A Brief History of Sri Lankan Transport

The 16th-17th century: Brutish conquests

During the 16th to 17th centuries, transport centred largely around inland waterways. Understanding how our transport system developed into the chthonic entity it is right now, like many other aspects of present Sri Lankan culture, requires that we trace its development back to colonial rule.

While not as well documented as the British era, we need to look at the spice trade and the Dutch influence on our transport infrastructure.

In his book, Links Between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands: A Book of Dutch Ceylon (1978), R L Brohier writes rather lovingly about the contributions of the Dutch hydraulic engineers who developed the canals to transport cinnamon to the main ports of Negombo and Colombo.

An image of the Hamilton Canal (Dutch Canal) from the early 1900’s

Brohier writes that the canal-cuts linking up the streams, lakes, rivers, and lagoons contributed to the ‘splendid prosperity’ of the districts they served. Colonial nostalgia aside though, these waterways were an integral part of the lucrative spice trade and Dutch ambitions for empire in the East. According to Professor Amal Kumarage, at its peak, this network extended from Beruwala in the south to Negombo in the north, totalling about 200 kilometres of waterways.

This transport connectivity fuelled by empire and trade positioned the Western province to become the economic powerhouse of the country, and that’s where our story really begins. Back when our grubby overlords set in motion the mechanics of a military machine configured towards furthering the acquisition and control of Kandyan territories.

War efforts aside, the transportation of goods from the interior to Colombo was also achieved through the use of ‘coolies’. A term which here refers to a very low wage labourer when, in actuality, it was a fancy word for a slave. Coolies were eventually replaced by bullock driven carts.

Bullock carts circa 1900’s

18th century: Coffee and crossroads

Coffee planters were instrumental in developing the roads to move product from the central highlands to their consumers. The cost of transport at the time was steep and reduced prices hinged on technical innovations that hadn’t arrived yet. Which is why the arrival of the railway and motorised transportation were game changers; following the British conquest of Sri Lanka in 1815, Kandy soon became the centre of the plantation economy, while Colombo remained the primary node for exports and imports.

1840s - 1860s: Cafe Nation

The prospect of a railway carried enormous appeal in the wake of its success in India. Coffee estate owners, worried by the boom of Brazilian coffee production, supported the development of the railway because it promised to increase their revenue. Thus, 1858 ushered in the Ceylon Government Railway, which has since grown into what we know today as Sri Lanka Railways.

The railway’s road to completion was coloured by certain financial anxieties within The Ceylon Railway Company, because the colony had to default almost completely to London to acquire the necessary capital to break ground on the project. The railway was constructed with the aim of constructing a link between Colombo and Kandy. Moreover, it was hoped that the railway would yield a few very pretty pennies.

1860s - 1920s: Everything’s on track, we promise

Completed in 1867, the railway to Kandy initiated a process that resulted in a sprawling network of railway lines that endured into the latter half of the 19th century. It wasn’t an easy task, and carried considerable financial risk, but seems to have been a truly impressive feat back in the day.

Traditional means of transportation kept pace with technical innovations. Some remained genuinely independent while others, carts for example, functioned as feeders to the railway. Sometime between 1883 and 1893, we saw the introduction of the rickshaw.

Prior to the arrival of the rickshaw, the 17th century saw the use of everything from elephants and horses to palanquins, Tom-Johns and carriages being the primary modes of transport. 1896 followed this development with the arrival of pedal bicycles.

1899 saw the first tramcar ride from the Colombo Grand Oriental Hotel to Thotalanga. In January 1900, the Colombo Electric Tramways opened for traffic. Its Grand Pass Route was the first section to open to the public.

1914 Map of Colombo showing the tramway routes

Plans were in place to see a tram network spread out across Colombo. By 1905, there were 6,500,00 reported tram rides. Used largely by the working class, trips amounted to 5 cents for every two stops.

An excerpt from “Ceylon in 1903” by John Ferguson C.M.G, Vice President of the Ceylon Chapter of the Royal Asiatic Society - Given that this is an officer of His Majesty’s Civil Service describing life in the colonies; several grains of salt are advised.

The first motorcar, an 8 HP Single Cylinder Rover automobile, made its appearance in Sri Lanka in 1902.  Brought down by Edgar Money, a businessman at the time, the roadway system of Ceylon was tiny in comparison to what it is now. It barely linked principal towns. Moreover, these roads were better suited for horse-drawn carriages and bullock carts than proto-utomobiles. These roads were not covered with macadamised surfaces either.

In other words, driving automobiles on such routes was more or less something of a death wish. Or begged a few broken bones and a bad concussion at the very least. Ain’t surprising that Money struggled driving across the country. He only ever hit an average speed of 10 to 15 miles per hour!

