Transport in Sri Lanka

An inter-city train waiting at a station

Transport in Sri Lanka is based mainly on the road network which is centred on Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. There is also a railway network, but it is largely a legacy of British colonial rule and today only handles a small fraction of the country's transport needs. There are navigable waterways, harbours and two international airports located in Katunayake, 22 miles north of Colombo and in Hambantota. The highways and roadways around the country are in very good condition and are being upgraded.

Railway network

Commuter train in Colombo (Class S10 DMU)
Map showing the rail network in Sri Lanka.

Rail transport in Sri Lanka consists of a heavy-rail intercity network connecting major population centres and commuter rail serving Colombo commuter traffic. Sri Lanka Railways operates the country’s railway network, which includes about 1,450 km (901 mi) of track. Colombo is the main node of the network. Train routes connect the main cities of all nine provinces in the country.

Most of the railways were developed during the British colonial period, with the first line from Colombo to Kandy opening on 26 April 1867. The British introduced the railway as a cheap means of transporting the goods produced in the British-owned tea, rubber and coconut plantations, situated away from the main port in Colombo. Hence, the legacy rail network was suited for the distribution from plantations.

After independence from Britain, the Sri Lankan economy became focused more on industries than plantation agriculture. The road network also grew, and with the introduction of lorries, which were a faster means of transporting goods, the amount of goods transported by the railways declined. As the railway network is more focused on plantation areas and not on population and service centres, the railways have become an enterprise generating a heavy loss.

The railway is currently modernising and extending the Coast Line to facilitate faster trains and improved efficiency.[1] Electrification of the busiest sections of the network was proposed in 2010, to improve energy efficiency and sustainability,[2] but no work was carried out. The Railway is currently extending the Coastal line from Matara to Kataragama, via Hambantota.[3]


The Sri Lankan railways network covers one of the most scenic landscapes in the world, the best of which is the Colombo-Badulla main line which runs hugging the steep mountains of the Sri Lankan highlands. The railways connect the main cities of Kandy, Galle, Matara, Anuradhapura, Gampaha, Negombo, Kurunegala, Avissawella, Kalutara, Polonnaruwa, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Badulla, Gampola, Nawalapitiya, Matale, Vavuniya, Puttalam and Chilaw with the Capital Colombo. The lines to Jaffna, Kankesanturai and Mannar have been destroyed by the LTTE. There were also narrow gauge lines from Nanu Oya to Nuwara Eliya, Avissawella to Yatiyantota and Avissawella to Ratnapura and Opanayaka, which were dismantled due to financial losses from their operation.

The narrow-gauge Kelani Valley Line, from Colombo to Avissawella, was converted to broad gauge. In the 1970s the bridges and culverts on the line were strengthened to make the change to broad gauge, but the actual conversion was not made until the 1990s.

The potential for expansion was revealed when in 1974 the Minister of Transport, Leslie Goonewardena, opened an extension of the Coastal Line from Puttalam to Aruvakalu, to serve the cement factory there.[4]

In 2007, the Sri Lankan government announced plans for Matara - Kataragama (113 km), Padukka - Hambantota - Ratnapura (210 km), Kurunegala - Dambulla - Habarana (80 km) and Panadura - Horana (18 km) lines by 2014.[5]

Road transport

Road transport accounts for about 93 per cent of the land transport in Sri Lanka. There are 12,000 km of A class and B class roads and 151.8 km of expressways, as of Oct 2013.


Marker on Highway B147 (Badulla District)

The Road transport network is divided in A, B, C and E class roads.

