suburbs, since the volumes would not justify mass transit. The same electronic cards would be usable across the country.

Inter-city transport

The Main Line from Ragama (upto Jaffna, including spurs to Talaimannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa) would be spun off as a public-private partnership. Dambulla, Anuradhapura, and Trincomaleeare among the main growth poles identified in the National Physical Plan. The tracks would be upgraded for fast trains and a spur constructed to connect Dambulla, even now a major commercial and tourist center. The trainservice would be professionally managed, completely separated from the Department of Railways. Ragama will be developed as a major passenger transportation hub, also providing rail connectivity to the International Airport.

Based on the success of the Main Line, the Southern Line, now extended to Kataragama, would also be handed over to a public-private partnership for investment, upgrading and professional management. Just between these two lines, the percentage of freight and passenger transport carried by rail would double from the respective two and six percent sharesthat existed in 2012.Cities not served by the Main and Southern Lineswould, for the most part, be served by intercity bus services.Sadly, it would not be possible to resurrect the upcountry railway lines.

The current model developed in the Southern Expressway of a high-quality road that covers operational and maintenance costs through tolls will be extended and developed for all major intercity highways. The toll revenues will flow into a dedicated road maintenance fund that will be utilized solely for O&M expenditures on inter-provincial highways that are the responsibility of the central government. Provinces may operate highways within their jurisdiction as toll roads and maintain road maintenance funds.

The proposed Expressway to Kandy via Kurunegala will be expedited since a viable railway service to the central highlandsis difficult to develop. In any case, the National Physical Plan does not envisage population increases in these areas.A state-of-the art bus service will be developed for the heavy-traffic Kandy-Colombo route, using the Colombo-Kurunegala expressway part of the way.

Intercity passenger transport will not be subsidized, except for discounts on tolls. During the transition phase government employees will be provided free passes to facilitate the reforms and ease the transition.

Hardest problem

The hardest problem of all is that of contentment with low-cost, low-quality equilibrium that we are stuck in. Those who are unhappy find their personal workarounds and do not support the upgrading of the public system.

The existence of multiple low-cost and low-quality alternatives prevents momentum being built up for the reform of any one mode.

People sick of buses, shift to three-wheelers and so on.


Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.