Rail transport in Sri Lanka

Rail transport in Sri Lanka

Intercity train at a station in Sri Lanka
National railway Sri Lanka Railways
Major operators

Sri Lanka Railways, for most services
Airport & Aviation Services Limited, for Airport Express
J.F. Tours & Travels (Ceylon) Ltd, for Viceroy Special[1]

Ridership 300,000 per day
System length
Total 1,508 kilometres (937 mi)
Track gauge
Main 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) broad gauge.[2]
Electrified 0 km (0 mi)[3][4]
No. stations 320
Highest elevation 1,900 metres (6,200 ft) at Pattipola (highest broad gauge railway in the world[2])

Rail transport in Sri Lanka consists of a heavy-rail intercity network connecting major population centres and commuter rail serving Colombo commuter traffic. State-run Sri Lanka Railways, originally known as Ceylon Government Railways, is the nation's railway owner and primary operator.

The railways were conceived in the 1850s as an instrument to develop and unify Sri Lanka. Service began in 1864, with the construction of the Main Line from Colombo to Ambepussa, 54 kilometers to the east. During the first half of the twentieth century, a tram system operated on the streets of Colombo, carrying commuters within the city.

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 highest broad gauge railway in the world.[2] Also, Sri Lanka has broad gauge railway which in the closest to equator line in the world.

Commuter train in Batuwatta, Ragama(Class S10 DMU)

The Railway was initially built to transport coffee and tea from the hill country to Colombo for export. For many years, transporting such goods was the main source of income on the line. With time and population growth, however, passenger traffic increased. In the 1960s, passenger traffic overtook freight as the main source of revenue.[5] The railway is now primarily engaged in the transport of passengers, especially commuters to and from Colombo, thereby helping to reduce road congestion.

The railway moves 300,000 passengers daily on 324 trains between 320 stations across the country.[6] Despite heavy over-crowding on the railways, its share of the passenger market is only 7 percent, while it only handles 2 percent of the freight market.[7]

The railway is currently undergoing modernisation, under the government's 10-year Railway Development Strategy.[8] New train sets are being imported[9] and track upgraded.[10] In an effort to raise rail transport's appeal to the public, premium services were launched through the private sector on certain lines.[11][12]

Intercity rail

An intercity train, the Udarata Menike, runs through the scenic Sri Lankan hill country

The railway network consists of lines radiating from Colombo, which connect most major population and industrial centres. The intercity network transports both passengers and freight.[5]

The network includes major hubs at Colombo Fort and Maradana.

Intercity passenger trains

Most passenger services are provided by Sri Lanka Railways, connecting major cities. Trains are generally provided in a three-class layout, offering varying degrees of comfort.[13] A number of major trains were named, names that have become cultural icons.[14]

Expolanka's ExpoRail, and Blue Line Company's Rajadhani Express operate premium services on certain trains.[11][15] While ExpoRail and Rajadhani do not yet operate their own trains, they provide premium services in dedicated carriages on Sri Lanka Railways-operated trains.[11][12]

Freight transport

Freight services used to make up most of the railways' revenue. But in the 1960s, passenger traffic overtook freight, and most container traffic shifted to road transport, often leading to logistical challenges and delays.[5]

In 2011, the railways revived the rail link to the Port of Colombo, enabling bulk movement of cargo, while causing less pollution. A train can generally carry around 20-24 twenty-foot equivalent container units, greatly improving the efficiency of freight transport and making cargo easier to track.[5]

Commuter rail and railbus

Commuter trains in Sri Lanka

Commuter rail services connect Colombo to its suburbs, helping alleviate rush hour congestion on city roads. The commuter trains use the same track as the intercity services, but only run locally. Electrification of the commuter rail network has been proposed, to improve energy efficiency and sustainability.[3][4]

Colombo's commuter rail network consists of 100 kilometres of track from Panadura to Polgahawela, running via Fort Station and Maradana Station. The route is multiple tracked to handle the intensive service during peak times.[16]

In areas without significant demand for regular commuter trains, such as in the Eastern province, railbus connects towns and cities. Railbus between Batticaloa and Trincomalee allows passengers to travel between the two cities with fewer delays.[17]

Metro transit and tram

Colombo trams

“Toastrack” tram car in Colombo, 1899

The northern and central areas of the city of Colombo had an electric tramway system, operated by the Colombo Electric Tram Car and Lighting Company Ltd. This system commenced operations around 1900.[18] For half a century, the trams dominated Colombo's roads, carrying thousands of commuters.

The tram system was Cape gauge[18] with grooved street track. The trams used trolley poles and were of two types, open "toastrack" and closed centre-entrance.

