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Transportation in Sri Lanka is based mainly on the road network which is centered on Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. There is also an extensive railway network, but it is largely a legacy of British colonial rule and is less appropriate for the modern transport requirements of the country. There are also navigable waterways, harbours and airports, including an international airport, located in Katunayake, 22 miles north of Colombo. The highways and roadways around the capital are in very good condition and being upgraded for the future.


Railway network

West German, Henschel-Thyssen, General Motors V12 12-645E (2 stroke) locomotive in Colombo-Kandy railroad track.

Sri Lanka Government Railway operates the country’s railway network, which includes about 1,450 km (901 mi) of track. Colombo is the main node of the network, and 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 Sri Lankan railway 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.

Length of track (1996 figures)
Total 1,463 km
Broad gauge 1,404 km 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in) gauge
Narrow gauge 59 km 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) gauge (1996)

Note that the narrow-gauge Kelani Valley Line, from Colombo to Avissawella is not functioning anymore, there is a broad gauge track in its place now. 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 Minister of Transport Leslie Goonewardena opened an extension of the Coastal Line from Puttalam to Aruvakalu in 1974, to service the cement factory there. Cargo traffic increased immediately by about 40% by tonnage.

A new line from Matara to Tissamaharama has been started. In 2005 a new government ministry was established to oversee railway expansion.




  • Friday, 17 August 2007 - Environmental and geological studies have been completed for the first stage of Sri Lanka’s new 127 km Matara-Kataragama railway extension, due to start building before the end of 2007. [1]
  • Ministry of New Railroad Development announces plans for Matara - Kataragama (113 km), Padukka - Hambantota - Ratnapura (210 km), Kurunegala - Dambulla - Habarana (80 km) and Panadura - Horana (18 km) lines by 2014.[2]


  • February 2006 Construction of the Matara - Kataragama line begins with work on a bridge over the Nilwala river. China is covering 90% of the Rs9·2bn cost.[3]


  • December 18, Colombo: The Sri Lankan government will begin construction of the Matara-Kataragama railway line this month with the main bridge over the Nilwala river as the first step. This extends the south coast railway.[4]

The railway line is estimated to cost Rs. 1.1 billion and the construction work is expected to be completed within three years. The construction of four bridges over the four main rivers, Nilwala, Walawe, Kirnidi Oya and Kirama Oya, are the most costly and time-consuming tasks.

With the completion of the main bridge over Nilwala River, the Colombo-Matara train will extend up to Walasgala, and from there to Hambantota and Kataragama.

In addition, the Seetawaka railway line will also be extended from Avissawella to Hambantota via Ratnapura and Embilipitiya.

The construction of these two railway lines will be entrusted to workers of the Railway Department.


A bullock cart in Tangalle, Sri Lanka, March 2008

Road transport accounts for about 93 percent of the land transport in Sri Lanka. The country has about 96,695 km (60,083 mi) of roads. The road density is highest in the southwest, especially in the area around Colombo. The traditional bullock cart can still be seen in use in rural regions.

Many roads are narrow, and in poor condition. However, many "A" Class roads are being upgraded to a smoother bitumen surface, as well as being widened with road markings. The Southern Expressway is a project underway, aiming to bolster the economy of the Southern Province through the construction of a 126 km long expressway from Colombo (Kottawa) to Matara. There are also plans for other expressways; the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, Colombo-Kandy (Kadugannawa) Expressway, Colombo-Padeniya Expressway, Outer Circular Highway (Colombo bypass road). The main roads around colombo and its suburbs are in good condition. The roads that are widely used around Colombo are being upgraded and repaved.

Length of roads (1998 estimate)
Total 11,285 km
Paved 10,721 km
Unpaved 564 km

Public transport

Buses are the principal mode of public transport. Bus services are provided by the state-run Sri Lanka Transport Board, better known as the CTB and privately run buses.


Sri Lanka has 430 km of inland waterways, navigable by shallow-draught boats.


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

Ports and harbours

Partial view of the Galle harbour.

Sri Lanka has three deep-water ports, at Colombo, Galle, and Trincomalee. Of these, Colombo handles the highest volume of cargo, followed by Galle. There is also a harbour at Kankesanturai, north of Jaffna, navigable by ships of relatively shallow draught.

A new port is under construction in the coastal town of Hambantota. The Colombo Port is also currently seeing expansion.

Merchant marine

Total: 24 ships (1,000 gross register tons (GRT) or over) totaling 192,190 GRT/293,832 metric tons deadweight (DWT)

Ships by type: bulk carrier 1, cargo ship 16, container ship 1, petroleum tanker 1, refrigerated cargo ship 5 (1999 estimate).


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. Bandaranaike International Airport, the country’s only international airport, is located in Katunayaka, 35 km (22 mi) north of Colombo. The total number of airports is 14 (1999 figure).

Airports with paved runways
Total 12
Over 3,047 m 1
1,524 to 2,437 m 5
914 to 1,523 m 6
Airports with unpaved runways
Total 2
1,524 to 2,437 m 1
Under 914 m 1

See also


  1. ^ RailwaysAfrica
  2. ^ "Pointeers". Railway Gazette International. 2007-02-01.  
  3. ^ "Intelligence". Railway Gazette International. 2006-04-01.  
  4. ^ Monday, December 18, 2006, 13:40 GMT, ColomboPage News Desk, Sri Lanka.

External links


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