ⓘ Rail transport in Sri Lanka was conceived in the 1850s to develop and unify Sri Lanka. Service began in 1864, with the construction of the Main Line from Colomb ..


ⓘ Rail transport in Sri Lanka

Rail transport in Sri Lanka was conceived in the 1850s to develop and unify Sri Lanka. Service began in 1864, with the construction of the Main Line from Colombo to Ambepussa 54 kilometres to the east. During the first half of the 20th century a tram system operated in Colombo, carrying commuters within the city.

It is an intercity network connecting major population centres and commuter rail serving Colombo commuters, with most services being run by Sri Lanka Railways, originally known as Ceylon Government Railways, as the nations railway and primary operator.

The railway now moves 300.000 passengers daily on 324 trains between 320 stations across the country. At a peak of 1.900 metres 6.200 ft, Sri Lanka has the most elevated broad-gauge railway in the world.


1. History

The railway was initially built to transport coffee and tea from the hill country to Colombo for export, and transporting such goods was the main source of income on the line for many years. With time and population growth, however, passenger traffic increased. During the 1960s, passenger traffic overtook freight as the main source of revenue. The railway is now primarily engaged in passenger transport, especially commuters to and from Colombo helping to reduce road congestion.

The railway moves 300.000 passengers daily on 324 trains between 320 stations across the country. Despite overcrowding, its share of the passenger market is only seven percent and it handles two percent of the freight market.

The railway is being modernised under the governments 10-year Railway Development Strategy. New train sets are being imported and track upgraded. In an effort to increase public support for rail transport, premium services were introduced through the private sector on some lines.

Freight service made up most of the railways revenue. During the 1960s, passenger traffic overtook freight; most container traffic shifted to road transport, often leading to logistical challenges and delays.

The railways revived the link to the Port of Colombo in 2011, enabling bulk movement of cargo and generating less pollution. A train can generally carry 20 to 24 twenty-foot equivalent container units, greatly improving the efficiency of freight transport and making cargo easier to track.


2. Operators

Sri Lanka Railways operates nearly all rail services in the country. A state-owned enterprise, Sri Lanka Railways operates passenger intercity and commuter rail and freight transport.

Private operators provide some services with Sri Lanka Railways equipment and infrastructure. The Viceroy Special, a heritage train with a preserved steam locomotive, is operated by J. F. Tours & Travels. Airport & Aviation Services Limited operates the Airport Express between Colombos Secretariat Station and Bandaranaike International Airport.

On 6 October 2011, Expolanka introduced its ExpoRail premium service; the Blue Line Company introduced a competing service, the Rajadhani Express, the same day. ExpoRail and Rajadhani operate a premium section on trains operated by Sri Lanka Railways. Colombos tram system was operated by the Colombo Electric Tram Car and Lighting Company before it was taken over by the municipal council and shut down.


3. Locomotives

Until 1953, Sri Lankan Railways operated steam locomotives. During the mid-twentieth century, it converted to diesel locomotives under the leadership of B. D. Rampala. Several types of diesel locomotives were added to the service from manufacturers including Japans Hitachi, the US General Motors and Canadas Bombardier.


4. Network

The 1.508-kilometre 937 mi Sri Lankan railway network is 5 ft 6 in 1.676 mm broad gauge. All service is diesel-powered. The network is divided into three operating regions based in Colombo, Anuradhapura and Nawalapitiya. The railway is currently modernising and extending the Coast Line to facilitate faster trains and improved efficiency.


4.1. Network Electrification

Although electrification was first proposed in 1928, the Cabinet did not approve the electrification of suburban railways until 2015. Electrification of the Panadura-Veyangoda line is proposed in phase one of the Western Region Megapolis plan with a soft loan from the Asian Development Bank.

A contract has been signed by Malaysias Airport Express Air and Rail Company and the government of Sri Lanka for new electric rail line between Negombo and Colombo. The project is expected to be completed by 2018. Electrification of the busiest sections of the network was proposed several times to improve energy efficiency and sustainability. Around 1998, the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka IESL submitted recommendations for railway electrification. Although they were approved by the cabinet, they were not implemented. IESL made new proposals for electrification in 2008 and 2010, but no work was done because the voltage systems were undefined. System electrification is favoured by the IESL to reduce pollution, increase passenger comfort and lessen travel time.