After an infamous tram car strike, the Colombo Municipal Council took over operations. Subsequently, the tram car system was phased out and the system was discontinued by 1960.[18]

Modern Initiatives

A metro transit system (with 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge) was proposed, in the 2010s, to serve commuters in Colombo as a clean, environmentally friendly transit option. It would reduce the load on the over-crowded commuter rail system and alleviate congestion on major roads.[19] A consortium of three companies is conducting feasibility studies on this project.[20]


The first proposal for electrification of rail lines came in 1928 but the cabinet only approved the electrification of the suburban railways in 2015. the electrification of rail systems is also proposed in the Western Region Megapolis plan Electrification Panadura-Veyangoda line is expected to be electrificied under Phase 1 with a soft loan from the Asian development Bank.[21][22][23]

The contract has been signed between the 'Airport Express – Air & Rail Company (Pvt.) Ltd.' of Malaysia and the Government of Sri Lanka to start a new electric train system between Negombo and Colombo. The project is expected to be completed by 2018.[24]


Expo Rail luxury carriage attached to a train

Sri Lanka Railways operates nearly all rail services in Sri Lanka. A state-owned enterprise, Sri Lanka Railways operates both intercity services and commuter rail. It also operates freight transport.

Private operators provide a few services, using Sri Lanka Railways' equipment and infrastructure. The Viceroy Special, a heritage train run using a preserved steam locomotive, is operated by J.F. Tours & Travels.[1][25] Airport & Aviation Services Limited operates the Airport Express, between Colombo Secretariat Station and Bandaranaike International Airport.

On 6 October 2011, Expolanka launched premium services on Sri Lankan trains, under the brand ExpoRail.[11][15] Within the same day, Blue Line Company launched a competing service, the Rajadhani Express. ExpoRail and Rajadhani do not yet operate their own trains, but run a premium section on trains operated by Sri Lanka Railways.[11][12]

The tram system in Colombo was operated by the Colombo Electric Tram Car and Lighting Company Ltd, before being taken over by the Municipal Council and shut down.

Network and infrastructure

An inter-city train at Matara

Presently the Sri Lankan railway network consists of 1,508 kilometres, all of which is 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) broad gauge.[2] As of July 2011, none of the network is electrified and all regular services run with diesel power. Some lines were formerly narrow gauge lines, at 2 ft 6 in (762 mm), before being converted to broad gauge.[26] The railway network is divided into three operating regions, based in Colombo, Anuradhapura, and Nawalapitiya.[27]

Locomotives and rolling stock

Until 1953, Sri Lankan Railways operated steam locomotives. In the mid-twentieth century, it enhanced its services with conversion to diesel locomotives, under the leadership of B. D. Rampala. Various types of diesel locomotives were added to the service, from manufacturers including Japan's Hitachi, General Motors of the USA and Canada's Bombardier.[2] Some of the earliest diesel locomotives to be imported are still in service today.

The trams that used to serve on the streets of Colombo have all been scrapped, as there was no incentive at the time for preservation.

Track and signalling

Railway Infrastructure on the hill-country main line, including a gantry of semaphore signals

The Railway is currently modernising and extending the Coast Line to facilitate faster trains and improved efficiency.[28]

Much of the network uses a lock-and-block signaling system. But in the mid-twentieth century, the busiest sectors, around Colombo, were upgraded to electronic signalling connected to a CTC control panel at Maradana Railway Station.[2]

In 2011, the railways began a project to add electronic signalling to the rail lines in the North. Track between Anuradhapura, Kankesanturai, and Talaimannar would be given electronic signalling with centralized traffic control, using an interlocking colour light system with electrically operated points, and a track detection system. Level crossings would also be connected to the signalling system, thus ensuring safety at crossings.[29]

After the 2011 Alawwa crash, SLR started to install a GPS-based train-protection system on its entire fleet. The system warns drivers of a possible collision and allows enough time for the drivers to manually bring the trains to a halt. The fleet can also be monitored by the central control room using the system. A trial run was carried out in early November with just ten trains. The railway is now installing the system on the entire fleet.[30][31]


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. This was approved in Sri Lanka's cabinet, but was not implemented. IESL made new proposals for electrification in 2008 and 2010, but no work was carried out because voltage systems are undefined. System electrification is favoured by IESL due to the benefits of reduced pollution, increased passenger comfort, and the more productive use of human resources through reduced travel time.[4][32]

