Journey through progress

The Bus in Ceylon, 1907-1957 was published originally in the Journal of Transport History (Vol. 5, No. 1) in May 1961. Its author, the late F. D. C. Wijesinghe, received his Masters degree in 1960 from the London School of Economics where he studied under Gilbert J. Ponsonby, the doyen of British transport economics of that era.

Mr. Wijesinghe held a number of positions in his long career in economics, in Sri Lanka, the United States and Britain, retiring in 1982 from the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. He later served as a member of the Fair Trading Commission and as chairman of the Chartered Institute of Transport (Sri Lanka). He died on March 6, 2012, one month short of his 90th birthday.

Published here are extracts from ‘The Bus in Ceylon’:

Vehicular transport was unknown in Ceylon in the early part of the nineteenth century. The era of road-building commenced in 1826 with the building of the Colombo-Kandy road. Thanks to the initiative of the then Governor, Sir Edward Barnes, and the skill of the Surveyor-General of Roads, Major Skinner, a magnificent network of roads was spread over the country within two decades.

In 1840 we had a mail coach service between Colombo and Kandy, and it was considered to be the first of its kind in Asia. The coaches made two journeys either way (a distance of 72 miles) leaving the two termini at 5 a.m and 6 p.m. They had seating accommodation for four inside and four on the box seat.
In the 1860s the Government laid down a considerable mileage of railway. The original impetus to railway expansion came from the coffee planters.

Coffee had to be transported to Colombo for shipment overseas while the estates had to obtain their requirements of machinery, manure, and foodstuffs (which were imported) from the port of Colombo. By the end of the century the railway had extended itself throughout the hill-country, and a line to the south, skirting the sea-coast, had also been laid down.

The early busmen

The early history of omnibus transport is the story of a few individuals who risked their all in an unknown venture. One of these pioneers was T. W. Collette. Collette ran a Thorneycroft bus-cum-lorry with solid tyres from Colombo to Chilaw in 1907 and extended the service to Puttalam in 1910.

This coast-line service proved quite popular, and soon he began another service between Galle and Tissamaharama on the south coast. In 1913 he obtained a contract from the Government to carry mails between Badulla and Batticaloa. On this service he ran Benz and White petrol buses as well as steam-driven Sentinels. During the second decade of the century Collette consolidated his business and in 1921 formed a company known as the Ceylon Motor Transit Company.

F.D. C. Wijesinghe

It was in about 1922 that the first bus service was introduced into Kandy. The first buses used in Kandy had a buggy body with one seat which could accommodate about five passengers behind the driver's seat. The rest of the bus consisted of one large compartment which was capable of holding both passengers and goods.

Vegetables and other village produce were brought into town markets when the bus-cum-lorry was coming into town, and on the way back it carried both passengers and shop goods for the village boutiques. Carbide lights were used as headlamps. The side curtains were of canvas, and you could fold them up when they were not in use.

State control

On 31 August 1925 a Commission under the chairmanship of Mr. ]. Strachan, Director of Public Works, was appointed “to formulate a policy for encouraging the economic development of the Island by roads, railways and waterways”. The major part of their investigation was devoted to the railways, but with a view to discouraging the “indiscriminate employment” of omnibuses all over the Island, they drafted a Motor Ordinance which made it compulsory for an omnibus owner to state the route on which he wished his vehicle to ply. They also proposed that certain routes should be reserved and that the privilege, with certain conditions attached, of running buses on these thoroughfares should be put up for tender, the amount realised being credited to the Authority maintaining the road. They recommended that the Railway should “enter into contracts with responsible motor transport contractors to run rail-road services" and that a Traffic Authority should be set up to co-ordinate the different forms of transport. This Authority should also undertake the licensing of motor vehicles and drivers.

When the Commission's proposals were debated in the Legislative Council, Members pointed out that Urban Councils and Local Boards had derived considerable income by licences to unroadworthy buses and “their officers had also added considerably to their perquisites”. The Commission's main proposals were embodied in an Act of Parliament.

