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Reimagining public transport in Sri Lanka
03 Apr, 2013 06:30:16
By Rohan Samarajiva
Apr 02, 2013 (LBO) - Last week, I had the opportunity to moderate a powerful expert panel on transport at the LBO-LBR CEO Forum. Below is a revised version of the note that I circulated to the panelists as a frame for discussion.
March is the death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke. The main lesson I take from his life is that we must first imagine what we want to achieve.

My short introductory comments set forth a possible public-transport future for Sri Lanka. It is not the only possible future. But we must settle on a common vision quickly and then set about achieving it.

Urban transport

Imagine Colombo with a clean, punctual, reliable and affordable public transport system, capable not only of bringing people from the suburbs into the city, but also of providing intra-city transport options. The current railway tracks up to Kalutara, Avissawella, Veyangoda and Negombo would be transformed to form a mass transit system that can carry large numbers of commuters. The Fort and Maradana terminals would be converted into articulated public transport hubs with buses and taxis available to take passengers to any point of the city.

The main roads within Colombo would be served by Rapid Bus Transit (RBT). The RBT system would comprise busesrunning on dedicated lanes on schedules that would involve maximum waits of less than five minutes for most of the day. Three-wheeled and four-wheeled taxis would belong to associations that would self-regulate, subject to municipal oversight. On some routes, shared-taxi services would be organized by the associations.

Small roads not served by buses will be prioritized for shared-taxi service, with fixed fares and load limits. Rules ensuring that the first and last bus/shared-taxi will run on time will be strictly enforced for these services, as well as all bus services. This will build trust in the services.

Perennial squabbling over fares being raised to levels commensurate with input costs will cease with the adoption and enforcement of well-consulted and clear formulae for buses, vans, three- and four-wheeledtaxis. Except for bus and shared-taxi services, the published prices will not be mandatory, though they will be widely publicized.Even for buses, the mandatory prices will apply only to the basic service. The dysfunctional licensing system now operational for inter-and intra-provincial buses will be reformed. The government will avoid the temptation to become a cartel manager for taxis.

There would be no container trucks on urban roads. The Colombo Port would be connected to the Wijewardene Mavatha rail yards by a tunnel. Trains would carry containers to and from the Colombo Port to dry ports in Veyangoda and elsewhere. Containers from the regions would use the circular highway to avoid city roads and reach the dry ports.

City roads would be subject to variable congestion pricing that uses gantry-based fare collection that would not require toll booths and the congestion they cause. The revenues would be ploughed back into public transport in the metro region. All urban public transport, except taxis, would be subsidized from dedicated funds. User fees would be collected electronically through stored-value cards.

Similar articulated public transport systems would be established in the other major cities, with scheduled bus services bringing commuters from the suburbs, since the volumes would not justify mass transit. The same electronic cards would be usable across the country.

Inter-city transport

The Main Line from Ragama (upto Jaffna, including spurs to Talaimannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa) would be spun off as a public-private partnership. Dambulla, Anuradhapura, and Trincomaleeare among the main growth poles identified in the National Physical Plan. The tracks would be upgraded for fast trains and a spur constructed to connect Dambulla, even now a major commercial and tourist center. The trainservice would be professionally managed, completely separated from the Department of Railways. Ragama will be developed as a major passenger transportation hub, also providing rail connectivity to the International Airport.

Based on the success of the Main Line, the Southern Line, now extended to Kataragama, would also be handed over to a public-private partnership for investment, upgrading and professional management. Just between these two lines, the percentage of freight and passenger transport carried by rail would double from the respective two and six percent sharesthat existed in 2012.Cities not served by the Main and Southern Lineswould, for the most part, be served by intercity bus services.Sadly, it would not be possible to resurrect the upcountry railway lines.

The current model developed in the Southern Expressway of a high-quality road that covers operational and maintenance costs through tolls will be extended and developed for all major intercity highways. The toll revenues will flow into a dedicated road maintenance fund that will be utilized solely for O&M expenditures on inter-provincial highways that are the responsibility of the central government. Provinces may operate highways within their jurisdiction as toll roads and maintain road maintenance funds.

The proposed Expressway to Kandy via Kurunegala will be expedited since a viable railway service to the central highlandsis difficult to develop. In any case, the National Physical Plan does not envisage population increases in these areas.A state-of-the art bus service will be developed for the heavy-traffic Kandy-Colombo route, using the Colombo-Kurunegala expressway part of the way.

Intercity passenger transport will not be subsidized, except for discounts on tolls. During the transition phase government employees will be provided free passes to facilitate the reforms and ease the transition.

Hardest problem

The hardest problem of all is that of contentment with low-cost, low-quality equilibrium that we are stuck in. Those who are unhappy find their personal workarounds and do not support the upgrading of the public system.

The existence of multiple low-cost and low-quality alternatives prevents momentum being built up for the reform of any one mode.

People sick of buses, shift to three-wheelers and so on.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the 'Choices' category.

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3. Shaik Anwar Ahamath May 22
We have the potential for extraordinary development if only our leader shed their inferiority complex, stop their parochial thinking and at least boldly emulate other successful governments. Our politicians are quick to undertake overseas jaunts but they appear to pick up nothing:
1) Almost every country on the planet desires to attract wealthy migrants and reap the inherent benefits, but we steadfastly place barriers.
2) As cost per citizen, the pensioners from the developed countries must be the most cost effective, but they are barred by our draconian visas system. Even the former Sri Lankans suffer the same fate.
2. Frederick May 22
Very good comment by Rizwan.Now how to implement, that is the question.In SL every other person seems to be a politician. And any change must involve honest dedicated people otherwise we are back to square one.
1. Rizwan May 21
The author's comments are visionary but perhaps not in consideration of the reality. What the transport system should be depends on the following:

1.What monies are available and who has this money?
2.Who builds transport infrastructure?
3.Who provides the transport?

For most of these questions the answer is primarily the government. Therefore the government is squarely to blame for the present transport woes. This is not surprising since the government is an entity that has no natural means by which to respond to any economic activity, let alone transport and infrastructure supply and demand. It is a body created through the democratic voting system and is run by politicians with a purse as fat as our dwindling taxpayer money. It is thus independent of the going concerns of the transport business.

On this basis the government can never be a good manager of transport and infrastructure. Whatever action it takes in this sector, or any sector for that matter, can only serve to distort the pricing system of that market. Whatever action the government takes can only result in greater and greater wastages of the country’s wealth. I repeat again that the government has no natural means by which to perform efficiently in any economic activity. This will be the case however good the quality of politician running the system.

On this basis I say that Sri Lanka would be best served if the Ministry of Transport was to close and those politicians involved be given other assignments. The existing road, rail and transport system should then be fully privatized through suitable means.

This will allow entrepreneurs and businessmen to judge for themselves what is best suited to the needs and wants of our people. It could be that bicycles may become the preferred mode of transport within Colombo. It could be that an entrepreneur decides to smoothen out the existing railways for a more comfortable ride and provide faster trains. It could be that existing roads shrink in width but at the same time improve in quality and so on.

We cannot tell what transport system is best suited for this country. Only the market may decide this based on what the demand is and what is affordable. It may be that, in the short term at least, our beloved country may not obtain a transport system such as the like of Singapore or Hong Kong. But at least we will learn to live within our means, and waste the least in these endeavors.

It is the freedom to do what is necessary that’s important here. Once we have this freedom then I am sure that the quality of our transport will improve to not match, but surpass the best in the world.