Sri Lanka has opened a new railway line, built with China’s assistance, connecting its coastal city of Matara and Beliatta in Hambantota, a move that will boost passenger traffic into the island’s deep south. The 26.75-km long Matara-Beliatta railway extension is the first to be constructed in Sri Lanka since 1948, and it has the country’s longest and second longest railway bridges, measuring 1.5-km and 1.04-km, respectively, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
The new railway line was declared open on Monday in presence of Sri Lanka’s Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Arjuna Ranatunga, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera and other parliamentarians. The railway extension was financed by the Export-Import Bank of China (China Exim Bank) and the contract was awarded to the China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation.
According to Sri Lankan media reports the cost of the project was USD 278 million. A major portion of the construction was carried out by the China Railway Group 5 (CR5) and Sri Lanka’s Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB). China on Tuesday praised the opening of the railway line in southern Sri Lanka. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lu Kang termed it as a major Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in Sri Lanka.
“The railway line is the first railway project contracted by Chinese company in Sri Lanka under the BRI and it is indeed the first railway built after country’s independence,” Lu said, adding that it will make regional transportation more convenient and facilitate local economic and social development. The construction of the rail track from Matara to Kataragama was launched in the year 1991 by former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Sri Lankan news portal Colombo Page reported.
The foundation stone was still visible at the Matara railway station, it said. Sri Lanka was the major recipient of Chinese loans and investments in recent years totalling to over USD 8 billion. The heavy borrowing by Sri Lanka raised concerns over its ability to pay back after Colombo handed over the Hambantota port to Beijing for a 99-year lease in 2017 as a debt swap.
The acquisition of the port by China as a debt swap drew criticism from the US which termed the BRI projects as a debt trap specially for smaller countries.