1920s - 1930s: Of motors and motorheads

In 1904, the first petrol driven car in Ceylon was a 5 horsepower Oldsmobile imported by G.C.Gnapp. The Automobile Club of Ceylon held its first race meet in 1905. The first motor omnibus in Sri Lanka made its debut in 1907. Omnibus services took off after the First World War when they began to replace horse drawn stagecoaches.

Given the lack of any regulations, bus routes were often sites of unseemly violence when more than one bus operated a single route.

Lorries began appearing on Sri Lankan roads around this time. Used largely to reach areas inaccessible by rail, they mostly functioned within the limits of Nuwara Eliya, Hatton, Kandy, and Badulla.

Policy and economic analyses conducted towards the end of 1922 culminated with the appointment of Sri Lanka’s first regulatory transport institution: the Department of Motor Vehicles. The Veteran Car Club of Ceylon (VCCC) was set up in 1922 for enthusiastic motor-heads.

1929 saw a tramcar strike exacerbated by police violence where nearly 230 drivers and employees effectively stopped the service in its tracks. Boustead Bros. of the UK, the primary investor in Ceylon Electric Tramways and Lighting Co. Ltd. called it quits and the tramway was handed over to the Colombo Municipal Council. By 1930, most of the rail network we have today was in place.

1930s -1940s: The Road to Revolution

As motorized road transport picked up the pace, the railway system began to suffer as road networks to Colombo proved more efficient than the latter. The railway’s survival owed itself to the transportation of specific goods that lorries weren’t able to carry around. Its continued existence also owes a great debt to the tea estates.

In August 1944, the electric tramcar system was acquired by the Municipal Council of Colombo. By 1948, the number of prosperous bus companies that had emerged numbered at 53.

The appointment of the Ratnam Commission voted in favor of a centralized authority of transport, because the system had developed into an entity large enough to warrant State regulation. While it may be physically painful for us to admit to the benefits of the colonial era, it must be noted that as a result of our relationship with the Dutch and later the British, the Western Province in particular was the recipient of major transport technology developments fresh off the boat from Europe. Prof. Kumarage claims that at the time, Colombo potentially had one of the best urban transport networks in Asia.

1950s - 1960s: The trolley problem

Prof. Kumarage notes that in the immediate post-independence era, rural road building became a priority. In his own words, “Politicians figured out that building roads was an easy way to get elected”.

Aside from those in the plantation sector, the rural populace’s mobility needs had been largely ignored by the colonisers. As free education and healthcare were introduced, mobility in the form of rural roads and bus services enabled the populace to better access these services.

The problem facing the government, however, was that private operators were loath to run on unprofitable routes with regulated fares. There was no profit motive. As private operators began to fail, a committee was sent to study state run transport in India.

In 1955, this committee recommended the formation of a public private partnership, but before this recommendation could be implemented, the newly elected government opted to nationalise the entire bus transport system, birthing the Ceylon Transport Board.

By 1960, the tramcar system screeched to an absolute halt. The two tram routes included the Grand Pass Route and the Borella Tramway.

In the 1960’s, the government imposed a ban on all imports in order to fix a foreign exchange deficit. The influx of vehicles to the country stopped. Consequently, any vehicles in the country needed to be looked after with meticulous care. Trolley buses began to phase out during this time (there’s something inherently funny about a trolley bus being the victim of the trolley problem here).

1964 saw the CTB expand bus services in Jaffna, the setting up of a Central Bus Station (CBS) in Pettah, Colombo, alongside the Fort Railway Station. Central Workshops were set up not far from Colombo where bus bodies would be shaped out of aluminium and engine repairs could happen next to overhauls.

Now boasting a fleet of 5000 buses, the CTB was ferrying an aggregate of nearly 4,000,000 passengers a day. This was the golden era of the CTB which at its peak was the largest state-run omnibus company in the world.

Amidst all this, rural road building continued.

1970s - 1980s: Monte Carlo or Bust!

The CTB appeared to be a profitable state-run enterprise but as the 1970’s dawned, systemic problems arose, spurred on by the oil shock of 1973-74. As global oil prices quadrupled, the CTB stubbornly maintained fares, boasting about their ability to provide cheap transport (we feel like this is a standard setting within governance in Sri Lanka).

The liberalisation of the economy with the victory of the UNP in 1977 saw the dawn of car mania. Prof. Kumarage sees the opening up of the economy as a watershed moment for the rapid decline of public transport. As higher socio-economic groups began moving into private transport, public transit began to be viewed as the poor man’s fare, establishing in his words, “a caste system for mobility”.

Since neither the CTB nor Railways had the capacity to deal with the increased economic activity, the private sector was invited into bus transport again. However, instead of having a few companies operating select routes, the government opted for a single bus owner model. Prof. Kumarage highlights that this may have been done as private bus transport was initially envisioned as a supplementary service to the CTB. But current data on modal share shows that this was not the case.

