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Railways of Sri Lanka

by Raja Fernando - DN Tue Nov 11 2003



The legendary M1 on an up-country passenger run

With the British domination the first sod was cut and the present population enjoy 80 per cent of their railway network. Firstly please enjoy the undernoted amended song which I had heard when I lived with an uncle of mine in 1960 onwards who was at that time the Operating Superintendent of the Railway J. Mervin Dharmaratne, a locomotive engineer resident at Pentreve Gardens, Kollupitiya.

"Mahajana sevaya sandaha venwu dumriya Lankave
Bussu, bussu, handa dii axpress duwa yaii dakunulake
Udaratta yana parae kandugetta hamu wannae
Chukku, chukku, nada dii kalu dumma pimba, pimba
Garettuwak yaii thee wathu athare
Thae kadana liya mohathak wedda navathai kalu dumma atharee
Rail petti dhahatarak addagena dieselayak
Bara, bara gamin duwa yaii Kankasanturai
Thawa avurudu seeyakin supogabohogi raillu sewawayak
Udawe Siri Lake."

I had travelled in several railways in other countries and last of all in September 2003 from Shanghai to Changsha in the Hunana Tea Province. From the Five Star Hotel where I lodged two rail tickets were booked for the 'Soft Class Berth' (1st class).

An English speaking girl was sent from Changsha whom I met in a Chinese tea trade delegation in Colombo during February last to chaperon me by train, where Shanghai New Railway Station had 28 platforms full of human heads more than bees in a honeycomb with difficulty she obtained two seats in the soft class waiting room where the large clock gave in Chinese language the signal to board the train at 3.50 p.m. She and I were the last two passengers to board the train at 4.07 p.m. The ticket gave the carriage and berth number.

We were seated for a short while and there were four beds, up and down, in the berth. Uniformed security moved in a dozen along the corridor. Sharp at 4.15 p.m. the train moved on with 20 carriages consisting of three restaurant cars. In a short time it speeded and on enquiring, a lady security officer mentioned the cruising speed was 145 kilometres per hour. I was the only foreigner in full suit and tie, standing, raising the curtain watching the scenery. Voltage in the train was 230 and all carriages were air-conditioned. There was also a heated stainless steel filter tank for hot water, popular in China.

After two drinks of whisky and soda, from my bottle of Black Label Johnny Walker the chaperon took me for dinner at the restaurant car next to ours.

The cup of soup was full up to the brim but the carriages were rolling at speed with absolutely no oscillation on the run. While in sleep I heard the noise every three seconds takas, takas, very lightly when the under carriage crossed the rails connected with fish plates. Rails in between were welded. Before dinner a lady security officer looked in to the identity cards and my passport; she took the tickets and returned at 6 a.m. the following morning. There were common washing facilities for three in a room where I brushed my teeth and shaved. Next to the toilet was a lady who cleaned the toilet after use and at midnight a man mopped the rubber carpets and swept the woollen ones on the corridor.

Sharp at 7.55 a.m. the following morning the train came to a halt at the Changsha railway station which was the scheduled time of arrival. Ticket fare for one was Yuan 435 = Rs. 4980.

While in sleep I felt the bunk bed was so comfortable in that my modern doubled bed in a master bedroom, overhearing the noise of night locomotives which bypassed the Panadura railway station was of no class to it where comfort was concerned. Foregoing is an account of my travel in the Chinese railway before I write about the CGR (nicknamed Can't Go Right) and now managed by the latest authority but hitherto offers a poor pleasant journey.

A short journey back from Panadura to Aluthgama

Although I am not a rail commuter I had always a liking to travel by train. When Mr. J. M. Dharmaratne was the Operating Superintendent, on his instructions I travelled in the guard locomotive (as I remember manufacturers were Bayer Peacock of Leeds (subject to correction) from Nanuoya to Badulla and back. Going through Pattipola the railway summit and the Demodera Loop I shall remember the experience up to my death.