SLR is now planning electrification of the Colombo commuter rail system. The 120 kilometres of track from Veyangoda to Maradana, Maradana to Kaluthara, and Ragama to Negombo will be electrified. But future voltage systems are unknown. Fifteen electric multiple units will be imported for commuter-service operation.[33]


The railway connects major population centres and tourist destinations. Service began in 1864, with the construction of the Main Line from Colombo to Ambepussa, 54 kilometers to the east. The first train ran on 27 December 1864. The line was officially opened for 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.[34]

Other lines were completed in due course 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.[18]

Main Line

Main article: Main Line (Sri Lanka)

The Main Line starts from Colombo and runs east and north past the rapidly developing centers of Ragama, Ganemulla Gampaha, Veyangoda, Mirigama AmbepussA and Polgahawela. At Rambukkana, the Main Line begins its steep climb into the hills of the upcountry. Between Balana and Kadugannawa, the track clings to the side of sheer cliffs, offering passengers spectacular views of Batalegala ('Bible' Rock). The Main Line then continues its climb through the scenic tea country, connecting busy local market centers at Gampola, Nawalapitiya, and Hatton before reaching Nanu-Oya. This is the connection to the former colonial resort of Nuwara Eliya, still popular for its temperate climate, classic hotels, and British-style gardens. The Main Line continues its ascent to the summit at Pattipola, 6,226 feet above sea level, before descending past Bandarawela to Badulla. In the upcountry, passengers are rewarded with views of tea gardens, mountains and valleys, cascading torrents and waterfalls.

Coastal Line

Matara Terminus on the Coast Line

The Coastal Line runs south from Colombo, following the edge of the Indian Ocean. It offers passengers views of tropical beaches and coconut palms. This line links the regional towns of Moratuwa, Panadura, and Kalutara South, as well as popular beach resorts at Aluthgama, Ambalangoda, and Hikkaduwa. The line continues past Galle, which is famous for its historic and well-preserved Dutch Fort, before terminating at Matara. It is planned to extend the Coast Line to Kataragama.

Puttalam Line

Main article: Puttalam Line

The Puttalam Line branches off the Main Line at Ragama, extending north past Kandana Ja-Ela, Seeduwa, Katunayake and Negombo, an important regional town and tourist centre. It goes further to connect to northwestern Sri Lanka, reaching Kochikade, Waikkala, Luniwila, where the National Coconut Research Center is located, Nattandiya, Madampe, Chilaw, Bangadeniya, Mundel and Puttalam.

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

Kelani Valley Line

A model of narrow gauge line existed in Sri Lanka
Main article: Kelani Valley Line

The Kelani Valley Line extends from Colombo-Maradana and east to Avissawella. This was originally built as a narrow gauge line and was converted to dual gauge between 1991 and 1997. It connects the suburbs of Colombo within the Colombo District with Colombo.

Matale Line

Main article: Matale Line

The Matale Line branches off the Main Line at Peradeniya Junction, near the world-famous Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. It connects to Kandy, home of the Sri Dalada Maligawa, which houses the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Lord Buddha, before descending to Matale.

Northern Line

The Northern Line

The Northern Line branches northward from the Main Line at Polgahawela, passing Kurunegala, the capital of North Western Province, before continuing to the historic cultural and religious center of Anuradhapura, the island's ancient capital around the 4th century BCE and home to many sites of religious and archaeological interest. Service is now extended up to Kankesanthurai which is terminus of Northern line and located in the Jaffna peninsula, passing Kilinochchi.[35]

Mannar Line

The Mannar Line branches westward from the Northern Line at Medawachchiya, passing Madhu Road, the area where the famous Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is situated, before continuing to the Talaimannar island where the district capital Mannar as well as the terminus of the line Talaimannar too is located.

Batticaloa Line

Main article: Batticaloa Line

The Batticaloa Line branches eastward from the Northern Line at Maho, to Polonnaruwa, site of an ancient capital in the 11th century and home to many historic monuments. The line continues to the eastern city of Batticaloa.[36]

Trincomalee Line

Main article: Trincomalee Line

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

Mihintale Line

The Mihintale Line is a short branch line which connects Mihintale, where the famous Mihintale Temple, to which Thera Mahinda (who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka) arrived, is situated, with Anuradhapura, historical capital of Sri Lanka for over 100 years. It branches off Northern Line at Mihintale Junction and runs eastward. Mihintale Junction and Mihintale are the only stations on the line.