Meanwhile, as more people were able to afford cars, road building also went into high gear. Increasingly the “mobility caste system” was becoming ingrained and political incentive for the government to invest in public transport was disappearing.

There’s actually a cool documentary by Roar about this. Among other gems, there’s some interesting stuff here - like the fact that David Pieris motors started out as a three-wheeler company.

In the time between the 60’s and 70’s, during which the economy closed off imports, most Sri Lankans had to deal with using older vehicles. This phenomenon continued well into the 1980’s on account of the Civil War sparking off.

The CTB of 1974 was running an operation that provided a solid service on top of earning a decent profit. However, the dissolution of the 1975 United Front Government and the resignations of Leslie Goonewardene and Anil Moonesinghe resulted in the CTB’s operations slowly, but surely, seeing a decline in their effectiveness.

By the 1980s, the number of road vehicles numbered at 523,723.

1988 - 1997: Crash and burn

By the 1980s, the country was home to an approximate 523,732 vehicles. The SLTB’s local bus building efforts were eventually dissolved to make way for imports of Indian build and origin.

In 1995, engineer Dhatusena Senanayake converted his Isuzu Fargo van into an electronic vehicle, launching a 30 year long effort to bring EVs into the country.

By 1997, the conditions of buses and their usage plummeted. The government under J.R Jayawardene had effectively transmuted the CTB into the Regional Transport Board with a swing of the 1978 Law No. 19. With the open economic policy of the new government, the decline worsened.

2000’s - 2010’s: Apocalypse Now

The 2000’s present a vivid image of how far from grace the situation had fallen. Bus services across the country were thinly spread and yet they observed regulatory requirements.

As Professor Kumarage puts it, the lunacy of the single owner model for private bus transport was now becoming evident. To put a stop to it, the National Transport Commission began drawing up plans to corporatize the industry and to encourage these single owners to form cooperatives or at the very least formal associations.

However, again government change scuppered these plans. Kumarage notes that the new Transport Minister became the chief antagonist to the operationalisation of these plans. Meanwhile, in 2004, one of Kumarage’s people - a consultant at the NTC - was shot and badly wounded. Police suspected that a “mafia linked to private bus operators” may have carried out the attack.

As rural road building continued, attention was now also being drawn towards the construction of Expressways. Public transport continued on its journey from bad to worse.

Complaints piled up as commuters grew increasingly dissatisfied with issues of safety, impropriety, overcrowding, and overpricing.

The first Sri Lankan manufactured electric car was produced locally by Kapila de Silva between 2003-2004. It was a milestone, but it didn’t go far. 2005 sees the Sri Lanka Transport Board reconvened. The flood of military vehicles pouring into the country ceased around 2009.

2010’s - 2020’s: Fast and Furious: Colombo Drift

As we head into the 2nd decade of the 21st century, road building took on a new dimension.

The first stage of the Southern Expressway (E01) from Kottawa-Pinnaduwa was opened on 27th November 2011. By the end of the decade, this expressway would be extended to Mattala in Hambantota. On the 27th of October 2013 the Colombo Katunayake Expressway, linking the commercial capital and the airport was opened; the Outer Circular Highway connecting the expressway network was also completed in this decade.

Costs for these expressways ran into the hundreds of billions of rupees and throughout the decade have made up the major chunk of capital expenditure in transport.

Rural road building also continued unimpeded. Private vehicle numbers exploded post-war while public transport continued to languish. The Ministry of Transport recorded a steady increase of vehicles in the country from 1997 to 2015.

During the first nine months of 2015, a total of 489,000 vehicles had been imported into the country. By 2016, Sri Lanka was importing 1,800 vehicles on a daily basis. In the same year, the public voiced concern over the sum of money allocated to government ministers and their purchasing of duty-free vehicles. What’s a billion rupees to the rest of us mortals at the end of the day?

The decline of public transport continued. This was not for a lack of planning, though. In 2010, a metro transit system was proposed. Sri Lanka Railways began partnering with ExpoRail and Rajadhani Express in 2011 for premium service on major routes.

Planning for the Japan-funded Light Rail Transit Project began in 2017. Expected to run from Malabe to Colombo, the line was projected to lower congestion on one of the highest traffic corridors by 30 minutes. The Light Rail Transit Project broke ground and sped out of development hell in 2019.

We’ve explored the drama in our main piece on transport, so let’s try for a TL;DR version here: In July 2020, it was announced that the Light Rail Transit Project would be suspended. The rationale behind this decision begs a certain amount of mental gymnastics.

As of September 2022, some 5000 privately owned buses are no longer in operation. The root cause of this being the economic crisis; the rationale being that the 11,000 other buses might be able to benefit more from the fuel refuelling situation.

Interestingly, despite the rising economic instability in the country, these circumstances have not entirely stopped Sri Lankans from pursuing the acquisition of more vehicles. It would seem that we’ve gone from trams and trains to having no other option.