Light Rail is not the solution
Posted on April 10th, 2020

Chanaka Bandarage

The previous government signed an agreement with a Chinese bank to obtain funds to build a Light Rail system from Malabe to Fort via Borella.  This is only the first stage of the proposed project. The idea was to eventually cover the whole of Colombo with Light Rail. The estimated cost for stage 1 is somewhere around US$ 2.2 billion.  Obviously the end cost would be much higher.

After the new government came to power (in November 2019), this project has been put on hold. The writer states that this is good. But, Light Rail continues to run their office in Colombo; possibly with the hope of continuing with the project.

True, Colombo has a massive traffic problem. In any busy time, it takes about 10 – 15 minutes for a vehicle on the Cotta Roadside to cross the Borella junction and reach the Maradana Roadside. Anyone would agree that this is insane.

It is also true that Light Rail can travel uninterruptedly above the ground, but that does not mean that it can solve Colombo’s traffic problem.

Parts of Malabe to Fort roads are very narrow, the writer believes that Light Rail in some areas will run a single track on both ways, for example around Welikada flyover (he is not a  technical expert on this subject). Then, this would significantly reduce the number of Light Rail cars that can be operated. This means Light Rail will not be able to cater to a very large number of people.

In Russia, it is stated that when light rail lines run 20 trains per hour; a normal bus service runs 42 buses per hour.

Light Rail intends to acquire lots of lands, including private land; but these are highly congested areas. And, they are very valuable land.  The owners will no doubt put up stern fights against the acquisitions. Simply, there is hardly any space available in Stage 1 for specific road widening.

Proponents of Light Rail say that private car users will start using it; hence Colombo’s vehicular traffic will be reduced. It is difficult to agree with this. Empirical evidence suggests that those who are addicted to cars will continue to use them; they will not give up the addiction easily. The same rationale applies to motorcycle/scooter riders.

No doubt, Light Rail will have passengers, but they would not be much.

The majority of them will be existing bus commuters; not the car and motorbike drivers.

What Light Rail would do is to take over some of the existing busloads. This means if Light Rail is to reduce Colombo’s traffic, that would only be in relation to reducing some bus operations. Is it worth spending such a lot of money then?

Would the average working-class – they consist of the bulk of the bus commuters, be able to afford Light Rail?  Some even can’t afford the current low-cost bus fares.

Mumbai and Bangkok are notorious for very bad vehicular traffic. They have some of Asia’s biggest traffic jams. And, they both have above the ground Light Rail.

The writer invites readers to examine carefully  – should we improve the existing public bus (also rail) transport system instead of Light Rail?

All would agree that this proposition will save us lots of money.

This question compels us to examine Sri Lanka’s especially Colombo’s, bus transport system:

To improve bus transport, the government must take full charge of the operations. Currently, private bus operators run the show.

In Colombo, there are hardly any CTB buses being run. All the lucrative routes like 102, 103, 138, 154 are in the hands of the public bus operators. Basically they have a larger say in determining the number of buses running on routes, issuing of route permits, timekeeping and preparing bus timetables.

The private bus operators want to make maximum profits. They would not like more buses on the routes. Fewer buses mean more opportunity to jampack. Then, of course, more money for them.

And, this is what happens today.

They remain stationary at bus halts for extra-ordinarily long times. The writer was informed by a bus commuter that her 178 private bus from Narahenpita to Mattakkuliya stops and wait at some bus halts for over 10 minutes. In Kosgashandiya, it stays stationary for about 15 minutes to pick commuters. This means the whole journey which should take about 45 minutes could take about 90 minutes. As they have no other alternative, people have become used to this rort. They suffer in silence. The massive time wastages adversely affect the economy.

Basically, the private bus operators have the complete freehand to do whatever they want; the authorities keep a blind eye.

They detest SLTB buses running in their routes. They do not want to run buses at night, say after 730 pm, as there are fewer passengers. This has also adversely affected the economy. This is also the main reason why there are fewer people on the streets at night. Sri Lankan cities have little nightlife, and this is one reason. Not everyone has money to travel in three-wheelers.

What a good, caring government must do is rather than spending billions of public funds on a seemingly useless Light Rail project, to improve the SLTB/private bus network, and also the trains. Rather than rickety old buses that run on lorry chassis, comfortable, automatic, A/C, buses must be introduced (like in Kuala Lumpur). 

To do all this, the power and control of the bus operations must be firmly in the hands of the government, and not the private bus operators. In the current context, this is a very difficult thing to achieve, but it is not impossible.

As stated before, we have narrow roads/streets in Sri Lanka, especially in Colombo. Most were built during the colonial period. The buses that we have are very large. They are too big for the roads/streets. That is the main reason for the huge traffic jams and a large number of road accidents. The authorities must consider introducing smaller buses, like 26/18 seater buses, on some routes.  This will be in addition to the existing big buses. A blend of big and small buses is the best way forward. Small buses are ideal for night-time transport (then, the 103 Fort to Borella, 138 Fort to Homagama can be able to run until midnight). 

Sri Lanka is one country where public transport is run solely based on profitability. This is the problem of privatizing public transport (in the early 1980s).

Public transport must be people-focused. This is how they are run in developed countries.

Buses must be freely available at all times. Passengers must travel in comfort, without harassment. Every effort must be made that every passenger will have a seat.

During CTB days buses were run until late nights regardless of whether there were passengers or not. The rule of thumb is that when a bus (or a train) is run regularly for a long period of time, even if it is in the night, that route will attract passengers. What is required is strictly adhering to the timetable.

As they can be jampacked, private bus operators like big buses. They are money-making machines.

Their only focus is to increase passenger numbers. They pay scant regard to passenger interests/comforts. The fact that they cause huge delays to passengers is immaterial to them.  They know there is no one to check/complain to.

