Public Transport in Sri Lanka

By Dr Kavan Ratnatunga

It seems obvious that those who are decision makers about public transport, do not travel in them, or get advice from those who do. Returning to Sri Lanka after driving in orderly traffic in the first world for about 25 years, I didn't wish to risk driving again, particularly in Colombo. Living very close to the railway station, it is possible for me to get to heart of Colombo, faster than I could drive, if I can be flexible about the time I reach destination.

However there are many simple minimum cost improvements which authorities should make, to ensure the public transport system, runs faster and more efficiently. Let me point to few of them I consider most useful.

1) The most annoying about Bus travel, is the time that buses spend idling at certain popular spots trying to pick up passengers. This not only is an obstruction to traffic flow, it adds to increased fuel consumption and pollution for no gain. Many private buses idle at intersections until the driver sees the next bus of the same route approach from behind and leave before he is otherwise kicked out with a load toot of the horn. The reason is to pickup a maximum of passengers. However in my opinion, if this practise is banned and the Police are used at intersection to enforce this ban, there is no loss to any particular bus, since it would get all of commuters who arrived at halt, after the last bus of that route left. A bus should be allowed to remain at a halt on route, only for the duration needed to pickup and drop the passengers, at that halt, at that time.

2) The frequency of the train service along the Coastal line during rush hour is about 15 min, but it could be as long as 1 to 2 hours in the middle of the day or late evening. The total travel time is the time you wait at station for train, plus the train travel time. If you arrive at station at a random time, the wait on average, is half the time between trains. So although trains travel faster through the city the low frequency makes the total travel time, longer than for buses in non-rush hours. The frequency of commuter rail service within Colombo and suburbs should be increased at least by 5 times. This will make trains less crowded during rush hour. The service during midday sufficient to attract more regular train commuters and thus reduce road congestion and crowding in buses.

3) There should be coordination between the Train and Bus service. There should be at least one bus leaving from the vicinity of the station after all of the passages of each train, stopping at station have time to catch it. There is no bus which comes down to the Mount Lavinia Station and most commuters need to walk almost 1 km to catch a connecting bus. There is a bus outside Bambalapitiya railway station but I have often seen it leave just as the Train is pulling into station. There is no coordination in Kollupitiya either and buses start close to Galle road, although they end close to the Station.

4) Published Time Tables. Sri Lanka maybe one of the few countries in the world which does not print train or bus time tables. The buses do start at monitored times but none of this information is published. For every bus route, both short distance and inter city, a route map and at least the first and last time of day a bus will leave origin, expected time to reach destination and frequency during rush and non rush hours, must be made available.

Trains do run on a time table and at each railway station, there is a poster giving the departure times of trains. You couldn't find this information other than by going to or phoning that particular railway station. There is no indication, if the train is an express and may not stop at your destination until an announcement is made, just as the train pulls into station. If the announcement can't be understood because of the noise of train, you have to trust to memory or luck when you get in. There is now at least a not very user friendly online version at

5) There needs to be intersections between popular bus routes whenever possible. For example the 138 route is probably one of the most frequent. However it only intersects with the Galle road buses in Fort. They do pass each other near the Colombo Public Library after the introduction of one way traffic, but for some reason, I don't understand, none of the Galle road buses are allowed to stop at Colombo Public Library. At least one short distance route should be required to do so, to create an intersection with route 138 in the middle of residential Colombo. Currently there is no bus halt for Galle road buses from the halt near State Engineering to the Kollupitiya halt near Liberty Plaza. I am sure other commuters who take different routes could make similar suggestions.

6) Buses seem to be run at a frequency that ensures they are over crowded. A/C buses which cost about double the normal fair are nice, but when they overload with standing passengers, it is unhealthy and you can hardly breath in the closed environment. Since there is hardly any room to stand, unless you are less than average height, the rule banning standing passengers in A/C buses should be enforced, else how can they be called luxury.

7) Maintenance seems to be a concept unknown in Sri Lanka. It was amazing to notice how fast the brand new train carriages imported from China, became dirty and brought down to the Sri Lankan standard, with non working or missing fans, windows that can't be kept open, and toilet you don't want to walk into. In buses, bells don't often work, and many windows can't be opened. In a luxury bus if you sit close to the A/C you are liable to get an in-seat bath.

8) In an attempt to increase standing room, the seats in most buses are not wide enough, for even two averagely built persons. The person seated on the Aisle seat, is partly off the seat and when the bus gets crowded with standing passengers packed along the aisle, it is very uncomfortable. So overcrowding should someway be limited by imposing limits on the number of standing passengers a bus can carry, by way of max weight, as imposed for trucks.

9) Races between two buses of same route, which keep overtaking each other, in a way which is dangerous to the commuters and traffic on the road needs to be stopped. You may get to your destination faster, but there is clearly not insignificant probability you may never get there. One day getting down from a bus, I asked from the driver in Sinhala, if he was running a race. He coolly replied yes, and took off faster that I could get off the bus safely.

10) The other form of public transport is Taxis and Trishaws. Taxis and recent metered trishaw are nice, but suffer from the delay of the call and wait to be picked up. Trishaws are available at every junction, but over-charge significantly, sometimes more than a taxi. The negotiated trishaw fares close to the Colombo one way system is generally high, since the driver is costing not only the distance to your destination, but how far he needs to travel, to get back to his usual location. I once got into a metered trishaw, but the driver refused to use meter, saying he had waited his turn in a non-meter queue.

Mandating that all trishaws be metered would be a way of providing fair and economical transportation to get you that "last km" following a bus or train ride. Since all other forms of public transportation cost is regulated, I see no reason why the trishaws should not be metered. This would make the trishaws more affordable not only to the local population, but also create a good impression with the tourists, by preventing them from being fleeced by unscrupulous trishaw drivers.

Having lived for many years and experienced public transport in foreign lands, I am probably expecting a higher standard. The frequency and lower cost of public transport in Sri Lanka is far better than in for example USA, where the fraction of population who use public transport, is much smaller. Maybe you get only for what you pay. However if Sri Lanka hopes to become a trade hub for south Asia, transport is one critical service that needs much improvement.

Tips to survive public transport in Sri Lanka is a different subject, which I hope to address in a future article.

Writer has survived public transport in Sri Lanka, for all his travel needs for the last five years.

An edited version of this article Let's get things running faster! By Kavan Ratnatunga appeared in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2010 October 10th.