Class Description Speed Limit
E Class roads These roads are high speed, High traffic corridors, they duplicate A class routs that are having difficulty coping with the traffic volume. 100kmph
A Class Roads The national highway network. 70kmph[6]
B Class Roads Major provincial roads and used as feeder roads for A and E class roads. 60kmph
C Class Roads Local residential Roads. 50kmph


Expressway Start Sign in Sri Lanka

The Colombo–Matara Expressway is a 126 km long motorway linking Colombo, Galle, and Matara. It was built in 2011 to bolster the economy of the Southern Province. Other expressways are either under construction or proposed. The Colombo–Katunayake Expressway, Colombo-Kandy Expressway, and Outer Circular Expressway (Colombo bypass road) are currently under construction. Colombo–Padeniya Expressway has been proposed. Also, Sri Lankan government has proposed to build three elevated highways connecting the three main expressways.[7]

Expressway Number Name Start End Length(km) Lanes Status Cost (USD) Cost/km (USD)
 E01  Colombo–Matara Expressway Kottawa Matara 126 4 (provision for 6) In use[8] 765.4 Million 6.07 Million
 E02  Outer Circular Expressway Kottawa Kerawalapitiya 29 6 Under Construction 1.12 Billion 38.6 Million[9]
 E03  Colombo–Katunayake Expressway New Kelani Bridge Katunayake 25.8 6,4 (provision for 6) In use 291 Million[10] 11.28 Million
 E04  Colombo–Kandy Expressway[11] Kadawatha Katugastota 98.9 4,6[12] Under Construction 4.5 Billion [13]
To be announced Katunayake - Anuradhapura Expressway Katunayake Anuradhapura 184 ? Proposed
To be announced Northern Expressway Anuradhapura Jaffna 198 ? Proposed
To be announced Eastern Expressway Anuradhapura Trincomalee 109 ? Proposed
To be announced South-East Expressway Hambantota Batticaloa 257 ? Proposed
To be announced Colombo Metropolitan Highway 1 Kirulapone Kadawatha 19 ? Proposed
To be announced Colombo Metropolitan Highway 2 Colombo Fort Kottawa 21 ? Proposed
To be announced Colombo Metropolitan Highway 3 Colombo Fort Peliyagoda 5 ? Proposed

National Highways

Marker on the A5 highway in Nuwara Eliya

The National Highwys of the country are classified as 'A' and 'B' class roads. A class roads are further divided into 'AA', 'AB' & 'AC' classes.

Road Class Length
Class 'A' Roads 4221.37 km
Class 'AA' Roads 3724.26 km
Class 'AB' Roads 466.92 km
Class 'AC' Roads 30.19 km
Class 'B' Roads 7943.65 km
Total of A and B Class Roads in Sri Lanka 12165.02 km[14]

The road density is highest in the southwest, especially in the area around Colombo. Highways are in good condition, with a smooth bitumen surface and road markings. The road network is at its densest around Colombo and its suburbs. Some rural roads are in poor condition. The roads that are most widely used across the country are being upgraded and repaved. In many rural areas, public transport is widely available, even in areas where operation is unprofitable.[15]

Bus transport

A bus operated by Sri Lanka Transport Board
Privated owned and SLTB Buses
A privately-operated Viking bus

Buses are the principal mode of public transport. Bus services are provided by the state-run Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) and by privately run buses. SLTB serves both urban and rural routes. In many rural areas, it provides services in unprofitable areas that would be unattractive to private operators.[15]

Colombo has an extensive public transport system based on buses. The Central Bus Stand in Pettah functions as the primary hub for bus transport in Colombo.[16] The road network in Colombo consists of radial links (or arterial routes), which link the city centre and district centres, and orbital links, which intersect the arterial routes; most bus routes run along the radial links without the benefit of dedicated bus lanes, owing to the high volume of traffic at peak times.[17] A BRT system for Colombo has been proposed, but has yet to be implemented.[18][19]

Inter-city routes connect many of the major population centres in the country. A few services are available on the E01 Expressway and E03 Expressway. Expressway services use modern Lanka Ashok Leyland buses.[20]

In 2011, the SLTB began introducing new buses to replace part of its aging fleet. These new Volvo 8400 buses from Volvo India,[21] serve on major routes in Colombo city.[22]

The most popular model is the Lanka Ashok Leyland Viking (photographed to the right, and left) which is operated by both the government owned Sri Lanka Transport Board and several private bus companies.[23]


Sri Lanka has 160 km of inland waterways (primarily on rivers in the southwest), navigable by shallow-draught boats.


