Case Study: Sri Lanka


  • The private bus sector in Sri Lanka consists of 19,000 vehicles, which are independently owned, mostly by single-vehicle Owners. There is a very low level of collective organizational or operational capacity.
  • The National Transport Commission (NTC) regulates tariffs and service standards island-wide and regulates permits for inter-provincial bus routes. Raising standards and monitoring compliance are key functions.
  • NTC has already successfully launched the implementation of Electronic Ticket Machines, currently deployed on over half the Sri Lankan bus fleet.
  • NTC achieved this through a combination of mandating their use, preparing specifications, giving type approval to suitable suppliers, and allowing Operators to directly purchase approved models of their choice.
  • NTC has launched an ITS pilot project on inter-provincial bus services, involving about 70 buses. The core application is automatic provision of location data to the NTC Control Centre using GPS and GPRS units.
  • A similar approach to ETMs has been used whereby NTC prepared the technical specifications and invited suppliers to test compliant devices
  • 7 suppliers have installed compliant systems. Many have exceeded the baseline requirement and installed additional functionality including fuel monitoring, driver alarms, speeding alerts, in-vehicle image capture
  • Subject to successful pilot phase, NTC intends to make ITS installation mandatory as part of the Permit conditions, and to make permanent their Control Centre for monitoring route and service quality compliance.


The focus of the Case Study is the private bus sector, comprising c. 19,000 buses on about 2,400 routes. This sector consists of vehicles that are individually owned, with little concentration of ownership or organization.

The deployment of ITS at the state-owned SLTB is not considered in this Case Study as it would be a conventional implementation of a type is adequately described elsewhere.

Urban and Road Passenger Transportation challenges

The primary challenges in the Urban and Road Passenger Transportation sector are:

  • Managing urban growth and development
  • Developing the economy in both urban and rural areas
  • Major congestion in the urban areas, especially Colombo, with consequent impacts on the economy, air quality, and quality of life
  • Major peak-hour congestion and day-long slow traffic on the approach roads to Colombo from the hinterland
  • Road safety
  • Improving the quality of the road passenger transport for users
  • Transforming the private bus Operators from individual owners with minimal operational organization into a more effective sector
  • Improving the capacity and sustainability of the state-owned SLTB
  • Encouraging sustainable investment in the sector

Objectives of the Road Passenger Transport Stakeholders

The principle Objectives of the Road Passenger Transport stakeholders can be summarised as follows:

National Transport Commission (NTC):

  • Develop the Road Passenger Transport sector in line with the National Transport Policy
  • Regulate the inter-provincial passenger transport routes through permit issuing and monitoring of compliance with the permits
  • Facilitate the development of the private transport operator sector, in particular by facilitating them to achieve new corporate forms and organisational structures better suited to efficient and effective operations
  • Raise the quality of transport operations, vehicles and passenger facilities
  • Facilitate the implementation of new methods and technologies which improve service and operator capacity
  • Ensure the sustainability of the road passenger transport

The principle objectives of the Owners are:

  • Achieve sustainability and reasonable profit
  • Achieve sufficient cash-flow to cover all costs, including vehicle repayments
  • Secure their continued operation within the permit system
  • Optimise the number of trips operated per day, and minimise idle time at terminals
  • Optimise revenue, either through direct collection or the daily rate agreed with operating crews
  • Manage cost items, including fuel, parts and maintenance

Strategies for improvement of Passenger Transport

The strategies for improvement of the Road Passenger Transport sector are detailed in the National Transport Policy. The key items include:

  • Raise the organisational and operational capacity of the private bus operators through restructuring, company formation, and other organisational forms
  • Raise the operational quality, reliability and safety of road passenger transport through published standards, inclusion of requirements in permit conditions, monitoring and oversight
  • Provide the basis for financial sustainability through a tariff setting and adjustment mechanism that recognises and tracks input costs
  • Assist the sector through improved operational facilities, and improved methods of operations management
  • Facilitate the deployment of Electronic Ticket Machine throughput the Sri Lankan bus sector, and other supporting technologies
  • Develop an effective route network that responds to travel demand
  • Provide support for essential services in the rural areas where service might not otherwise be provided

Structure of the Passenger Transport Sector

The Bus Passenger Transport industry consists of the following main Stakeholders:

  • SLTB, which is a state-owned large, formal bus operating Company
  • Private Bus Operators who are individual Owners of vehicles, and which operate independently. While they may be members of Unions or Associations, this is not relevant to their means of organization for business or operational purposes.
  • Private Bus Companies whose Shareholders are individual Owners, and which use buses provided by Owners. This sector is currently in development, in part supported by pilot projects by NTC, and is estimated to account for less than 5% of the private buses.
  • Associations of bus Owners, which play a representative role for the interests of the Owners, but to date do not have any active role in the business or operations of their members.