A move to link the railways of Sri Lanka and India never materialised. However, during much of the twentieth century, a combined train-ferry-train service, called Boat mail, connected Colombo in Sri Lanka with Chennai in India.[37]

A 22-mile bridge to link the two countries had been proposed as early as 1894, by the Consultant Engineer for railways in Madras (Chennai). The proposal was given serious consideration and a technical blueprint and cost analysis was conducted. By 1914, the Mannar line was built to connect Talaimannar on Mannar Island to the Sri Lankan mainland. On the Indian side, the Indian railway network was extended to Dhanushkodi. The international bridge to link the two was not built.[37]

The ferry service to connect 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 with the Indian terminus at Rameshwaram, a service that also closed, due to the Sri Lankan conflict.[37]

In the 2000s, the rail bridge (or tunnel) to connect the two countries was proposed again, highlighting the benefits of connecting the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee with Chennai.[37]

See also


  1. 1 2 Viceroy Vintage Train Tours
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "The Island". Rampala regime in the local Railway History. 2010-07-19.
  3. 1 2 "The Island". Railway Electrification: Let us Start, at least now. 2010-03-27.
  4. 1 2 3 "Daily News". IESL proposes railway electrification project. 2010-12-25.
  5. 1 2 3 4 "Lanka Business Online". Rail Move: Sri Lanka revives railway link to port. 2011-07-20.
  6. "Daily News". Railway to buy more locos, carriages. 2007-05-12.
  7. "Daily FT". A new paradigm for providing economic services. 2011-08-03.
  8. "Dailynews". Power sets to steam long distance travel. 2010-09-03.
  9. "Dailynews". Railway gets new power sets from China. 2010-04-23.
  10. "Sunday Observer". Complete overhaul for southern railway. 2009-11-01.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 "NEWS.LK: The Official Government News Portal of Sri Lanka". Sri Lankan railway introduces luxury class Services on Colombo-Kandy rails. 2011-10-07.
  12. 1 2 3 "Daily Mirror". Expo Rail: Wonder on the track. 2011-10-03.
  13. "A beginner's guide to Train travel in Sri Lanka . . ."
  14. "The Island". Samudra Devi in a Tangle of Love!. 2009-07-12.
  15. 1 2 EXPORAIL
  16. http://www.unescap.org/ttdw/Publications/TIS_pubs/tarsc_fulltext_1980.pdf Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Development of the Trans-Asian Railway: Trans-Asian Railway in the Southern Corridor of Asia-Europe Routes. 1999.
  17. "The Island". Eastern Province railbus project commences. 2009-07-30.
  18. 1 2 3 4 http://www.infolanka.com/org/mrail/rroutes.html The Rail Routes of Sri Lanka
  19. "The Morning Leader". Opinion – Metro long overdue for Colombo. 2010-03-27.
  20. "Daily News". Foreign-funded Colombo Metro feasibility study begins. 2006-12-06.
  21. "Panadura-Veyangoda railway to be electrified". www.sundayobserver.lk. Retrieved 2016-05-15.
  22. "Projects identification Document V3" (PDF).
  23. "Western Region Megapolis From Island To Continent | The Sunday Leader". Retrieved 2016-05-15.
  24. "Agreement signed to start Sri Lanka's first elect train system – Video | Adaderana Biz English | Sri Lanka Business News". bizenglish.adaderana.lk. Retrieved 2015-09-20.
  25. Weerasuriya, Sanath. "'Viceroy Special' rolls on the track for 25 years". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 2011-12-14.
  26. http://www.infolanka.com/org/mrail/slrails.html
  27. "Our Network". Sri Lanka Railways. Retrieved 2012-02-06.
  28. "Dailymirror". No trains between Galle and Kalutara South. 2011-04-23.
  29. "Asian Tribune". Agreement for supply and installation of Signaling & Telecommunication system for Northern railway network. 2011-08-18.
  30. "Daily Mirror". SLR to equip fleet with modern safety devices. 2011-11-21.
  31. "ColomboPage". Sri Lanka Railways installs new equipment to prevent accidents. 2011-10-26.
  32. Farzandh, Jiffry (2011-12-19). "B. D. Rampala - an engineer par excellence". Ceylon Daily News. Retrieved 2012-01-03.
  33. "Future Plans". Sri Lanka Railways. Retrieved 2012-02-11.
  34. "Sunday Observer". Cameos of the past: First train on line to Badulla from Colombo. 2010-07-19.
  35. http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=Yal_Devi_train_resumes_operations_from_today_20130914_01
  36. "TamilNet". Trains to Batticaloa back on track. 2003-04-12.
  37. 1 2 3 4 http://infolanka.asia/sri-lanka/transport/the-indo-lanka-land-bridge-reviving-the-proposal The Indo-Lanka Land bridge: Reviving the Proposal

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