I was then a young Tea Taster of the George Stuart & Co. the largest British Agency and by passed several estates managed by them. During my young days in the Tea Trade I was dressed in shorts and for this trip on the Ganete I wore a Field Grey Tootal Drill Shorts, a checked shirt and white stockings which I wore daily in Colombo. From 1960 I had a new car bought by my father and often I drove up to Estates managed by the agency.

When I came to live at Panadura the home town of my parents prior to marriage I drove and on certain days I travelled by train to Colombo. Some times when I was late Mr. Gamini Fernando stopped the power set before the North rail gate and I enjoyed a ride on the "Schindler Power Diesel Engine". ten years ago he ascended to Samsara with a small bottle in hand. A good classmate he was.

I heard the Alstom locomotives the purchase of which made Mr. B. C. Perera (Ex Civil Service) to resign from his post as secretary, were being unloaded at the harbour and when these were hauled 20 yards from our office, I had a glimpse of it. Ever since I wanted to have a ride and I requested a railway driver middle of last month to take me up to Kalutara South. He asked me what was the purpose and I said in a jiffy to see how it was being operated. He consented and I got on to the Cab and stood in the middle of the two seats. At the out set I asked how many 'Notches', and where is the brake lever. With computerised dash board he pointed to a small lever-verticle and extent of applying the brakes the driver could see on the computerised dash board.

Prior to the last General Elections, I have heard many rude comments about these locomotives and I defended the procedure of purchase. Initially, I used to drive the car parallel from Moratuwa to Panadura and the maximum speed the engine attained was 80 k.m.p.h. On the run I asked him for the speed and between Beruwala and Aluthgama on the straight track it to touched 78 k.m.p.h.

Several times he slowed the speed at unprotected level crossings. At protected level crossings he could not see the signal operated by the gate man as the foliage was over grown and he slowed until the assistant driver saw the signal clearly. This I would say the wayworks should inform their subordinate staff at railway stations to send a 6 man team on a push trolley with a long ladder, and improvised knives to cut the plantain branches and other trees or shrubs if there are bunches of plantains, also to cut them and enjoy at their homes. However, the SMs should give a note of caution to the driver to horn at bends and particulary look for the Push Trolley ahead. It will last for 4 months and repeat thereafter. The six men should be equipped with raincoats and water repellant caps in case of rain.

Operating the Alstom M9 is easier than driving a road vehicle in present traffic. When compared with steam engines, with the lever, regulator, vacuum brake handle and the vacuum gauge in what comfort could they drive today. The pleasant journey ended at Aluthgama and then I did a right about turn. I would say many thanks for the unknown driver and his assistant, I got another good experience on the last locomotive purchased by the Railway.

Inferences - The track should have sufficient rubble packed with tiny pieces of rock, as spread on the newly tarred roads, since the packing between sleepers is grossly insufficient. If the track is maintained well the locomotives can run at an optimum speed. School days I travelled by train to Ananda College with my colleagues Dr. P. A. de Silva, Prof. of Mechanical Engineering, Katubedda University, M/S Dharmasiri and Hema Weerasinghe (SP) retired early and we saw all these being done by the way and works manually.

I suppose they are partly asleep due to insufficient funds. It is natural that loose packing of concrete wooden sleeper caused a derailment approaching from Colombo, Motatuwa bend, about two years ago.

I was a ticketless traveller in the locomotive and had the presence of mind to purchase two second class tickets from the booking office at Aluthgama to Panadura in order to leave no debt to the railway. It was in my mind, the rail commuters should enrich the railway by purchasing their tickets as this service has to go on for next 5000 years in a third world country.

I awaited the next express and sat in a 2nd class compartment. Next to me was a retired officer from the head office of the Education Department. M4 the Canadian loco horned and pulled off.

The Rumanian Carriage had rusty fans making a racket. Some had been pilfered when parked in railway yards. The locomotive speeded up and I could not converse with the passenger seated next to me because of the huge noise and racket which came through the Damaged Vestibule with large holes on the thick canvass. The auto coupling's massive noise reverberated in the compartment. With the speed the under bogies oscillated so much and I was frightened the compartments would get derailed which can cause a severe accident at high speed.