Currently there are no private formal bus companies owning their own vehicles, which provide fixed-route bus services.

The Private Bus Sector

The private bus sector is mostly provided by individual Operators, each of which own one or more buses. The majority are single vehicle owners, although some may own multiple units, the maximum owned by an individual appears to be about 35.

Bus Operators join Associations on a voluntary basis, there is no requirement forcing them to do so.

The “Operators” are the vehicle Owners, and they are the Permit holders.

Operators engage drivers and conductors by direct arrangement. Two basic arrangements occur:

  • The Operator employs the driver and the conductor on a wage, and they are expected to hand over all of the takings to the Operator
  • The Operator agrees a daily charge for the vehicle, the driver/conductor keep the takings after paying the daily charge

The staff turnover in the sector is high. First, turnover in the profession is high, not least because the jobs of driver and conductor have low social recognition. Second, drivers and conductors tend to move on from their Operator, citing problems of conditions and treatment by the Operators. An NTC study of the sector in 2010 indicated that average stay with an Owner is 3-6 months.

Private Bus Companies

There are some private bus companies, but this is estimated to account for not more than 5% of the industry at present. NTC has supported the establishment of 5 companies through a pilot project, which is ongoing.

These companies have typically 70-130 vehicles, associated with 3-10 routes. These pilot companies are mostly or entirely operating inter-provincial routes. The vehicles are owned by individual Owners, and they are also Shareholders of the Bus Companies. These Bus companies currently do not own any vehicles.

Owner Associations

The two main Owner Associations are the All-Island Private Bus Owners Association and Sri Lanka Private Bus Owners Association. These are representative organisations that have a strong role in projecting and protecting the interests of their members. However, they currently do not play any direct role either in organisation of transport operations or in systems development (e.g. the fare collection systems, ITS)

Organisational, operational and business challenges facing the industry

The primary business challenges facing the industry sector at present are:

  • The sector consists of individual bus Operators, most of whom own a single vehicle, and hence have extremely limited corporate capacity
  • There are not strong organisational or co-operatives structures among the operators, and hence they have very limited operations management or collective resource management capacity.
  • Further, their individual nature does not motivate them towards collective efficiency or resource optimisation
  • Operators have very limited knowledge of the actual daily operations, and hence of cost/revenue drivers, although some Operators have begun to understand the potential of the data available from the ETMs
  • Operators need to ensure full compliance with permit conditions and service/quality standards set by NTC

Previous or Ongoing Studies

NTC has initiated a pilot project for Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL). This has been operating for about 3 months to date on about 70 buses on the southern corridor from Colombo (to Galle?).  Currently, the pilot is only operating on inter-provincial routes, as these are the routes under NTC direct regulation.

NTC took the following steps:

  • developed their Objectives for this ITS system
  • developed functional /technical requirements, similar to the approach adopted
  • invited suppliers to participate in the pilot (discussed further below) and approved them in a similar manner to that already done the ETMs
  • established a Control Centre which currently has the software of all 7 participating suppliers, but will be rationalized following the pilot phase
  • are currently assessing the pilot and developing the approach they will take to utilize the data

The stated objectives are (source: NTC document):

  • To improve the safety of public bus transportation
  • To reduce cost and time incurred to execute manual process of Bus operations monitoring and schedule update
  • To provide a reliable system to track buses with GPS coordinates and speed and other parameters as required
  • To improve efficiency and accuracy of transportation services
  • To provide accurate information on schedule updates to public while generating a very accurate database for NTC to monitor issues/problems of bus operations
  • To provide a seamless communication channel and a collaborative platform between buses main control rooms and main bus depots
  • To utilize a warning system to eliminate or minimize accidents
  • To promote overall discipline in the private bus industry

For the pilot phase, the suppliers have provided the equipment and software at their own expense, presumably on the basis of the potential market that would open to them.

The suppliers have been very proactive during the pilot.

To date, the technology has been performing well.

Principal Functional Requirements and Supplier Response

The basic requirement is for GPS coupled with GPRS. This generates real-time location data that can be relayed back to the Control Centre.

Currently the location is required to be updated every 10 seconds. This is a learning phase and it could be adjusted in the future as NTC gains experience on what is the optimal polling cycle/profile. One consideration is to have access to sufficiently precise location records if there is an accident or other event that requires investigation.

The normal state is that data is transmitted by GPRS. If the GPRS is not available, an SMS should be sent. If the vehicle is out of coverage, the location data should be stored and then transmitted when the vehicle comes back into coverage.  NTC has not specified the amount of memory the devices need to have, (that is the supplier’s judgment call) simply the functional requirements.

