Colonial heritage station chugs on with bright new look

JKH facelift for the historic Kompanna Vidiya Railway Station
By Anandi Jayawardene

Situated in a commercial hub, the Slave Island Railway Station, better known as the Kompanna Vidiya Railway Station, stands strong as a symbol of our British heritage. The area got its name during the British occupation and originates from the Portuguese and Dutch period of administration when slaves, mostly African, were brought here. Since then, the area has evolved into a commercial locale with business establishments, hotels and shopping centres, making it a fitting spot for a central Railway Station.

“The architecture of the Slave Island railway station was similar to that of the stations on the Liverpool-Manchester line and the London-Birmingham line at the time,” says Sirisena Rajapkashe, author of The History of Sri Lankan Railways. This colonial influence in architecture made the Slave Island station the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. Built during the time of Governor Gregory, it was latterly the first station on the coastline route to have a double platform, following the duplication of the coastline from 1913 onwards.

The coastline rail track, initially constructed from Fort to Moratuwa in the 1870's, was gradually extended to Matara. The track was originally designed to cross Galle Face, but due to requests by the public to avoid the promenade, an alternate route through Slave Island was decided upon.

The Slave Island Railway station was built shortly after the construction of the track, on a grander and more elaborate scale than its precursors, the stations at Colpetty and Wellawatte. It boasted a structure - larger, more spacious and architecturally superior to any other station in the country. Contracted to the Francis Dawson Mitchell of Ceylon contractors, the station was modelled on the Victorian style British railway stations.

The station was and still is known for its architectural worth. It remains an emblem of Victorian art, with its stylish arches, intricate woodwork, neo-modern metal installations and the signature mixing of iron and stone. Founder of ‘The Model Rail Road Club of Sri Lanka’ and committee member of the National Railway Museum, Vinodh Wickremeratne believes that the station also “possesses delicate Teutonic and Gothic characteristics, which are unfortunately unappreciated by the majority of rushing commuters, but succeed in making the station truly different”.

It is in this light that John Keells Holdings stepped in to refurbish and maintain the station while preserving its colonial architecture. Launched in 2002, the project aims at restoring the station to its original splendour while modernizing the level crossing, bridge and other amenities within the station. Working on the basis that the station should not be just another amenity to the people who pass by, but more so, clean and user friendly, JKH ensures daily maintenance of the station.

Renovation included the reconstruction of the overhead bridge with additional roofs to the two sides, which has proved to be immensely useful for commuters during the rainy seasons, all benches repaired and painted so that they could be fully utilized during peak hours, the ceiling at the main entrance / ticket counter fully redone, the building re-painted, and lights replaced, ensuring that there is a pleasant appearance on entering the station.

The next phase will involve paving and erecting a gate at the side entrance to facilitate rush hour workers.

JKH hopes to continue maintaining the station at a high standard on a long-term basis. Project work (including repairs and routine maintenance of the building and service areas) is sponsored and implemented by John Keells PLC under the guidance of John Keells Social Responsibility Foundation.
Project Coordinator, Tishani De Alwis said, “At John Keells we are committed to addressing the needs of the people who are a part of our daily lives. Therefore, we decided to maintain the historic railway station which is in close proximity to our Glennie Street head office premises on behalf of the community we serve.

This station has further value since it is one of the oldest legacies of our British heritage.”
Station Master of the Slave Island Railway Station M.A.C. Gunawardene is happy with the facelift. “The facilities and appearance of the station have improved greatly as a result of this project. For instance the reconstruction of the overhead bridge along with additional roofs to the two sides, as well as the benches used by the commuters being repaired and painted, is helpful to the commuters. Also, the entire premises has been painted, with two new name boards and the restrooms are being maintained on a regular basis.”

The station is now featured in many television advertisements and was the venue for the popular “Kala Pola” (annual open air art fair) in 2005. The company has embraced the task of bringing not only convenience to the commuters but also preserving a heritage site for future generations.

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Colonial heritage station chugs on with bright new look


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