LIKE many cities in southern Asia, the Sri Lankan capital Colombo is suffering the environmental, economic and public health effects of worsening traffic congestion on its streets.

The Colombo Metropolitan Area (CMA) covers 5.6% of Sri Lanka’s land mass but is home to 5.8 million people, 29% of the country’s population. Urban development is focused along major road corridors and suburbanisation is driving an increase in commuting. Census data shows the population moving out from central districts into the suburbs, particularly those located 15-20km from the city centre.

ColumboRail plays a relatively minor role in keeping the region moving, accounting for just 6% of journeys within the CMA. The CMA’s rail network comprises four lines radiating from the capital. The 121km Puttalam Line runs north along the coast from Maradana station in central Colombo and is double-track as far as Seeduwa, with a single track on the northern section to Puttalam. The 37km section between Maradana station in central Colombo and Negambo is used by around 20,000 passengers per day.

The 292km Main Line runs northeast from Colombo to Badulla, with three tracks on the Colombo - Ragama section (which are shared with the Puttalam Line) and two between Ragama and Rambukkana, with a single track on the remainder of the route to Badulla. The line is currently used by around 100,000 passengers per day and most suburban trains originate from or terminate at Rambukkana.

The Kelani Valley line from Maradana to Avissawella in the east of the CMA is a former narrow-gauge line which was converted to broad gauge and remains single track for most its length. With low speeds and relatively infrequent services, this is the most sparsely-used of the four corridors with ridership of around 14,600 passengers per day.

To the south of the capital, the 43km double-track Maradana - Kalutara section of the 159km Coastal Line is shared by suburban trains serving communities strung along the shoreline of the Indian Ocean and inter-city trains bound for the southern cities of Matara and Galle. Around 80,000 passengers per day use the section between Colombo and Kalutara.

The heart of the CMA’s rail network is the short Colombo Fort - Maradana section, which is the most intensively-used stretch of railway in Sri Lanka. The line currently hosts 228 trains a day, carrying around 137,000 passengers, an average of 950 passengers per train. The northern section of the Coastal Line is also saturated, with an average of 800-1100 passengers per train.

Rail’s ability to cope with demand for travel into the capital has been hamstrung by several factors. Infrastructure quality and capacity is insufficient to cope with demand and speeds are low, with trains averaging just 33km/h on the Main Line and 28km/h on the Coastal Line. Ageing track, signalling and telecommunications lead to frequent delays. As a consequence, rail’s market share for journeys into Colombo has remained stagnant in recent years at around 13%.

The Sri Lankan government is therefore developing plans for a high-capacity, high-frequency suburban network to efficiently move large numbers of people into and out of Colombo. The four lines radiating from the city will form the backbone of the Colombo Suburban Railway Project (CSRP), a $US 1bn programme to transform rail travel in the CMA with significant investment in track, signalling, telecommunications and potentially electrification.

Detailed design is underway for the initial works on the Main Line, which will be quadrupled on the 13.6km stretch between Maradana and Ragama, with a third track on the 22km Ragama - Veyengoda section. On the Coastal Line, a third track will be added between Colombo Fort and Panadura, with rehabilitation of the double-track Panadura - Kaluthara section, and track-doubling is already underway on the 37km stretch of the Puttalam Line from Maradana to Negombo.

The 23km Maradana - Malapalla section of the Kelani Valley line will be elevated and the line will doubled as far as Padduka. The remainder of the line to Avissawella will be upgraded with the elimination of four level crossings but is set to remain single-track.

An Asian Development Bank-funded study, which was completed in 2016, put the cost of electrifying the CSRP network at around $US 300m. The Ministry of Transport says “all interventions will be focussed towards electrification” and studies estimate that electric operation could reduce fuel costs by 40% compared with diesel, while rolling stock maintenance costs could be cut by up to 30%. The ministry envisages a fleet of 97 six-car air-conditioned EMUs will be delivered by 2023 to meet operating requirements for the CSRP in 2025. Sets would operate in multiple, with each pair accommodating a total of around 2200 passengers (6p/m2).

The project includes the grade separation of level crossings, upgrading of track with UIC 60 rail for 100km/h operation on most of the network, the rollout of ETCS Level 1, and a new LTE-based telecommunications system, which will be implemented as part of Sri Lanka Railways’ Island-Wide Radio Telecommunications System (IRTS) project. Stations will be modernised and 23 stations will be upgraded and expanded to become multi-modal hubs.

A prefeasibility study for the CSRP was carried out by Egis Rail between August 2016 and November 2017 and detailed engineering design began in January for the first phase, which covers the 64km Veyangoda - Colombo Fort - Panadura line. Construction is expected to begin on this section by 2020.

One of the key challenges for the CSRP will be accommodating the thousands of people currently living in makeshift housing on railway property. On the Kelani Valley Line alone, 2661 people live along a 35km section of the route. Through its Social Safeguarding Railway Project, the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation aims to create 4000 new homes in apartment blocks built for people living on railway land who have an income of $US 20-40 a day.

The Ministry of Transport envisages upgrading works will be completed on the Kelani Valley Line by the end of 2022, the Main Line by mid-2023, the Puttlam Line by the end of 2023, and the Coastal Line by mid-2024.

The schedule for the CSRP is ambitious, but Sri Lanka has already attracted the support of international agencies keen to back the development of sustainable transport options for a growing city.


Light metro project moves forward

THE Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development announced on July 1 that land acquisition has begun for the first light metro line in Colombo following the completion of a feasibility study commissioned by Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica).

The 15.3km Green Line will run from Colombo Fort main line station in the west to Borella, Battaramulla and Malabe IT Park in the east. The line will serve 16 stations, including three interchanges with main line services, with a journey time of 27 minutes between the termini.

The Sri Lankan government expects to conclude a $US 1.7bn loan with Jica by the end of the year, which will fully-finance the project. The 0.1%-interest loan will have a 40-year repayment term and a 12-year grace period.

Construction is due to begin in 2020 with commercial operations expected to start by 2024.