Airport trains going nowhere

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Getting to the airport can be a struggle these days – and if you are lucky enough to find a taxi to take you to Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), the cost has more or less quadrupled. But a cheap and environmentally friendly alternative to road-travel is available and could be up and running in a matter of months.

Cast your minds back to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHGM) held in Colombo back in 2013.

Most will remember it as being public relations disaster and a damaging setback for the Commonwealth. It was almost exclusively dominated by debate about the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war and widespread allegations of human rights abuses.

CHGM was boycotted by the Canadian, Indian and Mauritian Prime Ministers. Only 26 out of the Commonwealth’s 53 Heads of State (sixteen Premiers, nine Presidents, and one ruling Monarch) represented their countries. Most damaging for the organisation itself was that the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa as host, became chair-in-office for the Commonwealth for the next two years.

However, some positives did come out of CHGM – most notably in the field of transport. The new airport highway was opened in time for the meeting, slashing journey times between Colombo and the airport from more than an hour to just 25 minutes. One Australian journalist described it, “as good a road as you will find anywhere”.

There was also, briefly, a special rail service from BIA to Colombo to ferry delegates to CHGM.  GM, Railways, at the time, P.P. Wijesekere said, “The passenger service will be much faster than travelling by highway and will be less time consuming.” “Train carriages and engines in use at present would be used for this purpose.”, he added.

The tracks that carried the Commonwealth officials are still there, connected to the main coastal rail line that runs to Colombo and Galle in the South and the Puttalam line to the North. Freight trains still call at the airport, some bringing aviation fuel when it is available.

The existing platform at airport is about 300 metres from the current Departures-lounge and 600 metres from the Arrivals. But it is described as, ‘totally shabby’ and in need of upgrading. Not really, passenger-friendly, but BIA is currently undergoing a US$570 million expansion plan and surely a few million from this budget could be used to complete the final few yards of a proper viable rail link?Probably less money involved than in the alleged bribes and backhanders that have dogged the BIA expansion project.

The expanded airport is due to open in 2024, but that looks like being delayed as the project has just been put on hold as a result of Sri Lanka’s current inability to finance international loans and the difficulties in importing the necessary construction materials. However, this hiatus gives architects and Sri Lankan railways the opportunity to rethink and complete the airport rail line.

If you take the train to Negombo from Colombo Fort, the airport is ‘frustratingly’ close to the rail line. The runway and airliners waiting to take off are clearly visible. It is so close you can practically smell the aviation fuel. The nearest station at Katunayake is only a kilometre away. That is just too far to walk with heavy baggage and anyone attempting the short journey by road transport is likely to face extortionate prices from ‘TukTuks’ – which are anyway banned from entering the airport itself.

Over the years, there have been various plans and proposals for better rail services to and from BIA.

In 2019, the government said it was considering the construction of a new railway line from Katunayake to Veyangoda,with the idea being that tourists arriving at BIA, would be able to travel to Kandy, Badulla, Jaffna and Trincomalee without having to come to Colombo. So far there is no sign of that happening yet, either.

In a supremely Sri Lankan twist, the airport with no passengers or flights looks like it could be the first to be properly connected to the rail network. Two years ago, approval was given to extend the Chinese-constructed railway extension from Matara through Beliatta and onto Hambantota port and airport. It was predicted that the line should be operational by next year. Maybe there will even be some planes landing at Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport by then. If so, it might be a good idea to rename the airport.

By Michael Gregson