Sri Lanka Railways is planning to electrify the 120-kilometre 75 mi Colombo commuter-rail system from Veyangoda to Maradana, Maradana to Kaluthara and Ragama to Negombo, but their voltage systems are unknown. Fifteen electric multiple units will be imported for commuter service.


4.2. Network Signalling

Much of the network uses a lock-and-block signaling system. During the mid-twentieth century, the busiest sectors around Colombo were upgraded to electronic signalling connected to a CTC control panel at the Maradana railway station.

In 2011, a project to add electronic signalling to the northern lines began. Track between Anuradhapura, Kankesanturai, and Talaimannar would have electronic signalling with centralised traffic control, using an interlocking colour-light system with electrically-operated points and a track-detection system. Level crossings would be connected to the signalling system, ensuring safety.

After the 2011 Alawwa rail accident, SLR began installing a GPS-based train-protection system on its entire fleet. The system warns a train driver of a possible collision in time to manually stop the train. The fleet can also be monitored by a central control room with the system. A trial run was conducted in early November 2011 with ten trains.


4.3. Network Routes

Major population centres and tourist destinations are connected by rail. Service began in 1864 with the construction of the Main Line from Colombo to Ambepussa, 54 kilometres 34 mi east, and the first train ran on 27 December 1864. The line was officially opened to traffic on 2 October 1865. The Main Line was extended in stages, with service to Kandy in 1867, to Nawalapitiya in 1874, to Nanu-Oya in 1885, to Bandarawela in 1894, and to Badulla in 1924. Other lines were completed to link the country: the Matale Line in 1880, the Coast Line in 1895, the Northern Line in 1905, the Mannar Line in 1914, the Kelani Valley Line in 1919, the Puttalam Line in 1926, and the Batticaloa and Trincomalee Lines in 1928.


4.4. Network Coastal line

The coastal line runs south from Colombo, following the Indian Ocean, with views of tropical beaches and coconut palm trees. It links the regional centres of Moratuwa, Panadura and Kalutara South, and beach resorts at Aluthgama, Ambalangoda and Hikkaduwa. The line continues past Galle known for its historic, well-preserved Dutch fort before terminating at Beliatta.

From 1895 to 2013, the line terminated at Matara. In 2013–2019, the China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation extended the line to Beliatta in Phase 1 of the Southern Railway project. This was the first new railway built in Sri Lanka since independence from Great Britain in 1948. Phase 2 will serve Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in Hambantota, and Phase 3 will reach Kataragama. The latter phases have not yet begun construction as of April 2019.


4.5. Network Puttalam line

The Puttalam line branches off the Main Line at Ragama junction, extending north past Kandana Ja-Ela, Seeduwa, Katunayake International Airport and Negombo a regional tourist destination and a major commercial centre. It connects northwestern Sri Lanka, reaching Negombo Kochikade, Waikkala, Luniwila and the National Coconut Research Center, Nattandiya, Madampe, Chilaw, Bangadeniya, Mundel and Puttalam.

The line also links other market towns and fishing villages. Passenger service ends at the Noor Nagar station, just north of Puttalam; beyond that, the tracks are used by Holcim trains to haul cement.


4.6. Network Kelani Valley line

The Kelani Valley line extends from Colombo-Maradana east to Avissawella. Originally a narrow-gauge line, it was converted to 5 ft 6 in 1.676 mm broad gauge between 1991 and 1997. The line connects the suburbs of Colombo in the Colombo District with the city.


4.7. Network Matale line

The Matale line branches off the Main Line at Peradeniya Junction, near the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. It runs to Kandy, home of the Sri Dalada Maligawa which houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha, before descending to Matale.


4.8. Network Northern line

The Northern line branches north from the Main Line at Polgahawela, passing Kurunegala - capital of North Western Province - before continuing to the cultural center of Anuradhapura the islands capital around the 4th century BCE, and home to many religious and archaeological sites. Service has been extended to the lines terminus at Kankesanthurai on the Jaffna peninsula, past Kilinochchi.


