“On paper Sri Lanka has two airports”: Mattala Rajapaska International, the airport without planes

Another busy day at Mattala Rajapaska International Airport. Image: Anuradha Dullewe Wijeyeratne.

If a plane flies into an empty airport, does it make a sound?

On paper Sri Lanka has two international airports. One, Bandaranaike, is long-established, and sits conveniently about 20 miles outside the capital city of Colombo. According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka, it saw over 55,000 air craft movements in 2014, with those planes shipping nearly 200,000 tonnes of air freight and the best part of 8m passengers.

This makes it rather busy for a single runway airport. So, around a decade ago, the government of president Mahinda Rajapaska (2005-15) authorised the building of a second international airport to relieve the pressure on Bandaranaike.

Ballyhooed as a greenfield project, and an opportunity to demonstrate the expertise of homegrown Sri Lankan engineers, the second airport was built to strict international standards, under advice from the International Civil Aviation Organisation. It cost $200m to build, and is currently costing the government 2.5bn Sri Lankan rupees a year in debt payments to its Chinese creditors. It’s compatible with the world’s largest passenger aircraft, and has a projected capacity of 5m travellers a year.

There’s only one problem: almost literally nobody is using it.

A right royal mess

Located near the proposed Hambotota Sport City, earmarked as the site for Sri Lanka’s bid for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the project was seen as a catalyst for the economic regeneration of a poor agricultural area, principally known to Sri Lankans as the birthplace of the warrior king Dutugemunu (161BC-137BC), a sort of Sinhalese Henry V.

The existing Bandaranaike airport was named in honour of the political dynasty of same name. SWRD Bandaranaike, founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Prime Minister from 1956-59, died in office, assassinated by a Buddhist monk. A year later, his widow followed him into that office winning election by a landslide, and in the process becoming the world’s first female Prime Minister. Their daughter Chandrika would be elected President in 1994; their son Anura has variously been a minister, speaker of the parliament and leader of the opposition.


Perhaps inspired by this tradition, Rajapaska’s government decided to name the new airport after another influential Sri Lankan political family: his own.

That probably made some sort of sense in the abstract: Hambotota is the President’s home district. Earlier plans, vetoed on environmental grounds, had been for the military airport at Weerawila to be converted into an international hub (Weerawila being not merely in Hambotota, but the President’s actual birthplace). That airport would have kept a variation on its old name. But with a new location selected, Mattala Rajapaska International Airport (MRIA) came into being.

Unfortunately, the 2018 Commonwealth Games were awarded to the Australian Gold Coast instead. And while the airport was completed, much of it impressively ahead of schedule, estimations of its attraction to international visitors proved wildly optimistic.

Planned rail updates were delayed, and then never happened. MRIA is, as the crow flies, closer to a lot of Sri Lanka’s tourist spots than Bandaranaike – but the lack of transport links makes it an improbable destination for international holidaymakers.

The airport opened in March 2013, a grand occasion in which the President himself was a passenger on the official flight into the airport that bore his family name. Less than two months later, Air Arabia, one of the few international operators to sign up for the airport in advance, quit flying into it.

An Airbus A330-200 on the runway, back when the still showed up once in a while. Image: Sakith GW/Wikimedia Commons.

In 2014 the airport saw 69 tonnes of freight, and just under 21,000 passengers, which between them needed less than 3,000 planes. (And yes, those numbers are definitely right.) These figures suggest it wasn’t relieving the pressure on Bandaranaike at all.

Its figures have likely dropped further in the year or so since. Shortly after President Rajapaska lost his bid for re-election in January 2015 (losing narrowly to the former communist Maithripala Sirisena), the national flag carrier, SriLankan Airlines, abandoned Rajapaska International.

At present, Fly Dubai puts a single plane into MRIA every day – but that service also stops at Bandaranaike, whichever direction it’s going in. Rotana, the Abu Dhabu airline, also puts an aircraft into the airport once a week. It too stops at Colombo on the way there. And back.

This is shame. Anecdotally, people seem to agree that Rajapaska is, in many ways, a superb airport; well designed, attractive and user friendly. It just happens to be somewhere virtually no one wants to go. Or needs to be while on their way to anywhere else.


The white elephants on the runway

It’s not difficult to get the chattering classes to talk about MRIA. Everyone has a (probably apocryphal) story or a joke, even the former President’s natural supporters. There are endless anecdotes about friends who sat in planes on MRIA’s tarmac for hours as their flight made a box-ticking stopover, during which no one boarded or disembarked (those are almost certainly true); others tell of abandoned planes falling to pieces in the dark (those are probably untrue).

Other hangers, some say, are rented out on the cheap as large stores for agricultural material (quite possibly true). And the place itself is shortly to be closed down or knocked down or turned into a flying school (no idea). The dangers posed to the airport’s small air traffic by migrating birds are discussed (there have been notable bird strikes there). And there are anecdotes about elephants wandering, at the most inopportune moments, across the airport’s runway, because it was inadvertently constructed across a path used by generations of very traditionally-minded pachyderms (pass).

Some people are willing to give the former president the benefit of the doubt, seeing the airport as an attempt to give something back to the poor area where he was raised, an honest endeavour derailed by circumstance, or an attempt to have a concrete legacy unconnected to the country’s long and terrible civil war. Others don’t hesitate to call it a vanity project, misconceived from the start and consistently mal-administered to boot.

Kiri Muhuda, the lake at Kandy. Image: author provided.

MRIA has a long way to go before it becomes as celebrated a white elephant as Kiri Muhuda, a nineteenth century inland lake. The creation of that, involving as it did extortionate cost and huge loss of life, led more or less directly to the deposition of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe and the local aristocracy offering the sovereignty of Kandy province to the British, on the grounds that absolutely anyone else at all would probably be nicer. Two hundred years on, Kiri Muhuda is a beloved symbol of Kandy and a tourist attraction – despite the probability that the remains of hundreds of that king’s enemies reside on the lake bed, thanks to his habit of having them impaled on spikes in the basin during its construction.

There may be some future for Rajapasaka airport. Cinnamon Air are reportedly to start using it as a maintenance hub for domestic stopping flights between the Hambotota and the capital. Such domestic uses, though, will not be enough to secure the long term prosperity of a large scale international airport.

Somewhere in the government of Sri Lanka, as I am certainly not the first person to suggest, there has to be an official sat pondering: just how do you solve a problem like MRIA?

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become part of the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, agreed in the 1950s and opening in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simple: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.