Inferences - During Mr. B. D. Rampala's time (the renounced G. M. R.) he was instrumental in reducing the oscillation when English carriages were purchased. The play between the flanges and the rail gauge was reduced. I travelled to school in those compartments with absolutely no noise whatsoever seated in the most comfortable seats in the 2nd class. I see daily about 26 or more of Rumanian coaches in an utter state of disrepair when I drive past over the Base Line road. There is a solitary steam engine near a shed which they can cut up and sell or have it repaired and keep it stored as an artifact for the next exhibition.

The Rumanian coaches have in the under bogie shock absorbers which have not been replaced in time. This makes the Railway should not invest on Rumanians as India is a much closer source or even Peoples Republic of China. Chinese carriages we had were very fine riding with the best of springs. Cannot this CME's Department renovate these carriages and put them on the run!

Repairing the vestibules if they import the proper, hard canvas can be done at the best equipped workshop at Ratmalana.

All coaches should be used until they are scraped owing to unserviceability. I have seen the M-8 Indian LOCO, full of power, but the outer metal is getting corroded, while running on the coast line from Puttalam to Matara. In due course CME will have to find a solution for this. General comments

I visited daily the Railway exhibition out of curiosity and enjoyed it, up to the fullest. Other visitors may have thought a crazy Ass has come as I did run up and down by the side of the Little Baby loco which handed small carriages.

If I do get an opportunity I would like to see the Baby Still in Railway storage. Precautions should be taken to counter ticketless travelling by placing two security men or ladies at Matara, Galle, Aluthgama and all other rail heads up country and northern lines with quarters for them.

They will charge the penalty which will add to the revenue and a different to others who travel ticketless.

In order to defray the high cost of maintenance and as bus fares are being increased the ticket price should be slightly increased. If there is a deficit the Treasury has to fund the losses as Rail-Transport has to serve the common masses, as a reliable method of transportation. Please remember commuters are a poor lot.

When I got off at Panadura I surrendered the two tickets and told the policeman that I had a ride in Alstom Loco up to Aluthgama, and when I came home Mrs. Fernando gave me a thorough scolding, So it was better than getting thrashed. Excursion ended and when I got up the following morning after my son had driven to work, as a punishment she had padlocked both sets of gates and all exits of my house locked and keys hidden.

May the recently established railway Authority have a good day and look for better fortunes in the ensuing centuries!

It happened 146 years ago : 

Cutting the first sod of earth for the Railway

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe: DN 2004

A railway for Sri Lanka was first mooted in 1842. Since the British occupation of the island in 1815, the Europeans, looking for suitable investments were much attracted by the mild climate and rich soil found in the upland country.



Cutting the first sod of the Ceylon Railways on 3rd August, 1858 by Sir Henry Ward, K.C.M.G. Governor of Ceylon. Picture courtesy: Rail 2000

Most of the enterprising European planters opened up coffee plantations, having bought Crown Lands at 50 cents an acre. By 1872, the prosperity of the coffee industry had reached its zenith, but with the outbreak of the disease' blister blight' (Hemileia Vastatriz), coffee plantations were abandoned and replaced with tea. The tea plant was first introduced to the island in 1839.

Since the planters were making rapid progress by clearing more and more waste lands, to produce the commercially viable crop tea, they soon felt the need for better transport to haul the bulk produce to Colombo for shipment, a distance of 115 km. from Kandy. The road transport facilities were not only costly but also time consuming. The planters now began to agitate for a railway to haul their produce to Colombo, as it was likely to be an important asset in the development of the plantation industry, and in the unification of the Kandy provinces with the maritime settlements.

The Colonial Governor, Sri Henry Ward (1855-1860), reacted to the idea favourably, and the Secretary to the State for the Colonies was informed about it. In 1845, the Ceylon Railway Company (CRC) was established in England, under the Chairmanship of Philip Anstruther, for the building of a railway in Sri Lanka, first up to Kandy, in fulfilment of the wishes of the planters.