Competition on the coast line between Colombo, Galle, and Matara was very severe. The Ceylon Motor Transit Company was the first to operate a regular service on this route, using diesel buses. It was also the first company to introduce insurance for passengers, insuring them with the Royal Exchange. This was a thickly-populated route and soon other companies were attracted to it. Of these the most prominent was Swarnapali Services Ltd., which concentrated on the long-distance runs. I can well remember a journey I did to Matara in 1935. I travelled in a Swarnapali bus - a Ford V 8 - capable of high speeds. Between Galle and Matara it ran a neck-and-neck race with another bus, and I was on pins all the time wondering whether I would be pitched on the rocks or catapulted into the sea.

The fare for the journey from Colombo to Galle (72 miles) which had been 1.50 rupees came down to 50 cents. Men had come into the industry with unduly optimistic expectations, and now they were faced with ruin. Mr. Collette of the Ceylon Motor Transit Company, in the latter part of 1935, called several meetings of bus owners in order to try to persuade them to amalgamate according to a definite plan. The whole scheme was wrecked by jealousies and petty bickerings.

About this time bus rivalry at Anuradhapura led to one owner attempting to murder his rival by firing at him as he was leaving Anuradhapura for Colombo. Again, rivalry between two concerns operating between Colombo and Negombo was so keen that it resulted in the employees of one of them murdering the manager of the other. In view of the gravity of the situation the Government enacted a series of regulations empowering the Licensing Authorities to withhold licences where the safety of the public was threatened. Their object was, however, not achieved because some Licensing Authorities (notably some of the local bodies) were only concerned with augmenting their revenue and continued to issue licences indiscriminately.

Hammond Commission (1937) and after

In view of the failure of the Government’s attempts to control the bus services to the satisfaction of the public, a Commission was appointed under the chairmanship of Brigadier-General E. D. Hammond. The Commission’s terms of reference were wide and included both rail and road transport. It expressed the view that the central control of transport by road was essential, both in the interests of the public and of the road transport industry itself. The Commission was surprisingly modern in its outlook. On the question of the basis on which rates and fares were to be fixed by the Central Authority, it recommended that these should be based on the cost of rendering the services without consideration of the financial needs of the Railway: “That is to say, the cost should allow inter alia for the limitation of the hours of work of drivers, compulsory third party insurance, proper allowance for depreciation and reasonable remuneration for capital”.

The Commission recommended the establishment of a licensing system similar to that in existence in England. The Licensing Authority, in deciding whether or not to grant a licence, was to take into consideration “the needs of the public for transport along the proposed route and the possibilities of the development of the traffic, taking into account at the same time the facilities offered by other means of transport such as the Railway and the desirability of eliminating wasteful competition”.

The Commissioners recommended that the Authority should encourage owners on any particular route to submit joint schemes. The main recommendations of the Commission were accepted by the Government and embodied in Ordinance No. 45 of 1938. The Licensing Authority was to be called the Commissioner of Motor Transport, and an Appeal Tribunal was set up to hear appeals from the decisions of the Commissioner.

The Commissioner's Department was badly staffed, and the task of framing timetables for the different routes proved a difficult one. Once the timetables were framed the old abuses of racing and touting were at first reduced to a great extent, as each vehicle had to leave the stand and arrive at its destination at the allotted time. Unfortunately the Commissioner had no machinery with which to enforce these timetables. Buses began to start late. Very soon it was not uncommon, during slack periods, to find a bus taking as much as two hours to complete a journey of 10 miles, nor was it uncommon for a bus to wait at the gate of an intending passenger for as long as half an hour in order to pick him up.

At first the Commissioner of Motor Transport did not fix the fares on the different routes. In 1940, however, the Commissioner fixed minimum fares for all the routes and made it an offence for any bus owner to charge below this minimum. The minimum fare was, on an average, between one and two cents per mile. Many bus owners evaded this provision of the law by issuing season-tickets at low rates.
Both the Ordinance and the manner in which it was administered were unsatisfactory. Capital and working-hours were wasted owing to the inefficient use of buses. A bus had to wait for hours at the terminus before taking its turn.

