A ride to the future | Daily News

A ride to the future

Traffic-clogged Colombo is at last getting a world class transport system, with Wednesday’s launch of the proposed Light Rail Transit (LRT) project from Malabe to Colombo. This is a landmark event in the history of transport in Sri Lanka.

As Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe noted at the ceremonial launch, the LRT is a significant step forward to ensure that Sri Lanka is on its way to becoming a modern, 21st century society. The people of Sri Lanka will forever be grateful to the Government and the people of Japan for funding and assisting this mega project. The LRT will be the “crown jewel” of the Colombo Megapolis plans.

Malabe currently has no conventional rail service and all commuters have to use road-based transport (car or bus). Thus the commute from Malabe to Colombo can take around 90 to 120 minutes at rush hour. On the other hand, the LRT will take only around 30 minutes. When considering the fuel and time savings, the suggested one-way fare of Rs.100 for the full distance seems to be reasonable enough. It is expected that all fares will be contactless card-based and prepaid. This fare method can eventually be expanded to buses and conventional railways islandwide. The authorities should also implement a season system for regular users, as is currently the case with buses and railways.

If Colombo had a world-class, reliable, comfortable and punctual integrated public transport system, many people would opt to keep their cars at home. Imagine the savings in fuel alone if just 500 cars can be kept away during rush hours. Not having a world-class public transport system has already cost us dearly, with some experts saying that Sri Lanka loses up to US$ 1 billion yearly as a result of traffic snarls. Given that Sri Lanka imports US$ 6 billion worth of fuel per year, this could be an accurate estimate.

A good public transport system will be even more crucial in the future - by 2035, there would be 30,000 passengers per hour per direction in some transport corridors in the Colombo Metropolitan Region (CMR) and traffic is expected to crawl along at just 3 Km/h if present registration trends continue. No, we do not think that flying taxi services will be in Sri Lanka that soon, though it has been suggested as a traffic avoidance method by the likes of Airbus and Uber. A rail-based system is still the only viable answer for a developing country.

The first thing that comes to mind when the term public transport is mentioned is a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, which mostly runs underground. A LRT system fulfils the same objective at a lesser cost. Many LRT systems are operational around the world. Among the cities which have LRT systems are London, Manila, Bangkok, Dubai, Jakarta, Toronto and Ottawa (both under construction).

There is little or no tunneling involved (the most expensive part of the construction) since a LRT system often runs on elevated pillars. It is also electrified, emitting no noise or noxious gases. It is usually completely automated (there are no drivers). The air-conditioned carriages will have comfortable seating, display screens, Public Address systems and of course, emergency equipment.

Hopefully, Malabe-Colombo will be the first of the seven proposed LRT lines, which will be colour coded for easy identification (such as Olive Line, Green Line, Red Line). There will be several interchanges where commuters will be able to hop on connecting lines to their final destinations.

LRT cars are generally much smaller than a MRT train, but a single LRT train (generally three-four compartments) will be able to take around 400 passengers. With trains coming every four minutes at each station along the proposed LRT routes, thousands of commuters will be able to travel to Colombo and suburbs under 40 minutes. Pilyandala-Kesbewa should be next in line for LRT expansion, as this suburb too lacks a conventional train service. The authorities should also consider building an LRT line to the Bandaranaike International Airport.

It has been suggested that the LRT be placed under a Light Rail Transit Management Authority. We have to agree – it is essential that the LRT is kept and run separately, without the involvement of the Railways Department, which is mired in strikes half the time. Commuters view the train service as being completely unreliable thanks to lightning strikes, constant delays and other shortcomings. A strike was ongoing even as we went to press.

The bus lane system now operational in certain parts of Colombo has seen some success, but it will be more useful to move to a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that has a lane dedicated to buses 24/7. In some countries, BRT buses can even run against the traffic in one-way streets. A BRT can also be entirely electric, thereby avoiding the noise and fumes associated with conventional buses. Furthermore, electric buses and mini buses can be used to provide “last-mile” transport to LRT passengers who disembark at LRT stations. The LRT cold eventually form the basis of a fully integrated transport system initially for the Western Province.


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