The train to Beliatta | Daily News

The train to Beliatta

We have all heard the common refrain that “not one inch” of new railway line has been built in post-independence Sri Lanka. While this is not 100 percent correct (see below), it is true that practically all of the existing railway lines have been built during the British colonial period, starting from the Colombo-Ambepussa line in 1864. The exceptions are the Anuradhapura-Mihintale line during President Ranasinghe Premadasa tenure and the broad gauging of the Kelani Valley line. In fact, we have the rather singular distinction of actually partially destroying the railway line that existed all the way to Opanaike (the Kelani valley line now ends in Avissawella).

It is in this context that we should laud the imminent commencement of services between the new railway line from Matara to Beliatta, 27 Km away. Last Sunday, Transport Minister Arjuna Ranatunga and other special guests were on board the test-run train that traversed the new line, amidst the cheers of thousands of residents in the area who were waiting for decades to see this happen. The first commercial runs will begin before the Sinhala and Hindu New Year, according to Minister Ranatunga.

That is not all – the line is being extended all the way to the sacred city of Kataragama, almost in line with the extension of the Southern Expressway. The second phase of the project is the 48 kilometre stretch of track from Beliatta to Hambantota and in the third phase, the track will be extended by another 39 kilometres from Hambantota to Kataragama. Accordingly, the total length of the new line is 114.5 Km.

The railway project, funded by a US$ 278 million loan from China EXIM Bank, is being built by the China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CMC) and China Railway Services Company under the supervision of Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB). Main railway stations have been constructed at Kekunadura, Bambarenda, Wewrukannala and Beliatta while there are also two other sub stations at Piladuwa and Veherahena. Work is underway on the signal system and level crossings.

Among the other notable highlights is the fact that trains can run at a maximum speed of 120 Km per hour on this newly-built line and Sri Lanka’s longest rail tunnel from Naakuttigama to Kekanadura. The Beliatta railway station will also have a total length of 300 metres, while passengers can use an underpass to move between platforms. The railway line will shave at least one hour off the road travel duration.

This is indeed a landmark development in Sri Lanka’s transport history. The South received a better connection to the rest of the island thanks to the Southern Expressway and it will become closer to Colombo and the rest of the island with the commencement of services on the Colombo-Matara-Beliatta line. We hope construction would be completed without delay on the rest of the line up to Kataragama. In another development, brand new power sets and trains will be deployed on the Colombo-Jaffna-KKS sector soon.

There is more good news on the railway front, as the Cabinet has given approval to the Colombo-Malabe Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, work on which is slated to begin next year with Japan International Cooperation Agency assistance. The 21 Km above-ground line will drastically cut travel times between Colombo and Malabe, which is not served by the train network at present.

Piliyandala, another town not presently served by the train system, is also a candidate for the future expansion of the LRT, which is eventually envisaged to have seven lines radiating in different directions from Colombo. Some of the LRT stations will be hubs that connect two or more lines. The LRT will be a much efficient and comfortable way to travel to Colombo and has the potential to take off at least 500 cars off the road during rush hours. Furthermore, the LRT is a much cheaper alternative to an underground metro – many cities from Dubai to London already have LRT systems.

The railway is a much better alternative to road travel – at least 500 passengers can travel in a single train, whereas a minimum of 10 buses or a larger number of private cars would be needed to ferry that many passengers at once. The fuel savings alone would be substantial. But we have not realised the full potential to the railway system yet, despite the fact that rail fares are cheaper on average than the corresponding bus fares for much the same distance. Delays, overcrowding and unclean carriages are among some of the shortcomings that prevent more people from choosing the train as their preferred mode of travel.

We still have not warmed up the idea of “Park and Ride” popular in many other countries, where the commuters stop their cars at the railway station and then take the railway to their offices. This helps prevent traffic congestion and also saves money for commuters. Moreover, the train is ideal for goods transport, though we have not made much headway there either. Developing the railway passenger and freight network is an investment that pays for itself.


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