16th January 2000

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With a huff and a puff, let's take a ride!

They come in their hordes to get a glimpse of the steam trains of yesteryear and their modern cousins at the Railway 2000 exhibition
By Udena R. Attygalle

With their lanterns, mirrors and boards displaying the shiny maker's badges, the steam engines that did service in the olden days stood proud, all polished and shining for the occasion. The Colombo Terminus station, the oldest in the country was this week again welcoming rows and rows of people as it once did a long time ago.

But this time it was not weary travellers but enthusiastic onlookers who were flocking to the "Railway 2000" exhibition. The exhibition organized by the Railway Department at the Colombo goods shed opposite the Maradana Technical College took off on January 10 and will go on till the 20th, opening at 10 a.m. and closing at 10 p.m. each day.

As the train engine horns were sounded incessantly by the first few eager schoolchildren, many more made their way towards the rows and rows of "power sets" on display. It was nostalgia at its best for many to see the sturdy iron giants of yesteryear like the class J1 of 1925 (the only one remaining of its kind), standing beside the newer sleeker machines of more recent times like the M2 class Diesel Electric of the 1960s and the W2 class Diesel Hydraulic.

The J1 still plies the Kelani Valley narrow-gauge line occasionally on charter tours.

Next to the engines was the giant "Tamping machine" a real monster which Janath Wijesuriya, Inspector Permanent Way (IPW ) of the Way and Works Sub Department claims "lays down 310 sleepers in one hour!" The US 1 million dollar machine is semi-computerized and requires a six-man crew. "The machine improves travelling comfort by arranging the sleeper as evenly as possible," explained Janath. The machine is only used at night because it takes up rail space. The "recording car" another impressive engine-like machine parked nearby is used to check the unevenness of the track, and is in operation more often.

All the engines and other rail equipment had to be transported to the exhibition site by the Way and Works Sub Department via rails which were dismantled later. The whole operation of bringing down the rail equipment had taken almost one and a half months.

Interestingly there were many models and even mannequins smartly dressed in the various uniforms of the railway. Among the models was one of the Demodara station, on the Badulla route which showed how the railtrack winds horseshoe-like around a hill and then under the station itself in an ingenious method to reduce the otherwise steep incline to a more manageable gradient. Also on show was the radio transmission system of the Railways. As the official from the Radio Division explained, "Although the Railway mostly uses the towers belonging to the postal services for its transmissions, the Railway has two transmission towers of its own; one at Mount Jean, Watawala and the other in Anuradhapura."

The signal system of the Railways Department at present includes mechanical signalling and block signalling in addition to the colour light system. A model of the panel which shows the movement of trains and the signalling points was also on show. The trains were indicated as moving red blobs and the signal stations were represented as orange lights. But officials were optimistic that Sri Lanka would have a fully computerized system in the near future.

And to top it all, was the Romanian-built special carriage brought down in 1981 for Queen Elizabeth's visit.The carriage includes a fully furnished air-conditioned living room and bedroom.

Also of interest is the post office van which is a mobile post office unit which sorts and distributes the mail. It is used mostly on the Badulla night mail train. And if you thought sleeping berths on trains these days are dirty, the first-class sleeping berths with attached toilets should be an eye-opener.

This impressive exhibition should not be missed by anyone with even a slight interest in the railways. After all how often can you get on a railway engine and give that horn a big tug!

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