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What’s In Store For The Colombo Transport Plan?


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Himal Kotelawala

Himal Kotelawala

Staff Writer

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If there is one thing all Sri Lankans can agree on irrespective of political differences, it’s that public transport in this country is in need of a serious upgrade – particularly in the Western Province, where simply getting from A to B has become a daily nightmare thanks to the sub-par bus and railway services currently in operation, as well as the seemingly exponential increase in the number of vehicles on the road. Often, we hear policymakers recommend improving public transport as a permanent solution to the growing congestion in the streets of Colombo; but despite the best efforts of successive administrations, any significant improvement has yet to materialise. All that is about to change, however, provided a newly conceptualised transport plan becomes a reality.

A Cabinet-appointed committee of transportation experts has presented to the powers-that-be a proposal to curb traffic by changing people’s preferred mode of transportation – i.e. convincing people to leave their cars behind and opt for a new and improved public transport service instead. Committee member Dr. Dimantha De Silva* of the University of Moratuwa was kind enough to share with us details of this proposal that was dreamed up as part of the highly publicised Megapolis development drive and is currently awaiting Cabinet approval, following which it is expected to be implemented in several stages, panning a number of years. Here is a quick breakdown:

Transport Proposal

The proposal the committee came up with seeks to implement the following:

  • Public transport improvements
  • Road infrastructure improvements
  • Transport Demand Management (TDM)
  • Environmentally sustainable transportation

But First, Some Data:

The committee, according to Dr. De Silva, came up with a structure plan with the aim of adopting an integrated approach to changing commuter preferences.


The proposed Megapolis has been divided into 12 planning areas. The projected growth for these areas is as follows:

Planned Growth

Planned growth

On A Given Day In CMB…

Mobility Statistics

Mobility statistics

Projected Growth For Public Transport Share Till 2030

KPI in the Colombo Metropolitan Region

KPI in the Colombo Metropolitan Region

Public Transport Improvements

Public transit is still pretty big in Sri Lanka, though on a downward trend. It accounts for roughly 52% of the country’s preferred mode of travel ‒ which, according to Dr. De Silva, is quite high compared even to the developed world.

“We have been losing that public share. Often we think we lose it to cars, but we’ve actually lost it to motorcycles and three-wheelers. The three-wheeler used to be a last mile vehicle. That has changed,” he said, speaking at a seminar held recently, titled ‘Western Megapolis Project – Can it Be Accelerated?’ organised by the Chamber of Construction Industry (CCI) of Sri Lanka.

The plan is to reverse this downward trend by introducing drastic improvements to the city’s ailing public transport.

This will include:

  1. A modernised bus service
  2. An electrified railway system
  3. A modern Rapid Transit System (RTS)
  4. Inland water transport – i.e. a brand new boat/ferry service that utilises Colombo’s historic canal network

A Modern Bus Service

USD 663 million will be allocated to modernise the city’s bus service. Among its features will be:

  • A better door-to-door service
  • Easy access and comfort
  • Integration with the proposed Rapid Transit System (RTS) and Rail
  • Incorporating existing operators and providers

According to Dr. De Silva, this project will also see:

  • Institutional reforms
  • Modernisation of all buses and all routes
  • Low floors, A/C, smart IT systems including GPS
  • Revision of bus routes
  • Identification of new routes using expressways for trips within CMR
  • Rescheduling of buses
  • Modernisation all bus stops and terminals
  • Bus lane and bus priority where implementable

Railway Electrification and Modernisation

A complete restructuring of the railway has been proposed. A mammoth project spanning 20 years at a cost of USD 3.1 billion. A total of 196 km of existing railway lines will be electrified under this phase of the project, with an additional 52 km added to the grid.

Existing rail lines (196 km)

  •         Panadura – Veyangoda (extension to Polgahawela) (110 km)
  •         Ragama – Negombo and Airport Connection (26 km)
  •         Kelani Valley Line (60 km)

New rail lines (52 km)

  •         Kottawa – Horana (22 km)
  •         Kelaniya – Dompe – Kosgama (Freight Line) (30 km)
Railway Electrification and Modernisation of Tracks

Railway Electrification and Modernisation of Tracks

RTS – Rapid Transit System (including LRT – Light Rail Transit)

If all goes according to plan, this is expected to be a game changer for transport in Sri Lanka. At a cost of USD 3.5 billion, a new RTS seeks to adopt a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system that is projected to transport up to 30,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd).