The Company's engineer Thomas Drane, made a preliminary survey in 1846, and he proposed three alternative routes to Kandy. They were Alagalla trace, the Hingula Valley trace and the Galagedera trace. The lowest estimate was Sterling Pounds 850,000.

As a first step, the Government agreed to build a section of the route up to Ambepussa (a distance of 54 km. from Colombo), at a cost of Sterling Pounds 258,795. In 1856, provisional agreement was singed between the CRC and the Sri Lanka Government, to extend the line up to Kandy. The high expenditure alarmed the planters, who agitated for a fresh survey at reduced cost. The surveyor, Capt. Moorsom was assigned with the difficult task of tracing a new route at reduced cost.

Capt. Moorsom came to Sri Lanka in 1857, for the purpose, and he recommended the present trace from Rambukkana to Kadugannawa, (via Kadigamuwa, Beddewela, Ihala Kotte, Balana). Immediately, laying the track began under the supervision of the engineer M.T. Doyne, who worked out the working plan in sectional detail, from the heart of Colombo to the city of Kandy, ascending the Kadugannawa Pass (the only broad-gauge track in the world to make the ascend within short distance, where the wheels of the locomotives bite into the rails to gather momentum).

From Kelaniya to Gampaha (old Henarathgoda), the land was low and marshy, and had to be raised before laying the line with heavy cost. The CRC was keen to push the line through, but it was found that Capt. Moorsom's estimate was far below the expenditure needed.

According to Doyne, 'Heavy and expensive work, such as cutting through solid rock and masses of boulders at the bases of hills and steep embankments over valleys and ravines appeared inevitable'. He was faced with practical problems and needed more money to lay the track. Finally, the contract with the CRC was terminated and the capital subscribed paid off. The Government took over the assets and liabilities of the CRC and the work was handled by the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR).

As the Railway was considered an urgent need, fresh tenders were called to go ahead with the project. The lowest tender was from W.F. Faviell and G.L. Molesworth was appointed Resident Engineer. Later, he became the Director-General of Railways (1865-1871), to be succeeded by J.R. Mosse, Director of Public Works and Director-General of Railways (1871-1882). The first Lankan to become the General Manager, Railways, was M. Kanagasabay (1948-1955). Then came B.D. Rampala, who was unique among others as a capable officer and a locomotive engineer.

It is interesting to note that Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), the son of George Stephenson (1781-1848), the loco engineer, who invented the steam engine Rocket, came to Sri Lanka as a civil engineer to supervise the construction of railway bridges. He had the reputation of building the railway line in Simla, a hill station in North India.

The building of the Kelani bridge near Colombo was a work of magnitude. Originally, this substantial structure of 800 feet in length, was composed of 8 spans of 62 1/2 ft. built on screw piles, and 12 spans of 25ft. on brick piers. Following a heavy monsoonal rain, this bridge collapsed with the engine and crew on September 20, 1872.

The present bridge is a later construction, with a double track, for heavier loading. In 1866, Mahara (now Ragama) and Gampaha stations were completed. The permanent way was pushed to Ambepussa on roughly finished track to run the first train to convey HRH the Duke of Brabant (later king Leopold II of Belgium) to Ambepussa and back on December 27, 1864.

The line was opened up to Polgahawela for both passenger and goods traffic on November 1, 1866. The first tunnel on the Main Line is at Mirigama, and is 274 ft. long. Thereafter, up to Kandy, there are 9 tunnels, the longest being 1,095 ft. Tunnelling is a masterpiece of railway engineering, and their construction with antediluvian tools and equipment strikes wonder.

The railway line was pushed to the top of the incline in December 1866, and the first material train steeped up the incline, puffing and coughing, and reached Kadugannawa on March 20, 1867. The bridge over the Mahaweli ganga and the girder bridge over the Maha Oya, were soon completed, and the final section to link Kandy was laid on April 25, 1867. The first train to Kandy from Colombo, ran on April 26, 1867.

In 1865, extention to Gampola was authorised and opened for traffic in 1873. The section from Gampola to Nawalapitiya had immence engineering problems and it was completed in 1884.

