What is it about Sri Lankan Railways that inspires non-railwaymen to write books about the railways here? There have been several books published in the past 30 years looking at various aspects of the railways. Hemasiri Fernando, the rail enthusiast behind the introduction of The Viceroy Special, has written three. The National Trust of Sri [...]


From Udarata Menike to Rocky Mountaineer; on the rails with a train enthusiast


What is it about Sri Lankan Railways that inspires non-railwaymen to write books about the railways here?

There have been several books published in the past 30 years looking at various aspects of the railways. Hemasiri Fernando, the rail enthusiast behind the introduction of The Viceroy Special, has written three. The National Trust of Sri Lanka recently produced a fine coffee table book “Ceylon Railway Heritage”. I am myself author of three rail books: “Sri Lanka By Rail” published in the UK and the tourist booklet “Seeing Sri Lanka By Train” (both 1994) and “Sri Lanka Railways 150 Years of Service” (2014).

Now along comes “Essays in Railroading” written by a Sri Lankan who lives in Australia and, although he is a Mechanical Engineer, his connection with rail is that of a fan, not a professional. That, however, does not deter Udaya Peeligama as his enthusiasm for railways in Sri Lanka (and elsewhere) has driven him to record his reflections in this slim (132 pages) paperback.

The book’s cover is enticing as it features the steam locomotive B213 (built in 1922 and restored to haul the Viceroy Special) passing under the overhang rock at Kadugannawa known as The Lion’s Mouth. This is an example of why one should not judge a book by its cover as most of the essays are on diesel, not steam, rail travel.

From the book’s preface, we learn that Udaya Peeligama inherited his obsession with railroading from his father who, as an employee of the Post Office in the 1940s/1950s, occasionally worked in the Travelling Post Office vans on the Night Mails to Talaimannar and Badulla. His father’s favourite steam locomotive was the B1 built between 1929 and 1948 and of which 49 were still in service in 1955.

Peeligama recalls his first encounter in the 1950s with the diesel M2, 570 Alberta, remembering it in a maroon and orange livery, not the silver, light blue and dark blue three tone sported by Alberta today. (The longevity of those Canadian diesels is remarkable. Alberta was trapped in Kankesanturai in1989 where it remained until 1997 when it was dismantled and shipped to Colombo to be rebuilt. It was damaged by an accident in Pothuhera but repaired.)

Peeligama caught the gricer (rail fan) bug early. He recalls even before he was a teenager riding from Kandy to Matale in the cab of B4 141 steam loco. He still has a book “Famous Trains of Britain” given to him by an aunt when he was five, and this resulted in a lifetime’s collection of railway books. Although he became an engineer and wanted to join the railways, his career took another track leading to him settling in Australia. This book consists of short articles he began writing in 2009, many of which have been published in “Lanka Railway Digest” or the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka, newsletter.

The book’s first chapter considers the question of which type of locomotive best suits Sri Lankan conditions. The author writes: “The Sri Lankan railways offers unique and arduous operating conditions such as tight reverse curves, 1 in 44 continuous gradients, altitudes of over 6000 ft, etc. Additionally the hot, humid and dusty conditions would test out any make of motive power to the limit.” He also refers to the railways being at the mercy of the stipulations of foreign donor organisations, politics and dishonesty, all resulting in the wastage of millions of scarce foreign exchange and hampering strategic development.

The impact on Sri Lanka of the impressive looking M1, the pioneering Brush-Bagnall diesel locomotive of which 25 were imported between 1952 and 1954, is analysed in the book’s second chapter. Also highlighted is the brilliant contribution of B.D. Rampala, when he was the Chief Mechanical Engineer of CGR, in overcoming difficulties in the loco’s design and the influence of his modifications on similar locomotives used in Britain.

The suitability and fate of the Alstom Prima Class M9 locomotives imported from France in 2000 is probed although the technical detail was too much for a non-mechanically minded rail fan like me to grasp. The author discusses whether the arrival of Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) S12 Power Set trains in 2012 marked the end of the line for locomotive-hauled passenger trains. While understanding the reasons, he regrets their use on the main line, stating, “Nothing beats the grandeur of the ‘Udarata Menike’ blasting its way through the lush tea estates of the hill country”.

In other chapters, the author looks at Electric or Hydraulic Transmission in Sri Lanka, and whether Electro Motive Division (EMD) such as the legendary Class M2 locomotives will make a comeback on Sri Lankan rails. He describes the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) designed locomotives (the M4 Class that arrived in 1975 and are still in service) as “the unsung heroes of Sri Lankan rail”.

In a definitive chapter recalling Garratt, the steam era king of the upcountry line, the author comments, “To train buffs and passengers of an earlier vintage, the term ‘Garratt Locomotive’ conjures up images of mountainous track, winding curves, thunderous exhaust and mighty steam engines.” He proceeds to describe the fascinating history of this magnificent locomotive and its yeoman service in Sri Lanka. He also includes a short chapter acknowledging the importance of the Class B1 steam locomotive as “the workhorse of Sri Lankan steam.”

The account of the Travel Town Railroad Museum in Los Angeles could be helpful for those working to establish the National Rail Museum in Colombo.

A train trip as a passenger across the Canadian Rockies on the famous “Rocky Mountaineer” train is described in a manner that conveys the author’s boundless enthusiasm. This is complemented by an account of driving a diesel locomotive in Australia. “I could feel the power of the beast transferring on to my hand on the throttle and coursing through my entire body…Boy, how thrilling is this!”

“Essays in Railroading” is a satisfying blend of enthusiasm, technical knowledge and memoir to make it a book of interest to everyone, from the kid who wants to be an engine driver to the passenger intrigued by trains and the pensioner recalling railway’s heritage.

To answer the question I asked at the beginning of this review, it seems to me that the urge to write about trains is inspired by nostalgia for a time when train travel was an adventure and fun, not an unpleasant commute.

Book Facts
Essays in Railroading- by Udaya Peeligama

Published by Darshana Marketing Enterprises (Pvt) Ltd.).
Reviewed by Royston Ellis

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