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Public Transport of Old Colombo

British 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.

The British government needed to solve Colombo’s transport problems more efficiently. They introduced tramcars and the trolley bus. The tramcar system was introduced in many countries along with Ceylon in the beginning of the 20th century. During this time, the population of Colombo increased. Trams carried over 6.5 million passengers a year.

Trams are commonly included under the wider term “Light Rail”. We all are excited with the proposed LRT but had trams in Colombo from 1899 to 1960.

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.

Just imagine the contribution Trams made for the betterment of Public Transport in Colombo. We dropped Trams, but many countries continued. I have captured this showing an old tram in the run alongside a modern in Europe.


In 1892 the Colombo Municipal Council called for tenders for the construction of tramways in the city. Three years later a contract was signed with Boustead Brothers, a private British company. Work on laying the tracks, overhead construction and the power station commenced in September 1897.

On 11 January 1900 the Ceylon Electric Tramways opened the country’s first tramway for public service with the ‘Grand Pass Route’ being the first section to open, followed by the ‘Borella (Maradana) Route’.

The tramways was eventually brought under Colombo Electric Tramways and Lighting Company Ltd after its formation in 1902, the same company that built the Pettah Power Station. The Pettah Power Station was the second power station established in the country and was used to power the tram network, mercantile offices, government buildings and street lights.

The whole of the track on both routes was relaid with 43 kg (95 lb) rails between December 1905 and August 1907, with all joints being welded by thermite process.

After a tram car strike in 1929, the Colombo Municipal Council took over operations of the electric tram system on 31 August 1944.

The Colombo Municipal Council closed the service on 30 June 1960. This service was

Tram network

The tram network consisted of a single 12 km (7 mi) line which utilised a 42 in (107 cm) rail gauge. total of 52 cars were in service, shuttling thousands of passengers between ten stops on the route from Maradana Station to Borella. The trams used trolley poles and consisted of open “toast-rack” type, and closed centre-entry type.

The average number of passengers carried on both routes in 1900 was 14,529 daily, in 1904 the number of passengers carried was 6,555,905 and in 1905 was 6,555,338.

‘Grand Pass Route’

Fort Terminus (opposite Grand Oriental Hotel), Coal Depot, Pettah Market, Main Street, St Paul’s, Church, New Moon Street, Messenger Street, Grand Pass Road, St Joseph’s College, Grandpass, River Kelani

‘Borella Tramway’

Fort Terminus (opposite Grand Oriental Hotel), York Street, Chatham Street, North Road, Fort, Railway Station, Lake and Royal College, Ferry terminal to Captain’s Garden, Railway Goods Station, Technical College, Pass over railway at Maradana Junction, Police Headquarters, Maradana Road, Borella.

The tram service was stopped completely after the trolley bus service was introduced in 1953.”

Trolley Bus era

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, maintenance costs and also the government policy decisions.

The rest is known history losing both purpose and quality of the public transport system to the sorry status of today.

Just imagine the contribution Electric Trams and Trolley Buses would have made for the betterment of Colombo’s Public Transport and Environment today. Let’s wait until we get the new trams and electrification of the mobility!

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