The data includes mapping position, speed, and time. The system should be able to identify alert conditions such as speeding and off-route operation.

The baseline approach is to embed the devices in the dashboard, having no interface for the driver.

The suppliers have taken the opportunity to offer additional features. None of the items below is mandatory, it is the suppliers’ own initiative to demonstrate to the Operators that they bring sufficient benefit for the associated cost:

  • Voice communication
  • Panic button
  • Engine status (on/off), which implies an interface with the engine management system
  • Fuel consumption monitoring
  • CCTV, with relay of still pictures- i.e. connecting other devices and transmitting significant quantities of data

This indicates that the vendors are willing to innovate and to show what can be achieved on the basic GPS/GPRS platform.

Currently, the Owners can check the location data for their buses by mobile phone. The suppliers may also offer other facilities.

Current Level of Implementation of ITS or Computerised Systems

NTC has existing computerised systems e.g. for route and permit management, for the Fare Tables required to support the ETMs.

In general, the Operators have little or no IT systems. Due to their independent, single-vehicle structure, there is no basis for having operations management, fleet and inventory management, fuel, payroll or other computerised administrative systems.

Financial Capability of Operator to Purchase and Maintain ITS Systems

The equipment costs for the ITS installed in the vehicles for the Pilot Project are similar to that for the ETMs, about LKR 30-35,000 (c. US$300 per vehicle).

Communication costs are about LKR 400 (c. US$3-4) per month per vehicle, for those not using CCTV (i.e. all but 2 of the units). It is not known what cost differential, if any, there is for the CCTV.

The Operators have been able to finance the capital and operational costs ETMs without any obvious difficulty. The experience with the ETMs has been that most Operators have been able to purchase the units outright, wit some availing of short-term credit (c. 6 months). It should be within their financial capacity to purchase and maintain at least the base-level ITS on the same basis.

For more advanced features being offered by suppliers during the pilot phase, presumably Operators will decide whether to avail of them based on the cost-benefit estimation.

NTC has already included the costs associated with the ETMs in the calculation mechanism for tariffs, and presumably will do the same for the ITS if it is deemed to proceed to wide-scale deployment.

To date, the suppliers have covered the equipment and software cost. In principle, the Operators should pay in the deployment phase. Nonetheless, NTC will consider whether a cost-sharing arrangement should be done.

Background availability of Support Systems and Data

Route data and Fare Tables are already available in electronic format, as they have been required to support the Electronic Ticket Machine deployment.

Security concerns over the recent decades have meant that digital maps, open access GPS and other support tools have not yet been developed and available in the public domain to the same extent as in many other countries. This situation is now changing, and there are now Government-supported initiatives to develop digital maps and GIS for the entire country.

The participation of 7 different suppliers willing to offer a wide range of innovative applications and services to the Operators is clear indication that the technical capacity exists in Sri Lanka to establish ITS.

The experience with the ETMs is clear indication that the maintenance support and back-up can be made available, although it would be necessary to learn from the ETM experience and ensure that there is a sufficient island-wide network of support agents.

Potential initiators/advocates of ITS Deployment

NTC are the primary initiator of ITS deployment, as they have already demonstrated by launching the Pilot Project

In contrast to the Fare Collection systems, where NTC is a facilitator, for the ITS services NTC intend to use the AVL capacity for the following key reasons:

  • Monitoring service provision on the routes
  • Monitoring any unsafe behavior – e.g. speeding
  • Monitoring permit violations – e.g. off-route operation
  • Gathering data for planning purposes
  • Provision of real-time passenger information

NTC intend that their Control Centre would be a permanent fixture at NTC, although the Operator sector may also establish their own operations management capacity.

NTC currently does not carry out active Operations Management, and does not envisage to do so. The NTC roles are that of Regulator and Planner of the services, and they will develop this capacity. Management of the daily services is the business of the Operators.

NTC would also be active in the real-time passenger information facility, which would allow customers to phone in to find out the next bus arrival time(s).

The Owners are agreeable to the ITS deployment, although at this stage they have some uncertainty about how NTC might use the data and whether it is to their advantage.

The drivers and conductors are resistant towards it, even if they have little choice but to accept it. They do not welcome being monitored, and for some they do not welcome that off-route incursions can be detected. Some of the suppliers have offered ‘panic button’ facilities, and such facilities may persuade operating staff that on balance it is to their benefit.

The groundwork has already been set to make it a mandatory condition of Permit that vehicles are equipped to provide location data. This will be introduced in due course.