Development of State control

Having failed miserably in its efforts to operate a tolerable licensing system, the Government, shortly before the outbreak of the second World War, decided to call in Mr. S. W. Nelson. He was appointed Director of Transport and saddled with administrative duties which left him very little time to study the transport conditions in Ceylon. The war completely changed the transport problem in the island. The problem was now to maintain the system with the vehicles available and the limited amount of spares, tyres, and petrol. Mr. Nelson therefore brought forward his scheme of controlled monopolies.

Mr. Nelson's major achievement was that of effecting the formation of companies to run the bus services. His proposals were incorporated into an Ordinance, No. 47 of 1942. The issue of Road Service Licences was to be so regulated by the Commissioner as to secure that different persons were not authorised to provide bus services on the same section of any highway, subject to certain reservations. He indicated the routes which were to be allocated to the various companies and tried his best to bring all owners into them. A good number of bus owners, however, went out of the business entirely.
One redeeming feature of Mr. Nelson’s system of exclusive Road Service Licences was that the company which was granted the right to operate services on a main long-distance route was also granted the right to operate the short-distance services within that route.

To intensify the reduction in buses which had already taken place, even those in use were not replaced when they went off the road. It was impossible to obtain spare parts to effect major repairs to buses. The Government itself encouraged a reduction in the number of buses in order to conserve its stock of tyres, petrol, and spare parts. About 1,000 buses went off the road during the period of the war, and the number in use in the last year of the war could not have been more than 1250. The people were not willing to put up with this state of affairs any longer. They brought pressure on the Government which, as usual, appointed another Commission. The Commissioner, Mr. Ratnam, turned the companies into “public companies” and made the Licensing Authority act as prosecutor against erring bus companies while he was acting as judge in considering applications for permits. Naturally these remedies failed. The companies merely called themselves “public companies” and continued to operate as before. The new Act No. 14 of 1951 was, to a large extent, a copy of the British Road Traffic Act of 1930, but the conditions of the industry in the two countries when this legislation was enacted were totally different. England had a surfeit of buses; Ceylon was chronically short of them.

Although there were many inefficient operators, there were a few men who, starting from scratch, had made a name for themselves in the industry. There was, for example, Mr. (now Sir) Cyril de Zoysa who operated perhaps the most efficient company, the South-Western, on the thickly-populated coastal strip between Colombo and Galle. There was Mr. K. B. L. Perera, whose North-Western Blue Line ran between Colombo, Negombo, and the surrounding country. There were also men of humbler origins like Mr. M. Jayasena of the Sri Lanka Bus Company, Mr. G. K. G. Appuhamy (better known as “M. Henry”) of the Kandy Town Bus Company, and Mr. B. J. Fernando of the Colombo Omnibus Company who had, by their energy and outstanding business acumen, risen to the top of the industry.

The Commissioner of Motor Traffic frankly admitted in his Administration Report for 1953 that the 1951 Act had failed to bring about those improvements which were hoped for. He attributed the failure of the Act to the inefficiency of the busmen, whereas it was largely due to too much control of the wrong sort. The Government appointed two further Commissions in quick succession. The second of these, under the Chairmanship of Mr. Waldo Sansoni, made some interesting revelations as to the vicious manner in which some of the smaller pioneer operators had been dispossessed of their buses and their occupation when the companies were formed. The Sansoni Commission even went so far as proposing a departure from the principle of giving the absolute monopoly of a route to a single operator.

The Commission's recommendations were, however, never implemented, as in April 1956 a new party, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna under Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, came into power pledged to the nationalisation of the bus services. Nationalisation was a natural consequence of the failure of control.
It is my view that the bus industry flourishes best under two forms of organization – one, a public monopoly like London Transport and the other is competition with the minimum of “economic” control.

In the latter case control should be directed towards the maintenance of strict standards of safety and, perhaps, the enforcement of a time-table. When the State creates private monopolies and then prosecutes them in the courts there is an end of that good will which is necessary if an industry is to flourish. Cooperation is always better than the big stick, and if you ignore the human element in transport you are asking for trouble.

(Reprinted with the permission of Professor Gordon Pirie, Editor of the Journal of Transport History, and Ms. Emma Brennan of Manchester University Press)]

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