The trace to Nanu Oya from Nawalapitiya was completed in three stages, i.e., from Nawalapitiya to Hatton in 1884, then to Talawakelle in the same year and to Nanu Oya in 1885, and then to Bandarawela in 1894. Bandarawela was the terminus on the Main Line until the extention to Badulla was completed in 1924.

It had taken 30 years to construct this part of the railway line, primarily due to the great depression economywise, caused by the World War I (1914-1918). Secondly, due to the topography of the land which was overcome by the Demodara Loop. Here the line loops itself after circumscribing an adjoining hill-top, and passes through a tunnel under the Demodara station, to emerge far below on a bridge flung across the rocky bed of the Gawara-ela.

On this part of the track at Pattipola (6,226 ft. above sea level) the trains from Colombo descend to Badulla, which have hitherto been ascending the steepy mountains.

Here the dawn of light and civilisation have crossed the dividing range of hills at Pattipola, and the smoke of the steam locomotives was seen all over the bleak and barren plains of the once desolate Uva. The firm Graig and Cockshot, under Oliver Smith, the engineer, worked on the Bandarawela extension, having removed the deadlock at Demodara.

The first locomotive was imported in 1864 (a 4-4-0 type, two-wheeled coupled engine with a tender). All locomotives prior to dieselisation were steam engines, and some of them were super-heater boilers used on the Main Line.

Then there were the Big Bank Engines. Until 1874, several locomotives built by Kitson & Co., John Flowler & Co, Bayer Peacock & Co., ploughed the track. The Garrat Class locomotives (double-engined in front and rear) was introduced in 1928, to eliminate the need for two engines to haul trains up-country, where the gradient, sometimes, is 1:40 (i.e., one foot high to every 40 feet in length).

In 1933, three diesel locomotives were experimented and were withdrawn from service as unsuitable. In 1936, three articulated diesel electric train sets were purchased from English Electric Co., and they were named Silver Foam, Silver Mist and Silver Spray. They operated on the Coast Line. In 1954, Heavy Class General Motors diesel electric locomotives of 1,310 horse power, were gifted to Sri Lanka under the Colombo Plan. These engines were withdrawn from operating on the Main Line due to severe vibration endangering rock falls.

There are 46 tunnels on the Main Line, between Mirigama and Badulla and the longest among them is the Poolbank Tunnel, between Hatton and Kotagala, having a length of 562m. (1,842 ft.), with a curvature in the middle, so that one end of the tunnel cannot be seen from the other end. Tunnels and over-hanging rocks on the incline stand as a lasting monument to the genius of the Chief Engineer, Molesworth and to the skill of the contractor Faviell. On this section of the railway, one can see warning boards to drivers, reading 'Beware of Rock Falls'.

At some places, trains run along the very edge of cliffs, with an almost sheer fall of several hundred feet into the abyss below. Sometimes, when a train enters the tunnel near Idalgashinna, there is sunshine, but when it emerges from the other end, there are clouds laden with mist. The Idalgashinna Railway station is by the very precipice overlooking the distant landscape below.

A Railway for Sri Lanka was first mooted in 1842, though the first sod of earth for laying the line was cut by the governor Sir Henry Ward on August 3, 1858, amidst great jubilation of the jeering crowd, i.e., exactly 146 years ago. It was one time the best passenger transport system in the island, with facilities to travel comfortably, specially in long distant trains.

The 1st Class was a luxury and the 2nd Class was the choice of public servants and businessmen. The compartments were well maintained unlike today, which are no better than the cattle wagons.

Today, the Railway has proved to be a white elephant, full of corruption and lethargy, and running at a loss.

On the other hand, derailments, accidents etc., have contributed for heavy losses, including damage to life and property.

In the year 2003, there were 255 derailments and 585 engine failures. In the previous year, there were 104 derailments and 620 engine failures, mostly due to excessive speeding and negligence, on the part of the drivers. Even though damage was done to the rolling stock, the drivers continue to be at work, and sometimes, they are even being promoted as usual.