4.9. Network Mannar line

The Mannar line branches westward from the northern line at Medawachchiya, passing Madhu Road - location of the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu - and continuing to Mannar Island home of the district capital and terminus of the former Talaimannar line.


4.10. Network Batticaloa line

The Batticaloa line branches eastward from the northern line at Maho to Polonnaruwa, site of an 11th-century capital and home to a number of historic monuments. The line continues to the city of Batticaloa.


4.11. Network Trincomalee line

The Trincomalee line branches north and east from the Batticaloa line at Gal-Oya Junction and extends to Trincomalee.


4.12. Network Mihintale line

The Mihintale line is a short branch line which connects Mihintale home of the Mihintale Temple, where Thera Mahinda - who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka - arrived with Anuradhapura, the capital of Sri Lanka for over 100 years, via the northern line. It branches off the latter at Mihintale Junction and runs eastward to Mihintale the lines only stations.


4.13. Network Intercity network

The intercity network radiates from Colombo, connecting most major population and industrial centres with passenger and freight service. It includes hubs at Colombo Fort and Maradana.


5. Passenger services

Most passenger service is provided by Sri Lanka Railways, which connects major cities. Trains generally have three classes, offering several levels of comfort. A number of major trains are named, and have become cultural icons.

Expolankas ExpoRail and the Blue Line Companys Rajadhani Express offer premium service on some trains. Although they do not operate their own trains, they provide service in dedicated carriages on Sri Lanka Railways trains.


6.1. Urban rail Suburban Rail

Commuter rail service connects Colombo to its suburbs, helping alleviate rush-hour congestion on city roads. Local commuter trains use the same tracks as the intercity lines. Colombos commuter-rail network is 100 kilometres 62 mi of track from Panadura to Polgahawela via the Fort and Maradana stations. The route is multi-tracked to provide rush-hour service. Electrification of the commuter rail network has been proposed, to improve energy efficiency and sustainability.


6.2. Urban rail Metro

A 1.435 mm 4 ft 8 1 ⁄ 2 in standard gauge metro system was proposed in the 2010s to give commuters in Colombo a clean, environmentally-friendly transit option. The metro would reduce the load on the overcrowded commuter-rail system and alleviate congestion on major roads. A consortium of three companies is conducting feasibility studies on the project.


6.3. Urban rail Light Rail

The Colombo Light Rail has been funded to $1.25 billion.


6.4. Urban rail Railbus

In areas without significant demand for commuter trains such as the Eastern province, railbuses connect towns and cities. Railbus service from Batticaloa and Trincomalee allows passengers to travel between the cities with fewer delays.


6.5. Urban rail Tram

A tram system operated in Colombo from 1899 to 1960. It was operated by Colombo Electric Tramways and Lighting Co. Ltd., before being officially transferred to the Colombo Municipal Council on 31 August 1944.


7. Links to India

A proposal to link the railways of Sri Lanka and India never materialised. However, a combined train-ferry-train service known as Boat Mail connected Colombo with Chennai for much of the twentieth century.

A 35 km 22 mi bridge linking the countries was proposed in 1894, by the consultant engineer for railways in Madras Chennai. The proposal was seriously considered, and a technical blueprint and cost analysis were made. By 1914, the Mannar line was built to connect Talaimannar on Mannar Island to the Sri Lankan mainland, and the Indian rail network was extended to Dhanushkodi. However, a bridge linking them was not built.

Ferry service connecting the railheads at Talaimannar and Dhanushkodi lasted until the 1960s, when a cyclone destroyed the pier and rail line at Dhanushkodi. The ferry service resumed from the Indian terminus at Rameshwaram, ending due to the Sri Lankan Civil War. A rail bridge or tunnel was proposed again during the 2000s, highlighting the benefits of connecting the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee with Chennai.


8. High-Speed Rail

High Speed Railway Corporation Pvt. Ltd HSRC has attempted to introduce mag-lev technology to the island, with a line connecting Negombo to Colombo 3.

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