Tramcars and trolley buses in Old Colombo | Sunday Observer

Tramcars and trolley buses in Old Colombo

29 October, 2017

Outlining the evolution of transport, the Assistant Director of the National Archives, Dilini Liyanage says: “From the beginning of human history people have dragged any load too heavy to be carried. Earlier, the villagers did not need to travel because their requirements were quite limited and they cultivated their own food items. Sometimes they came to the city to buy other things and sell their goods. So, a transport service was not necessary at that time although, they travelled in carts. Bullock carts are commonly used in the rural parts of the country. It is used for transporting goods and carriages and also people. The thirikkale, the bakkikaraththe, thavalam and the gal were often used in Sri Lankan society.

But in 1658, this system changed with the capture of Ceylon by the Europeans. The transport system rapidly changed during the 20th century, because of plantation agriculture. Public transport in Sri Lanka goes back to British times. They laid the foundation for modern public transport in Ceylon. All coffee and plantation supplies were transported in bullock carts during the British period. Horse carts were frequently used by people of high caste and the government officials of higher rank. In 1893, the rickshaw was introduced. By 1896, pedal bicycles were seen. The railway system also began in 1864 with the track from Colombo to Ambepussa in the hill country. The railway network spread across the land. Accordingly, train, motor bus, trolley bus, motor lorry, motor car and tramcars were the popular modes of transportation of both, passengers and goods.”

Liyanage explains: “Tramcars used a rail track. It was a rail vehicle. Tramcars were going on rail tracks along the urban streets. A wire attached to a self-adjusting pole conducted the current from the overhanging power lines to the tramcar. The first tramcar drive took place in 1899 from Colombo Grand Oriental Hotel to Thotalanga.”

Liyanage says, tramcars and trolley buses were used because the government needed to solve Colombo’s transport problems more efficiently. Therefore, they introduced tramcars and the trolley bus. “The tramcar system was introduced in many countries in the beginning of the 20th century. Then it came to Ceylon. During this time, the population of Colombo increased, because Colombo, over the years had been the administrative and commercial centre. Colombo city rapidly developed economically at this time. Therefore, it was a very busy city, because the Port, schools, banks, shops, government offices, main hospitals and various educational institutions were available here. Hence, many people came to the Colombo city for their work.”

“Some people came to this city to sell their products. Tramcars were widely used by the working class. The authorities wanted to reduce the traffic. Tramcars opened to the public on January 13, in 1900. After opening this route for traffic, the average number of passengers carried on both, the Grandpass route and the Maradana route was 14,529 daily. In 1905, the number of passengers carried was 6,555,338 compared with 6,599,059 during 1904. It seems, tramcars were very popular among the people.”


While countries including Australia still run tramcars in cities like Melbourne, Colombo’s tramcars disappeared. Liyanage explains why this happened. “Tramcars were operated by the Colombo Electric Tramcar and Lighting Company Ltd (Boustead Brothers) until 1944. On November 11, the Municipal Council decided to give notice to the Tram way company of its intention to purchase the tramways in November, 1943. In 1944, arrangements had been made to take over possession of the tramways on November 25. The tramcar service in the Colombo city was operated by the Colombo Municipal Council between 1944 and 1960.

The advent of personal motor vehicles and improvements in motorized buses caused the rapid disappearance of the tramcar from most Western and Asian countries by the end of the 1950s. Trolley systems also were introduced to the world in the 20th century. Tramcars disappeared from many countries in the middle of the 20th century. Likewise, in Sri Lanka, tramcars stopped running somewhere in the 1950s.The tram service was stopped completely after the trolley bus service was introduced in 1953.”

“Trolley buses were also operated by the Colombo Municipal Council. Trolley buses were operated in the past as part of the public transport system.There were single decker and double decker trolley buses.

At that time there were a large number of bus companies in the island. In 1957, the government led by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike decided on the nationalization of bus services. To provide a better service to the people, he established the Ceylon Transport Board on January 1 1958. The nationalization of private bus companies in 1958 led to the origin of the CTB. There was a trolley bus strike in 1964. The trolley bus service was stopped in 1964 due to the Trolley bus strike, and also because the government couldn’t afford the maintenance expenses.”


Liyanage adds, “In 1929, a tram strike occurred, and 225 workers including drivers stopped the tram service because they were not paid enough. There had been a Trolley bus strike in 1964. There were both single deck and double deck trolley buses whereas the tramscars were single deck. These tramcars were taken off the rails and replaced with trolley buses. The trolley buses ran on the same routes.

Tramcars were involved in many accidents. Accidents took place due to the wires which had fallen on tramcars. A Commission was appointed by the Governor to inquire into these accidents. The report of the Commission was submitted to the Municipality after the close of the year. This report has been referred to a special committee of the Council. Many accidents were reported during this time. Some cases were due to passengers jumping on and off the cars whilst in motion. There were occasional complaints of public inconvenience owing to overcrowding of the tramcars. Tram pathways are still visible in certain places.”

Liyanage further explains, “At present, various kinds of vehicles are used in Colombo. I don’t think that there is any possibility to re-introduce tramcars in Colombo. Sri Lanka is considering the use of modern transport systems. And in 2010, a metro transit system was proposed to serve commuters in Colombo. Trams are now commonly included under the wider term “Light Rail”. In 1967 (February 11, 1967 Lankadeepa page 8) the CTB had decided to build a Museum for displaying tramcars, trolley bus and other buses. It was suggested by Oscar de Livera, Deputy Chairman, CTB. A commission was also appointed to handle this work. A lot of information on tramcars and trolley buses was collected by the Werahara depot.

The information on tramcar or trolley bus can be obtained from the National Archives. Sessional Papers, Administration Reports, original records on Colombo Municipal Council and the relevant newspapers are the archival material for retrieving this information. Photos on tramcar or trolley bus can be taken from the Times Collection.

The National Railway museum has old engines, locomotives, rail cars, trolleys, carriages, machinery, and equipment used since the beginning of the Sri Lanka Railway.

Pix from Archives Collection by Saliya Rupasinghe