In time for the 150th anniversary of the day (August 1, 1867) when the first train steamed into Kandy, the National Trust of Sri Lanka has published “Ceylon Railway Heritage.” This magnificently produced book of 208 (A4 size) pages packed with rare photographs and full of fascinating, if arcane, facts, has been sponsored by the [...]


Nostalgic journey into colourful railway past


In time for the 150th anniversary of the day (August 1, 1867) when the first train steamed into Kandy, the National Trust of Sri Lanka has published “Ceylon Railway Heritage.” This magnificently produced book of 208 (A4 size) pages packed with rare photographs and full of fascinating, if arcane, facts, has been sponsored by the Brown’s Group. Its credentials as an authoritative volume are enhanced by the knowledge and reputation of its authors, K.A.D. Nandasena and Vinodh Wickremeratne.

Wickremeratne is known for his enthusiasm for the railways of Sri Lanka, the study of which has been his passion and hobby for 50 years. He turned his interest in trains into founding the Model Railway Club in 1983 and setting up the Ceylon Railways Enthusiasts’ Circle in 2009. In 2012 he started the semi-annual magazine, Lanka Railway Digest. Nandasena, the book’s co-author, joined the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) in 1968, retiring 42 years later as the Bridge Engineer. He brings to this book a hands-on experience of the technical aspects of the railways throughout Sri Lanka.

The combined expertise of dedicated rail fan and astute rail man guarantee the authenticity of this book. But what, I wondered, about its readability? No need to worry! This is a book that can easily be enjoyed in a single sitting (perhaps on a train journey) or to dip into for sheer nostalgic pleasure. It’s factual and serious but with occasional wry comments, such as the photo caption that reads: “The present Rambukkana station unsympathetically painted in recent times.”

Moreover, the authors quietly debunk one of the most famous legends of the CGR: the building of the Nine Arches Bridge at Gotuwela between Ella and Demodara.The tale is that there was no steel available for anchoring the bridge’s support columns to the ground so the British engineers gave up in despair. Folklore claims that a villager, P.K. Appuhami, the contractor for the line’s local labour force, took on the job.

In a book I wrote about Sri Lanka Railways in 2014, I repeated the myth :“Appuhami gathered all his labourers and villagers who began by manhandling large rocks and toppling them into the ravine until they filled up the bottom. He then followed the engineer’s designs, supervising the building of stone columns and arches on the rock bed.”

Nandasena and Wickremeratne expose that as fiction. They have uncovered the plans and an engineering paper published about the building of the bridge, which was completed in 1919, by Harold Cuthbert Marwood, the Executive Engineer, Railway Construction. They point out that he designed and constructed the bridge intentionally without steel, using a method that was 200 years old.

The foundation of all nine arches of the viaduct rest on firm laterite (kabook) stones. The authors state that this magnificent engineering marvel designed by Marwood “made with materials of limited strength and with uncommon materials compared with modern construction materials has stood for over 95 years and therefore needs to be declared a protected monument of Sri Lanka.”

I mention this to illustrate the thoroughness of research as well as the depth of information in this book; it’s no surprise that it took four years to complete. The foreword, by Professor Nimal De Silva, President of the National Trust, states that the National Trust of Sri Lanka was set up in 2005 with the intention of providing a forum for professionals and the general public to subscribe to Sri Lanka’s heritage values. He adds: “The authors, with their lifetime association with the railways, have tried to showcase in one volume the saga covering different facets of Ceylon’s railway to reveal the glorious and colourful past of a bygone era, memories and physical elements of which are rapidly fading in the context of modernisation.”

In this, they have succeeded. Whatever one’s views are about the British occupation of Ceylon, Sri Lanka benefits today from its inheritance of the railway network built by the British. With improved investment, upgrading and maintenance, the railways could play an even greater part in the future prosperity of Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, it is thanks to enthusiasts such as the authors of this book and the National Trust that efforts continue to record and preserve this island’s railway heritage before it rusts into oblivion.

The book takes the reader on a trip not just through the history of rail travel before the railways came to Ceylon but also on a journey by train throughout Sri Lanka. The known facts are remembered, such as “the main line ascends from almost sea level to the summit of 6,226 feet at Pattipola, the highest point reached by any 5ft 6in broad gauge railway anywhere in the world.” Plus the information that the gradient of 1:44 from Nawalapitiya to Badulla is the steepest anywhere in the world on a broad gauge railway.

But there are forgotten facts too such as the original (1903 to 1948) Uda Pussellawa Railway of 2ft 6in narrow gauge track at Kandapola station, was 90ft higher than the railway’s elevation at Pattipola. We learn also that the trip by train to Kandy 150 years ago took four and a half hours with a fare of six shillings and three pence for Third Class travel; and three times that for First Class.

We are told that the present Colombo Fort station is not the original one, but the third, opened in 1917. (Any centenary celebration planned?) The station for Colombo Fort (to serve the coast line) was at the location of the present Secretariat Halt. It was a timber construction and operated from 1878 to 1883 before the second Fort station was erected behind Lake House and used until mid 1910.

The writing style conveys technical matters in an uncomplicated manner so the general reader quickly feels involved. At times the narrative is startlingly graphic, as when the authors write (about the mainline to Kandy after tunnel 9A): “In contrast to the scenic view on the opposite side of the carriages is an unending canopy of a semi-curved ledge hewn out of the living rock to permit the train to crawl along the precipitous rock surface extending vertically with a thousand feet of natural walling.”

This book has inspired me to try some rail journeys again, before they are modernised. The run from Kandy to Matale sounds intriguing as it is described as “a living museum with columned stations and earlier-patterned semaphore signals…On this line there are several halts serving old style hamlets as there are no other modes of access to these villages.”

Like many rail buffs I am fascinated by steam locomotives and the authors obligingly explain just how a steam train works. Their enthusiasm for diesel locomotives, however, is so infectious they have stirred my interest in historical and current diesel engines as well.

The authors have undertaken a difficult task and done it well, presenting a true picture of Ceylon’s railway heritage. Chapters include “Tea and the Railway,” “Engineering Feats,” “Films, Stamps and Literary Records on the Railway,” “Historical Railway Accidents” and the revealing (and unexpected) “Socio-Cultural Aspects Associated with the Railways.”

The engrossing text is illustrated with some amazing photographs both of old rail scenes and impressive diesel locos. It’s a book for anyone who’s ever been fascinated by trains and will surely trigger new respect and appreciation for this country’s railway heritage.

Book Facts
Ceylon Railway Heritage, by K.A.D. Nandasena and Vinodh Wickre-meratne.
National Trust, Rs 4,000.
Reviewed by Royston Ellis

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