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Traffic has become a bane for the many hundreds of thousands of people who travel to Colombo each day. The Government, after committing to a $ 1.8 billion Japanese loan to build a light railway system, is now reported to be in talks with six Chinese companies for more projects. Given Sri Lanka’s already serious debt situation, signing up for expensive light rail systems that will take years to implement could be a wrong step in the right direction.

Light rail sounds efficient and gives the allure of elevating a city to seem developed. But everywhere around the world, light rail is being put side for bus transport systems or linked with different transport options to create seamless systems. Sri Lanka, too, was on this journey for several years with local transport experts backing Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) systems before the Government decided on light rail despite the delay and debt it would incur.

Proponents misleadingly call these light-rail lines “high-capacity transit”. In fact, the ‘light’ in light rail refers not to weight, but capacity. Light rail is, by definition, low-capacity transit. Rail advocates don’t like to admit it, but buses can carry more people more comfortably and to more places for far less money than light rail.

Three-car light rail trains that run in streets can hold up to 450 people, more than any bus. But most light-rail lines can only run about 20 trains per hour, whereas a single bus stop can serve 42 buses per hour, according to some studies. By staggering bus stops, a single street can serve more than 160 buses per hour.

Given that Colombo is a compact city, a BRT system, provided it is run efficiently, could not only reduce traffic within the city but also link suburbs to reduce pollution and increase movement. It would also encourage the public to leave their cars at home because the BRT system would not be limited to a track system.

Sri Lanka’s BRT ambitions are based on a detailed study done by JICA and reviewed by the University of Moratuwa. The much-hailed document calculates a BRT system can be implemented with an investment of Rs. 173 billion over five years. Set against the fact that the Government already spends an estimated Rs. 200 million a year on building and maintaining highways, BRT would be faster off the ground, implemented widely, and would encourage more people to use public transport, the project made eminent sense. But it received little traction from the Megapolis Authority, which preferred light railway.

Even with revised prices, it is significantly cheaper than the $ 1.8 billion the Government is willing to sign up to pay over many decades. This year alone the Government has to pay $ 5.9 billion, which it is rushing to raise following the sovereign rating downgrade in November, and this debt repayment cycle is set to continue until 2022. With a debt rate of nearly 80% of GDP and slow growth of about 3%, which is only expected to expand to 3.5% in 2019, it would be beneficial for the country as well as commuters if the Government looked at alternatives before jumping on big ticket projects. Local expertise deserves to be heard and the public should also be more informed of the decisions that are made on their behalf.   


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