Sri Lanka has 62 km of pipelines for crude oil and petroleum products (1987 figures).

Ports and Harbours

Container handling at the Port of Colombo

Sri Lanka has deep-water ports at Colombo, Hambantota, Galle, and Trincomalee. Of these, Colombo handles the highest volume of cargo.

Colombo Port

Capacity of the port is estimated at 4.1 TEU's In 2008, the port commenced a large-scale expansion project at a cost of US$1.2 billion, which is expected dramatically increase the port's capacity and capabilities.[24] The project, which is headed by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and built by the Hyundai Engineering & Construction Company, is expected to be completed by 11 April 2012. The expansion project will consist of four new terminals that are 1200m in length and can accommodate 3 berths each, alongside a depth of 18 m (59 ft) (which can be deepened to 23 m (75 ft)). The channel width of the harbour is to be 560m and depth of 20m, with harbour basin depth of 18m and a 600m turning circle. Once completed, it will increase the annual container handling capacity from 4 million TEUs to approximately 12 million TEUs. It will also be able to accommodate larger container vessels, carrying around 12,000 TEUs.

Hambantota Port

Construction of the Hambantota port began in January 2008. It will be Sri Lanka’s largest port, after the Port of Colombo. The Port of Hambantota will serve ships travelling along one of world's most busiest shipping lines - the east-west shipping route which passes six to ten nautical miles (19 km) south of Hambantota. The first phase of the Port of Hambantota will consist of two 600 m general purpose berths, a 310 m bunkering berth and a 120 m small craft berth.[25] It will also contain a bunkering facility and tank farm which will include 8 tanks for marine fuel, 3 tanks containing aviation fuel and 3 for Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG). A 15 floor administrative complex will also be constructed as part of the project. Later phases will raise capacity of the port up to 20 million TEUs per year. When completed, the port will be the biggest port constructed on land to date in the 21st century.[26]

Dikkowitta Fishery Harbour

It is located in Wattala, Gampaha in Western Province. The project cost is estimated as $73 million. It is strategically located with close proximity to Colombo port and airport. It will be the largest fisheries harbour in Asia. It provides unloading and packing facilities to cater fish importing countries (EU, Japan, U.S.A) requirements. It will serve as an alternative site for Mutwal fishery harbour. Main Facilities include Southern basin for export oriented fishing vessels, Northern basin for local registered fishing vessels, a servicing facility for boat repairs, cleaning and lifting and a fish processing facility with 3 cold rooms.[27]

Kankesanthurai Port

There is a harbour at Kankesanturai, north of Jaffna, navigable by ships of relatively shallow draught which was not active during the civil war period. The Kankesanturai Port is being restored and deepened with the help of India.[28]

Merchant marine

Total: 21 ships (1,000 gross register tons (GRT) or over) totaling 192,190 GRT/293,832 tonnes deadweight (DWT)

Ships by type: bulk carrier 4, cargo ship 13, chemical tanker 1, container ship 1, petroleum tanker 2 (2010).


A Mihin Lanka aircraft at the main terminal of Bandaranaike International Airport.
Terminal building of the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport.
An aircraft of Cinnamon Air

Sri Lanka's international airports include Colombo Bandaranaike International Airport, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport and the under-renovation Ratmalana International Airport.

Sri Lankan Airlines

Sri Lankan Airlines is the national airline. Founded in 1979 as Air Lanka, the airline changed its name when it came under partial foreign ownership in 1998.It operates to destinations in Asia and Europe from its base and hub at Bandaranaike International Airport in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. The airline's head office is in the Airline Centre, on the grounds of Bandaranaike International Airport. The airline is set to join the Oneworld alliance in 2013.[29] SriLankan currently serves 62 destinations in 34 countries.[30]


Bandaranaike International Airport is located in Katunayake, 35 km (22 mi) north of Colombo. Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport located in Mattala, north of Hambantota. After the ongoing renovations Ratmalana Airport will also resume operating international flights, after a half-century absence.[31]

Domestic Aviation

Flights connect the airport in Ratmalana to various domestic destinations.

