Through tunnels and rocks on the main line
By Aryadasa Ratnasinghe
The main line of the Sri Lanka Railway (SLR), from Colombo to Badulla (290km) running through the uplands offers the traveller beyond Rambukkana, an unobstructed view of the aesthetic beauty and the delightful landscape of resplendent Sri Lanka.

Royal rail
This marvellous feat of railway engineering that we see today, firstly from Rambukkana to Kadugannawa (21km.), and thence from Nawalapitiya to Badulla (150km) is reminiscent of the skills of the Royal engineers, who with sweat and toil laboured to construct the line. The chief engineer responsible for laying the track on the incline with tunnels and over-hanging rock formations was G.L. Molesworth to whose genius they remain as the lasting monuments. Among the other engineers were C.H. Newton, D.J. Scott, G. Harrison, J. Traill, F.W. Foote, H.Horne and W.J.W. Heath.

There are 46 tunnels of varying lengths on the man line. The first is at Mirigama (84km. long), and from there up to Kadugannawa, there are nine tunnels, the longest being 330km. It is said that the Meangalla tunnel has the voodoo of many fatal accidents. There is a myth about this tunnel that it was the cave occupied by Saradiel (the Robin Hood of Sri Lanka), which the engineers made use of as a smithy for their foundry.

The longest tunnel on the main line is between Hatton and Kotagala, running a length of 562m (1,842ft.). Known as the Pool bank tunnel, it has a curve in the middle, so that from one end, the other end is not visible. It is about 18ft. broad, with more space on one side for people to go up and down. It is a masterpiece of tunnel construction, seen nowhere else in the island.

The plantation workers on tea estates at Kotagala, walk through the tunnel to Hatton town. Most of them walk in the dark having become accustomed to stepping on the sleepers. They usually carry a stick to keep to the rail yet prevent themselves knocking against it.

From Rambukkana, the trains begin their ascent at Hingula, and the locomotives continue to pound the track, with their wheels biting into the rails, to gather momentum on the gradient, hauling the rolling stock behind. On this part of the track, the gradient is roughly 1:50 (i.e., 1 foot for every 50 feet distance). Between Rambukkana and Kadugannawa, the track raises to an elevation of 553m or 1,385ft. It is a remarkable engineering feat for a broad-gauge track, 5 1/2 feet in width, to cover a distance of 21km, to reach such a height.

The main line was first laid to Mahara (Ragama) in 1863, to Henarathgoda (Gampaha) in 1864, and to Ambepussa in 1864. From there, the line was extended to Polgahawela in 1866, to Kandy in 1867, to Gampola in 1873, to Nawalapitiya in 1874, to Talawakelle in 1884, to Nanu Oya in 1885, to Haputale in 1893 and to Bandarawela in 1894. All trains terminated at Bandarawela, until the Badulla extension was completed in 1924 (after a period of 30 years). The delay seemed to have been caused by the economic depression in Europe, due to World War 1 (1914-1918), and other conditions unfavorable, mostly due to the difficulty of terrain beyond Ella, specially at Demodara.

Maiden locomotive
At Demodara, the engineers faced difficulty in laying the track due to the topography of the land, and a steep gradient had to be covered for trains to pass and repass. The problem was solved by looping the track, after circumscribing an adjoining hill, and passing through a tunnel under the Demodara station, to emerge far below over a bridge flung across the rocky bed of the stream called Gawara-ela. Travellers from Badulla can see the station from afar on the hill as they approach the tunnel.

Pattipola is the highest point where the railway passes in Sri Lanka. The elevation is 6,226ft., above sea level or 2,490 m. From this point, trains descend to Badulla, and the pilot engine, which pushed the train from behind, is detached.

After dieselization, only one engine hauls the rolling stock. The steam locomotives that operated on this stretch of land were B2 Class or B8 class engines, in addition to the Nanu Oya Superheaters (B 1 Class), and the big bank engines.

The dawn of light and civilisation crossed this dividing range of hills at Pattipola, and the smoke of the first locomotive was seen all over the bleak and barren plains of once desolate Uva. The engineering firm M/s. Craig and Cockshot, who busied themselves in extending the track to Badulla, were assisted by M/s. Hampdon & Mayes, the surveyors to run the line under difficult terrain.

Over the bridges
Apart from the tunnels on the main line, there is the Sensation Rock between Balana and Kadugannawa, which produces a real sensation of an imminent fall of the engine into the precipice below, which is more than 1,000 ft. in depth. The train runs by the very edge of the precipice by the Lion's Mouth or the perforated rock. Any person standing at a distance away from the track can see the engine taking the bend above the abyss.

Similar to tunnelling on the main line, the early European railway engineers met with innumerable difficulties, as far as bridge building was concerned. The first of its kind was the bridge across the Kelani river, which was very often in spate during heavy monsoon showers.

This substantial bridge was first built to a length of 800ft., composed of 8 spans of 62 1/2ft., built on screw piles, and 12 spans of 25 ft. on brick piers. On September 20, 1872, this bridge collapsed with an engine and its crew due to heavy rain and rising flood waters.

The bridge was rebuilt with 6 spans of 80ft. in the centre, and 12 spans of 25 ft. plate girder deck spans, with 6 span on either end.The main spans were supported on cast-iron cylinders 6 ft. in diameter at the top section and 7 ft. underground. These were sunk to a depth of 50 ft. below the bed of the river to a bearing surface of a structure of sand and large pebbles. The line was duplicated in 1904. Tests carried out by the Bridge Investigating Committee in 1950, "decided that the bridge was safe for existing loading and even for future loadings".

The main line beyond Nawalapitiya has many bridges, sometimes one close to the other (as between Galaboda and Watawala), most of which have been turned out of cast-iron steel, to withstand the weight and vibration.

There are two long bridges, one near Talawakelle station and the other near Nanu Oya station, of solid construction on granite pillars. These bridges, as well as others, have stood the test of time for more than a century, unlike bridges built by contractors at present, which collapse due to weak construction and corrupt practices, as are usual with tender boards.

Mystic beauty
The first locomotive imported to run on the main line was a 4-4-0 type, two wheel-coupled engine with a tender for coal and water. The Garrat class locomotives, with engines in front and rear, was imported in 1928, to eliminate the need for two engines to haul trains up-country over a ruling gradient of 1:44. Until 1874, several locomotives built by Kitson & Co., John Fowler & Co., Beyer Peacock & Co., were running until 1918. The principal suppliers of locomotives were Vulvan Foundry Co., W.G. Bagnall Ltd., Dubs & Co., Neilson & Co., North British Locomotive Co., Hawthorn Leslie & Co., Sharp Stewart & Co., in addition to B2 and B8 Class locomotives for use on the main line.

Diesel locomotives were experimented with in 1933, and in 1936, three articulated diesel electric train sets known as Silver Foam, Silver Mist and Silver Spray were purchased from English Electric Co.,. In 1954, electric locomotives of 1310 horse-power, were gifted to Sri Lanka by the Canadian Government under the Colombo Plan. Due to high power and vibration, they were withdrawn from the main line.

Another masterpiece of railway engineering is the nine-arch viaduct between Ella and Demodara. This bridge is of brick and masonry construction, without any trace of iron, and built to stand the tension of railway traffic.

Those who make their first journey on this lovely line cannot fail to feel enchanted by the alternating scenes of quaint husbandry, glimpses of villages embossed in palms, magnificient groups of tropical trees, and particularly the effect of the deep recesses occurring at frequent intervals, where cultivation extends between masses of grand forests, as the railway ascends into the mountainous Kandyan territory.

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