According to Dr. De Silva, LRT was selected over Monorail for the following reasons:

  • Reduced costs with ground operation
  • Ground level depots/yards
  • Ground level stations
  • Lower operations costs
  • Monorail switching issues
  • Monorail unable to expand as a network with crossings
  • LRT has more providers across the world
  • Well established mode across the world

Why not BRT (bus rapid transit), in that case?

“BRT is a good option which is cost effective, but our roads are definitely beyond that technology to provide a long lasting solution,” said Dr. De Silva.

RTS in the Colombo Central Business District (CBD) and suburbs

Image 10

Proposed RTS system, courtesy Dr. Dimantha De Silva

Inland Water Transport

Colombo has a pretty amazing but criminally underused canal network. This phase of the project seeks to utilise these canals to provide a safe and comfortable mode of transport for the citizens of Colombo – at a cost of USD 125 million.

According to Dr. De Silva, new and unsinkable boats/ferries equipped with air conditioning will provide a safe commuter service between:

  • Wellawatte – Battaramulla (IW1)
  • Fort – Union Place (IW2)
  • Mattakkuliya – Hanwella Line (IW3)

This service is expected to promote eco-tourism at non-peak periods.

Inland Water Transportation Routes

Inland Water Transportation Routes

Multimodal Transport Hub And Centres

This seeks to establish a multimodal hub at the heart of Colombo that will integrate transportation, logistics, and leisure facilities.

The main hub will be located in Fort/Pettah, with 11 multimodal centres in Horana, Kottawa, Kaduwela, Kadawatha, Panadura, Negombo, Avissawella Gampaha, Meerigama, Ragama and Moratuwa.

Proposed Developement Area

Proposed Development Area

Improved School And Office Transport Services

According to Dr. De Silva, a regulatory mechanism will be formed to oversee school and office transport services. Separate companies are to provide higher quality, reliable, door-to-door services with A/C and monitoring facilities. The existing ‘Sisusariya’ will be extended as part of this project.

A Regulated Taxi Service

The number of taxi companies operating in Colombo is on the rise. Dr. De Silva’s proposal seeks to introduce a common identification mechanism for different taxi services.

It will be an “IIT based service” that will be developed “through a regulatory body and policy documents for taxi operations.” Charging regulations will also be reviewed.

Further Road Development

At a cost of USD 3.3 billion road infrastructure will continue to be developed under the Megapolis programme.

National expressway expansion

  • Central expressway
  • Ruwanpura expressway

Improving existing roads

  • Horana to Mirigama via Paddukka and Kirindiwela
  • Negombo to Divlapitiya – Mirigama
  • Ja-ela to Divlapitiya via Ekala and Minuwangoda
  • Continuing ongoing and identified projects by the RDA

New urban expressway

  • Port Access Expressway (New Kelaniya Bridge to Port)
  • New Kelaniya to Port Via Battarmulla

Improving missing links

  • Baseline extension
  • Marine Drive extension to Galle Face and Dehiwela
  • Duplication extension to Hospital Road

Transport Demand Management

USD 196 million will be spent to effectively manage the ever increasing transport demand.

The plan is thus:

  • Introduce flexible and staggering work hours
  • Efficient traffic enforcement with CCTV monitoring/red light cameras
  • Parking management systems
  • Signal-light improvements, upgrades and synchronisation
  • A traffic flow management centre

Once sufficient Public Transport Improvements are completed (by around 2025) road pricing (ERP) will be introduced.


To summarise, Dr. De Silva’s plan requires Public Transport Intervention to be a priority. Railway is expected to carry much of the load, with a Rapid Transit (RTS) providing fast access to Colombo Central Bus District (CBD) and suburbs.

Modernised buses will further supplement the new system with improved connections to rail and RTS stations. Inland water transport will also be utilised to full effect.

Feasibility studies on this project are expected to begin a month or two from now, a process that could take anywhere between six to nine months, following which work can begin on the green and purple lines.

“Highway improvements need to supplement the public transport interventions. A transport demand management is needed until the infrastructure is built. Short term measures are vital,” said Dr. De Silva.

* Dr. Dimantha De Silva is Senior Lecturer of the Transport Engineering Division, Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Moratuwa. All data used in our graphics is courtesy of Dr. De Silva.

Featured image credit:

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