Popular bus routes extinct | Sunday Observer

Popular bus routes extinct

6 November, 2022

Practically no one who is alive in Sri Lanka today can remember the trams which used to run all over Colombo almost a century ago. The trams were electric, non-polluting, cheap to use and run and well-received by the commuters. But the bus companies and the car lobby managed to kill the trams in Colombo (It is by no means the only city where this happened – New York is another example). And years of neglect led to the closure of the Avissawella-Opanaike stretch of the Kelani Valley Railway line long years ago.

The death of the tram and the stagnation of the railways (Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where the railway has not been electrified yet) however led to a boom in bus services, which were nationalised by the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike Government with the formation of the Central Transport Board (CTB).

But the CTB, now known as the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) could not cope with the increased demand for bus services by the 1970s and the J.R. Jayewardene Government opened road-based public passenger transport services to the private sector in line with its economic liberalisation policy. This led to a boom in bus services all over the country and despite the many complaints about the private bus services (overcrowding, crawling and uncouth crews, no ticketing), one cannot deny that they have made a massive contribution to the transport sector and the economy itself.

Scarcity of buses

The entry of private buses strengthened many bus routes which the SLTB struggled to cope with. Even today, there are only around 4,000 SLTB buses whereas there are nearly 16,000 private buses. These 20,000 buses serve commuters all over the country every day, 365 days a year.

But not all routes are profitable and many rural routes have disappeared over the years. Surprisingly, many bus routes in Colombo and other major cities have also vanished without a trace even though most, if not all, such services had plenty of passengers day and night. While inviting our readers to tell us about the rural routes that are no longer offered, today’s column focuses on the many routes that have gone the way of the Dodo in Colombo and the suburbs.

Colombo and its suburbs probably had over 100 bus services but now only a few of them are prominent – 100, 101, 103, 107, 120, 122, 125, 135, 138 (both Homagama and Kadawatha routes), 141, 144, 150, 153, 154, 163, 164, 166, 170, 174, 175, 176, 177, 178, 180, 183, 187, 188, 190, 200 and 240 are among them. In between these route numbers are routes that are no longer operated either by the SLTB or the private bus operators.

Among the bus routes that can longer be seen on our roads are: 102 (Moratuwa-Kotahena), 104 (Wattala-Bambalapitiya), 105 (Attitdiya-Kotahena), 112 (Maharagama-Kotahena via Galle Rd), 115 (Pitakotte-Pettah), 118 (Dehiwela-Beddagana), 123 (Maharagama-Athurugiriya), 131 (Maharagama-Wellampitiya), 132 (Karagampitiya-Kiribathgoda), 133 (Panadura-Ja Ela), 136 (Karagampitiya-Ragama), 140 (Wellampitiya-Kollupitiya), 155 (Mattakkuliya-Mount Lavinia), 156 (Dehiwela-Nugegoda), 167 (Dehiwela-Thotalanga), 168 (Nugegoda-Kotahena), 169 (Nawala-Fort via Vauxhall St), 173 (Thotalanga-Nugegoda), 174 (Thalawathugoda-Pettah, though the 174 Kottawa-Borella route still exists), 186 (Jayawadanagama-Borella or Pettah), 193 (Town Hall-Kadawatha) and 198 (Rajagiriya-Mount Lavinia). I might have missed many more routes, but even from the above list one can imagine the scale of loss suffered by the commuters who used to travel in these buses. Granted, Covid and the attendant travel restrictions may have hastened the demise of these much-used routes, but that cannot be the sole reason.

Easy access

These buses offered convenient direct connections to and from the above-mentioned city pairs and the commuters could easily access the schools, hospitals, Government agencies, offices, cinemas and other places of interest en route. The loss of these bus routes also means that some city pairs that are close to each other as the crow flies have no direct connections. For example, someone in Nugegoda who wants to go to the Labour Secretariat in Narahenpita has to take at least two buses (because 173 buses no longer run) or take a taxi, which most people cannot afford now. It is the same story for a traveller from Rajagiriya who wishes to go to Narahenpita. One option is to go to Nawala on 176 and then take a three-wheeler from there as there are no buses at all on the Nawala-Narahenpita sector or go to Borella and then take a 103. Either way is time consuming and costly.

One cannot also fathom why previously profitable bus routes had to be given up in this manner. Routes such as 112, 168 and 155 were enormously popular, even if the buses were somewhat ramshackle and took ages to reach their intended destinations after much crawling (called “kotanawa” in pithy Sinhalese). Route 155 perfectly illustrates what happens when residents of a particular area lose a bus route after many decades. Apart from 145 (Slave Island-Mattakkuliya), this is about the only bus that served Mattakkuliya, many residents of which go to schools or workplaces located in and around Kotahena, Maradana, Town Hall and Galle Road.

As a result of the termination of this bus service, the residents now have no direct access to Town Hall, Maradana or Galle Road. They have to take connecting buses or taxis at much additional expense to reach these places. Worse, even the 145 buses are off the roads after 7 p.m., compounding the Mattakkuliya residents’ woes. Several Mattakkuliya residents I contacted while researching for this article suggested two approaches – divert some 145 buses to 155 or even shorten the 155 route to Wellawatte, as there are plenty of other buses on the Galle Road itself.

Another alternative they suggest is extending the 176 route to Mattakkluliya, not much further away from the current terminus Hettityawaththa. This will also enable the Mattakkuliya residents to get to Dehiwela, from where plenty of buses are available to reach other places on the Galle Road.

Excess of buses

But there is no question that there is an excess of buses on routes such as 176 and 138. On both these routes, there is a bus almost every two minutes and there are times when most buses have only or two passengers on board. This is a criminal waste of fuel at a time when we are experiencing a fuel and economic crisis. Therefore, the SLTB and the Western Province Passenger Transport Authority should urgently consider diverting some of these buses to kick-start the abandoned routes such as 155, 198 and 173. If some routes are unprofitable at certain times of the day, the operations can be subsidised up to some extent. Some of the low-floor electric buses due to be imported for the public bus fleet in the next few years should also be used to revive the non-operational routes.

In this context, we can take a leaf out of Singapore, where 350 bus routes criss cross the island in perfect sync. Transport would play a key role in our efforts to become an Asian powerhouse in the long term and a comfortable, punctual, clean bus service is essential to achieve this aim. Reviving the “dead” bus services and augmenting the entire bus service with better buses is thus vital.