With the end of the ‘Eelam War’, the spotlight has now turned to the Northern Province. The on-going joint effort with aid from India, expending over the USD 400 million to re-establish beyond Mankulam upto Kankesanthurai, the destroyed railway service complete with several new railway stations reminds one of the dark years when terrorist activity [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

It’s a rail-long journey

On the eve of the reopening of the Omanthai -Kilinochchi railway line this month, Upali Salgado looks back at the 158-year-old railway saga of human endeavour, tragedy, modernisation, terrorist destruction and reconstruction in this country

With the end of the ‘Eelam War’, the spotlight has now turned to the Northern Province. The on-going joint effort with aid from India, expending over the USD 400 million to re-establish beyond Mankulam upto Kankesanthurai, the destroyed railway service complete with several new railway stations reminds one of the dark years when terrorist activity paralysed the movement of people and their trade between the Jaffna Peninsula and the rest of the island.

New chapter in post-war Sri Lankan Railways: Reopening of the Omanthai-Kilinochchi railway line

In 1972, at the beginning of the war, the LTTE delivered a note to the Signalman’s Cabin at the Gal Oya Railway Junction, informing that no trains should proceed beyond that point. The note had a sketch of a skull and cross bones on it, signifying death. On reaching Gal Oya, the locomotive driver named Peterson, who was in charge of the “goods train” bound for Trincomalee was informed of the LTTE “order”. He initially refused to proceed, but when firm instructions came directly from the then General Manager of Railways, he drove the goods train on with an Army Guard. The train went through deserted territory overgrown with shrub jungle for about two miles, when suddenly the heavy diesel locomotive was derailed and came to rest on a ten foot deep precipice. Fortunately, no-one were injured.

That signalled the beginning of the attack on the Railways. A few years later, came the LTTE’s most devastating attack on the Railways when two bombs exploded inside a crowded ‘office train’ at Dehiwala. Many died, and several hundred were seriously injured. Those responsible for this dastardly attack on innocent humanity were later apprehended and dealt with under the law.

But to go back to the beginning, locomotives designed over the years, some driven by steam and others with diesel or by electricity and railway carriages with varying degrees of comfort have always fascinated both the young and the old. A few lucky enthusiasts have in their homes, “mini Hornby” electrified railway systems, complete with all supplementary features such as rail gates and models of railway stations. 

No story of the Railway could ever begin without a brief reference to that Britisher, George Stevenson, who made and drove himself, the first steam powered locomotive in 1825, covering a distance of 40 miles between Stockton and Darlington, England. That train hauled six “open wagons” with passengers who were lucky to have a free ride. They stood inside the open wagon, all the way! This historic event revolutionised passenger travel and the haulage of goods, which included grain from harvests, and later, soldiers, guns and ammunition during times of war.

Birth of the Ceylon Govt. Railway

In Ceylon, Governor Henry Ward (1855-1860) an Englishman with considerable foresight to develop the colony cut the first sod for the birth of the Ceylon Railway 159 years ago. In 1855, the company had 20,000 shares of £ 50 each and was registered in London. Later, with the growth of the coffee and tea plantations industry upcountry, with sizeable profits earned, pressure was brought on the British Government to purchase outright, the Ceylon Railway Company.

In about 1861, the Ceylon Government Railway became the sole owners of the entire local Railway network. Successive British Governors, Sir West Ridgeway, Sir Henry Blake, Sir Henry MacCullum, Sir Hercules Robinson (locomotives were named after them) improved upon the railway network, beginning from Ambepussa to Kandy, then to Matale, Nawalapitiya, Badulla and also to Chilaw, Matara and Anuradhapura, all within a span of 40 years. 

Railway lore in this country would be incomplete without reference to an interesting, light hearted incident. The first Acting General Manager of the CGR was Gate Mudaliyar G.F. Perera, who in the early 1930’s lived at Wadduwa in a house overlooking the sea. He was a powerful administrator of colonial times. On his orders, the 7 a.m. ‘office train’ from Kalutara to Colombo Fort had to stop in front of his residence to enable the Gate Mudaliyar to to board the First Class compartment! Furthermore, a special platform was constructed to enable him board with ease.

In those days, several members of the State Council and of the Sri Lankan Parliament travelled by train and mingled with the citizens of the country, like the learned Prof. C. Suntheralingam who often met his constituents from Jaffna in the Night Mail. Dr. W. Dahanayake, our one time Prime Minister, too was a train traveller. 

During colonial times, visiting Royalty also travelled by train from Colombo to Kandy, using custom-made furnished compartments. Prince Edward, Prince of Wales of England who visited Ceylon in about 1922, travelled by train. The Royal train consisting of four carriages, was driven by a steam driven locomotive, and had the British Union Jack fluttering in the breeze in addition to colourful bunting. Lord Louis Mountbatten, a cousin of the Queen and also Queen Elizabeth II herself travelled by train between Kandy and Colombo. Lord Mountbatten was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in South Asia during the last World War (1939-46)

Today, the Sri Lanka Government Railway (CGR) employs for about 8000 people handling numerous tasks such as driving locomotives, working as railway guards, ticket checkers, railway engineers at the Loco Repair Sheds, fitters, line foremen, clerical hands, shunters, security personnel, train controllers, station masters, station superintendents, etc. etc. Commuters are familiar with trains such as, the “Yal Devi” to Jaffna, the “Podi Menike” to Kandy and the “Ruhunu Kumari” to Matara.

Some interesting facts

Few people know that the longest Railway tunnel of the CGR is between the railway stations of Pattipola and Ohiya. The “Demodara Loop” is considered an engineering feat as is the construction of the railway overlooking the “Balana Rock Precipice” at Balana on the journey to Kandy. A “narrow gauge” (mini) railway line had been in operation during colonial times operating between Colombo and Opanaike, and also another between Nanu Oya and Kandapola. 

The First Diesel Large size Class “D” locomotives were imported between 1960-65 and the then General Manager, Railways, Mr. Rampala, who modernized the Railways introducing the Colour Light signal system. Today, we do not have electrified “Bullet Trains” in Sri Lanka – perhaps in the years ahead.

This article is a tribute to thousands of Railway employees who, under trying conditions, met challenges in their tasks during the early years, to provide all a comfortable journey.

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