By Siri Gamage –
Last week I wrote about the traffic and diesel fume problem in Kandy. This week I was in Colombo taking public transport and driven by car by a relative. From Homagama to Colombo city, it took more than two hours. There is anarchy on the roads. This is actually an understatement. As commuters know very well, there is no rule on the roads. Instead, the jungle rule prevails. Three wheel drivers (TWDs) criss-cross everywhere without notice. They seem to rule the roads. If not careful, their behaviour can cause accidents. In fact, it is reported that the accidents in Colombo roads have increased recently.
Traffic cannot move smoothly even when there is green light as vehicles cut you in front and on both sides. Buses and other large vehicles do the same if you travel by car. At round about the story is the same. If rules are followed, vehicles coming from the right side should be given way by others entering the roundabout. However, in this anarchical time, all try to poke into the available space – however small it is – trying to move ahead. No care is given for the other. What is at display is me, me, me mentality. At junctions with colour lights also traffic blocks build up preventing smooth flow. This is really the story of our time in paradise Lanka!
What I experienced in Colombo this week is similar to what I witnessed in Bangkok roads about 15-20 years ago. Also, it is similar to what one finds in Manila roads today; the congestion, slow movement, large volume, diesel fume, anarchy and lack of order. Even those with cars cannot escape the agony. In Thailand, the government has built overhead highways and driver-less sky trains to address the problem quite effectively. The situation in Colombo and Kandy is nowhere near that exists in Singapore though it is adopted by the leaders as an ideal for development here. For some mysterious reason, development seems to be elsewhere excluding the roads and railways that are the key avenues of travel? Traffic police cannot be seen on the roads directing traffic or if they are in main junctions, the volume is heavy requiring motorists to wait inconsiderate amounts of time.
This situation in Colombo and Kandy has created a lot of frustration and anger among the travelling public. Yet those in authority seems to have abandoned the roads to the TWDs with no order at play. A simple and straight forward solution is to impose fines on those violating traffic rules. Particularly TWDs should be tamed for cutting across even solid lines to find a quicker way to reach destinations. Other drivers should be encouraged not to hinder the flow of traffic from sideways by imposing similar fines. They should be fined if they come from the opposite side and turn on to the moving traffic cutting across in the middle. In a society where we preach about the value of tourism, natural beauty etc., the existing situation on our roads in major cities is a national disgrace. The question the public asking is who is in charge?
Why can’t the government deploy some mobile traffic controllers on motor bikes to bring some order to the roads? Is it the lack of resources or the political will? I cannot understand the level of abandonment prevailing on Colombo roads and for that matter in Kandy roads. This seems a reflection of the misplaced priorities this government has at the moment? Instead of looking after the wellbeing of motorists and commuters by adopting simple measures such as imposing fines for traffic rule violators, the political leadership is focusing on other matters.
Long Term vs Short Term Solutions
Earlier, there was an expectation that when the highway was extended to Kadawatha and circular road was completed, motorists who want to go in the direction of Kandy and elsewhere will bypass the city and reduce traffic on Colombo roads. However, this seems to have not happened? Otherwise the congestion should have been reduced. Is someone in authority looking into this situation with the aim of giving some relief to the public?
I could see the construction of a station of some sort apparently for the motorists coming from outskirts to park their vehicles and take a shuttle bus to Colombo or in anticipation of the construction of a light rail above ground. However commendable such action may be, what the people need is an urgent solution to the traffic problem existing today. As stated earlier, imposing of rules without succumbing to pressure from various stakeholders such as private bus operators and TWDs can be a start.
In Kandy, I am told that the police experimented with a one-way traffic option for the city quite successfully. However, due to the pressure from stakeholders e.g. bus operators, this was abandoned. If it was a successful, why abandon it for the greater good? Was it due to political expediency?
Consequences of Traffic Congestion and Delay
When the learning and working population of a city is subjected to the kind of congestion and delay, the negative emotions created can be counterproductive in the learning and work places. People come to these venues already tired and angry. This can have spill over outcomes in work places etc. Furthermore, the wasted time on roads is an economic loss both to the commuter and the nation.
Fort Railway Station and the Trains
In a country that attracts large number of tourists, this station should be on par with the airport with modern facilities, shops, lifts etc. Yet it is dirty, old looking with asbestos roofing, and lack lift facilities for travellers with physical disabilities. The latter have to climb steps to get to various platforms. If one comes in a wheelchair, good luck to them! In my previous article, I explained the situation at Peradeniya railway station.
The trains also look aged and in a state of disrepair. Commuters have to wait another century, it seems, before they can expect air conditioned trains at least on main lines. There don’t seem to be any concerted approach by the government to develop public transport such as the railways. Instead, the priority seems to be to construct highways. It shouldn’t be one or the other. Both should be priorities.
In a country where many mega projects are undertaken with borrowed money, why can’t the re-development of fort railway station (and Peradeniya station for that matter) can be made a priority?
Intercity Train (the Old Horse from the 70s)
I took this train to come to Colombo and return. On my way to Colombo, I was fortunate enough to get a seat in the first class (observation saloon). On the return journey, I had to settle with a second-class seat. In the compartment, three high speed fans were operating irrespective of the weather condition. All windows were open as well. Until midway of the journey, the train was bumping from side to side giving my body a shock massage. By the time I passed through tunnels and reaching Peradeniya, I had developed a sinus headache requiring me to sleep all night and half a day to recover. I will not ravel by this train again to avoid getting sick. Ticket officers are only concerned about whether the travellers have paid for the ticket. Not the comfort of travellers.
As in the case of key railway stations that should be the pride of our nation, the story of the train is also not an admirable one. Why is it not possible for the railway authorities to introduce air conditioned trains between Kandy and Colombo? Replace the old intercity train with a new and comfortable one?
Lack of Leadership
There must be any number of ministers, deputy ministers and state ministers in charge of our public roads and the railway system. Nonetheless, no one seems to be taking action to resolve the issues facing the public on a short-term basis at least? Instead, people who try to go to work, take kids to school, attend medical appointments and other business in the cities, go to university classes etc. have been abandoned in the wilderness leaving TWDs to take control of our roads. Travelling public are left in the wilderness. This is highly unacceptable. The social and economic cost of this dire situation could be enormous to the country. At least the President needs to intervene and find those responsible for lack of action to task.