Another reason why they like big buses is that in the event of an accident most of the time their lives are safe; it is people in smaller vehicles/pedestrians that will suffer.

Now, back to Light Rail:

Light Rail is an extremely expensive mode of transport. They run on elevated tracks, built on the concrete slab technology. As we have to start from scratch, it will include the building of overhead rail tracks, light rail stations, lifts/escalators, overhead electric lines, rail cars, overhead platforms, public toilets, shops, etc.

It will take several years to complete the 1st  stage of the Light Rail. During the construction period, the traffic problem from Malabe to Fort would increase by tenfold. This congestion will flow on to other parts of the City.  

Due to lack of sunlight, the ground underneath the Light Rail concrete slab is always dark; also that valuable area is unproductive (note areas under Colombo flyovers – Dematagoda, Nugegoda, Dehiwala; under the Katunayake expressway in Ragama; under the Light Rail tracks in Bangkok/Mumbai). Light Rail introduces new darkness to the environment; the brightness in the townships will end.

In the US and Canada, passengers have faced assaults, sexual rape in light rails stations during nights.

Let us hope that the new government will call for pubic views/comments before embarking on this controversial project. It is not something that could be launched without extensive public consultation/discourse. The writer believes that some of the feasibility studies are yet to be completed and private landowners may not have been notified about the acquisitions.

Light Rail will not solve Colombo’s appalling traffic problem. The only solution is to where possible widen existing roads, build new roads (underground/overhead roads should be considered), ban parking on main roads (build multistorey/underground car parks) and significantly improve the passenger bus/rail transport (encourage as much as possible people to give up cars/motorbikes). As indicated before, the introduction of small buses, in addition to existing large buses, is a must. Any opposition by private bus operators must be disregarded.

An underground Metro rail system like in New Delhi is ideal for Colombo, but given our current financial constraints, we may have to leave it to our future generations to start. The advantage of Metros is that they are linked with the existing railway system. The writer believes that an underground Metro rail project in Colombo will be about 20 times more expensive than the Light Rail project. Meticulous digging of the surface to create a very elaborate underground Metro network is a humongous job.

The writer believes that electrifying our existing railway network is more important than Light Rail (at least from Fort to Polgahawela and Fort to Panadura). Since Independence, governments have indicated this but no one had the audacity to undertake it. The benefits of train electrification are enormous. In South Asia, only India has electric trains. 

Due to the Corona Virus pandemic, our economy will be in shambles. We are a nation already in debt to the tune of about  US$100? billion. And, we are struggling to pay off them (this is a good time to ask for write-offs), mostly accrued during the past 10 years. Most of the past borrowed money were simply wasted. Surely, we do not want to become further debt-ridden with Light Rail. It is our future generations that will curse us one day.

Light Rail is an excellent opportunity for politicians to make money (by way of kickbacks/commissions/bribes). This is always what happens in Sri Lanka with Mega Projects. Rather than Mega Projects, the governments must focus on ‘Micro Finance’ (small (micro) loans to small people).

In summary, rather than Light Rail, the government should utilize the money to improve the existing public transport system. Light Rail cannot stop Colombo’s traffic problem.  At the moment our bus/train services are appalling. Just like in the 1970s and 80s, people still travel in jampacked, old buses/trains. There is no incentive for vehicle owners to switch to public transport.

The public transport commuters undergo untold hardships; an increasing number of them are women. As they do not travel in them, the politicians do not know about the conditions. They ‘fly’ on our roads bypassing all traffic using Police escorts.

4 Responses to “Light Rail is not the solution”

  1. aloy Says:

    100% agree that LRT will not be able to solve the traffic problems as these can handle only a limited number of people. Well planned MRT would have been better solution, but at this juncture we cannot even think of it. So, the best thing is to study how best to reduce traffic jams.

    I too travel on this road quit often. Who are the people using this road?. On school holidays the traffic jam is not there. Then there is a significant number of people coming to the General Hospital in Colombo. Can’t we divert this traffic to the periphery?. Let nearest school be the best school?. On schooldays huge buses carry a large number of students to and fro from out stations blocking roads all over Colombo. Is it not possible to better equip and provide more medical staff to hospitals in the periphery?. Also do we need so many state employees to be engaged in Colombo; most of the senior level have vehicles and they bring their children to the top schools in the city
    . When the pandemic started I remember Ranil Wickemasinghe saying that all state employees can stay at home. He knows that even if they stay at home there is not much that will be affected. Yet he increased their salary by Rs. 10,000 and did a damage of about Rs. 14 billion a month sending our economy crashing overnight. They always do things to their advantage either politically or financially to themselves.

    Therefore I believe the politicos should take their hands off on these matters which are of national importance.

  2. Chanaka B Says:

    “Therefore I believe the politicos should take their hands off on these matters which are of national importance.”
    Well that is why they are there for – attend to matters of national importance. They must do that job wisely.

  3. aloy Says:

    Can the politicos we now have do anything wisely: An airport near a bird sanctuary, a cricket stadium for wild elephants, bankrupt a profitable airline by appointing inexperience kith and kin, rob the central bank in broad day light and play hide and seek. Allowing terrorists to blow up churches and hotels when full details have been provided to the police. At the end of all that now come before the people and whitewash themselves with Corona.

    Yet, they want to get elected to Diyawanna to plan for LRT. Thats what you are saying?.

    If that happens by any chance, at the rate the rupee is falling, there won’t be money to import even punnakku.

  4. Chanaka B Says:

    Someone has to govern a country, pollitocos are elected to govern. In developed ocuntiries they do it well. In the 3rd world they are corrupt and do it unwisely

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