Domestic Operators

The total number of airports in the country is 18 (2012 figure).

Airports with paved runways
Total 15
Over 3,047 m 2
1,524 to 2,437 m 6
914 to 1,523 m 7
Airports with unpaved runways
Total 4
1,524 to 2,437 m 1
Under 914 m 3

See also


  1. "Dailymirror". No trains between Galle and Kalutara South. 2011-04-23.
  2. "Daily News". IESL proposes railway electrification project. 2010-12-25.
  3. "Rail Finance: Sri Lanka south railway financed by US$278mn China credit". Lanka Business Online. 23 August 2012. Retrieved 28 September 2012.
  4. "Transportation in Sri Lanka". Retrieved 27 Oct 2013.
  5. "Pointeers". Railway Gazette International. 2007-02-01.
  6. Gamini Gunaratna, Sri Lanka News Paper by (LLC)- Latest Hot News from Sri Lanka (2013-01-25). "Sri Lanka : Sri Lanka to introduce new speed limits on roads". Retrieved 2014-02-14.
  7. "Sri Lanka to construct three elevated highways to ease traffic congestion". 2012-01-12. Retrieved 2014-02-14.
  8. Wijesundara, Janaka (27 November 2011). "Sri Lanka's first highway, Southern Expressway opens". The Nation. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
  9. "Outer Circular Highway". Retrieved 28 Oct 2013.
  10. "Sri Lanka President opens Chinese funded expressway linking Katunayake airport to capital". colombopage. 27 Oct 2013.
  11. "Govt. To Finalize Colombo-Kandy Highway In Two Months | The Sunday Leader". Retrieved 2014-02-14.
  12. "Sri Lanka News | Online edition of Daily News - Lakehouse Newspapers". 2011-09-12. Retrieved 2014-02-14.
  14. "National Highways in Sri Lanka (Class "A" and "B" Roads)". Retrieved 31 Oct 2013.
  15. 1 2 "Sri Lanka Transport Board to import 2,000 single door buses for rural transportation". ColomboPage. 2011-12-05. Retrieved 2011-12-06.
  16. "Transport in Colombo". Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet Publications. Retrieved 2009-04-28.
  17. Cader, Fathima Razik (23 January 2004). "One-way streets in Colombo". Daily News. The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. Retrieved 2009-04-27.
  18. Mushtaq, Munza (2006-07-05). "Sri Lanka to get a Bus Rapid Transit System courtesy Japan". Asian Tribune. Retrieved 2011-12-14.
  19. BRT Planned or Under Construction in Asia
  20. Perera, Chaminda (2012-01-03). "Toning Southern Expressway: Luxury bus service starts today". Ceylon Daily News. Retrieved 2012-01-04.
  21. Volvo Buses (2011-07-13). "Volvo City Bus Trial Begins in Colombo - press releases India". Volvo Buses. Retrieved 2014-02-14.
  22. "More luxury buses in Colombo". Retrieved 2014-02-14.
  24. "South harbour to be best hub". Retrieved 27 Oct 2013.
  25. "Development of Port in Hambantota". Sri Lanka Port Authority. Retrieved 2010-03-10.
  26. B. Muralidhar Reddy (2010-11-18). "Hambantota port opened". THE HINDU. Retrieved 2010-11-20.
  27. "About Harbour / Main Objectives / Main Facilities / Berthing Facility / Servicing Facility / Fish Processing Facility". Retrieved 27 Oct 2013.
  28. R.K. Radhakrishnan (2011-07-21). "India, Sri Lanka MoU to re-build port". THE HINDU. Retrieved 2011-07-27.
  29. "SriLankan Airlines to join Oneworld Alliance". Retrieved 28 Oct 2013.
  30. "Flight Routes". Retrieved 28 Oct 2013.
  31. "Private jets to fly to R'lana A'port". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 27 September 2011.
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