January 2015


Sri Lanka Railways Sesquicentennial
January 2015




A British-made vintage steam locomotive restored for the 1986 inauguration of the popular Viceroy Special steam hauled train, which is still in service

The railway system in Sri Lanka is now 150 years old, following the sesquicentennial of the day the first train took to the rails under royal patronage.


Words Royston Ellis


The royal VIP who travelled on the first to train to steam into Ambepussa station, 34 miles (55km) from Colombo, on December 27, 1864, was the Duke of Brabant who, a year later, became King Leopold II of Belgium. Not to be out done, the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII of Britain, rode the train all the way to Kandy in 1875. History records he was accompanied by the Duke of Sutherland who, perhaps fulfilling a boyhood dream, took a turn at driving the steam locomotive on its journey.


Railways came to Sri Lanka just 35 years after George and Robert Stephenson built Rocket, which set a steam locomotive record of 29mph on its trials in England. This seems to have given the Kandy coffee planters the idea for a rail link between Kandy and Colombo as a way to transport their crop to the port more quickly. At the time it took about 12 days for a bullock cart to make the 72 mile journey. The Ceylon Railway Company was formed and the first survey for the line was prepared in 1846.


However, it was not until 1861 when the government took over the project and formed the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) and contracted with a Briton, W F Faviell, who had previously built a railway in India, that the project became reality. Three thousand men began working on the construction. In spite of malaria, cholera, monsoon rains, floods, landslides, flying snakes, and having to ford swamps by laying mats of screw pine to support ballast trains, they succeeded in pushing through to Kandy.


The most treacherous stretch was from the 53rd to the 65th mile, where the gradient was as steep as one in 44 for 12 miles. Ten tunnels were cut, the longest being 1,095 feet (338m). The death toll through malaria was heavy and labour was hard to find; workers had to be brought from southern India. With most of the material for the railway having to be imported from Britain, there were many unforeseen delays and increases in cost.


The train that steamed into Ambepussa on the Main Line being built to Kandy, is always referred to as the "First Train" but public services did not start until October 2, 1865. The first engine to steam into Kandy two years later was manufactured in England by R Stephenson & Co (the same company behind the Rocket). The passenger coaches were uncomfortable, four-wheeled carriages, the only luxuries being projecting sun shades, bonnet-type sun ventilation, glass drop windows and a double roof with coconut oil lamps.


The railway opened 11 years after the first line operated in India. The journey from the seaport of Colombo to the former hill country kingdom of Kandy had taken 22 years from the original idea and the launching of the Ceylon Railway Company. Yet it came just 52 years after the once unconquerable city of Kandy had fallen to the British.

Steam locomotives came to be known in the vernacular as Yakada yaka...the words mean ‘iron devil’...
A correspondent of the Observer newspaper who witnessed the arrival of the first official train into Kandy reported, ‘When the locomotive appeared, there was a tremendous excitement and the mob...cheered most lustily and vociferously, trying with might and main to drown the shrill scream of the iron horse whose wild and unearthly snortings were echoed and re-echoed in the surrounding hills.'


Steam locomotives came to be known in the vernacular as Yakada yaka. Although the words mean ‘iron devil' in Sinhala, they are also appropriately onomatopoeic, capturing the sound of the engines and carriages as they gathered speed and rhythm, and rattled over the joints in the track: yakada yaka...yakada yaka.


In an unexpected coincidence that was to have everlasting consequences, the first steam train reached Kandy in the same year that a planter, James Taylor, harvested the first commercial crop of tea to be grown in Ceylon, at Loolecondera, 18 miles from Kandy. The railways and tea developed in tandem, as trains provided the means to get tea to port for shipment overseas, and tea provided the freight that made the railways profitable.


Seeing the success of the railway in generating revenue from freight as well as passengers, CGR invested in expansion. The line from Kandy was extended to Bandarawela, arriving there in 1894. This made it the highest Broad Gauge railway in the world. This was an amazing achievement given the terrain, and involved a gradient of one in 44 and five chain radius curves around hills and boring through tunnels.


Lines were laid throughout the country creating the network of today by the end of the 1920s. After the centenary of CGR in 1964 the fleet of some 225 steam engines was gradually phased out and replaced with diesel powered locomotives hauling carriages. CGR became SLR (Sri Lanka Railways) and introduced Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) where the engine and the carriages are combined in sleek power sets.


As SLR enters its 151st year, development of the network, begun in 2005 in response to the vision of HE Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka, for improving the nation's transport system, continues to bring the railways of Sri Lanka in line with the future. The stabilisation of the Coast Line from Colombo to Matara with concrete sleepers replacing wooden ones, and the re-construction of the line to Jaffna, closed for nearly 30 years, are part of the improvements since 2005.


An extension of the line is being built from Matara to Beliatta on the way to Kataragama in the South and a network of monorails to serve Colombo is planned, as well as electrification of the line from Kalutara to Veyangoda. Those 19th Century pioneering royal passengers would surely approve of these modern Presidential initiatives.

 

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    A museum piece: the steam locomotive designed by Richard Trevithick in 1804

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    One of two vintage steam locomotives on display at the Colombo Railway Museum. This previously worked as a shunting engine at the Colombo Port

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    The old Colombo Terminus station has been turned into a museum and on display is this Narrow Gauge crane with two vintage steam locomotives in the background

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    The Railway Museum, Colombo

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    George Stephenson one of the brothers who, in 1829 in England, built the pioneering Rocket steam engine

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    Robert Stephenson, one of the two brothers whose company manufactured many steam engines

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    Richard Trevithick, builder in 1804 of the first working steam locomotive in the UK

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    Two views of the Colombo Fort Railway station in 1950's and 2000

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    The tablet in a purse attached to a hoop, being handed to the driver by the station master at the hill country station of Ohiya, is the confirmation that the line ahead is clear to proceed

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    A souvenir photograph at the Colombo Railway Museum of an M4 diesel electric locomotive, that entered service in 1975

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    A souvenir photo at the Colombo Railway Museum of a diesel electric loco, imported in 1979

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    A locally made rail bus was a novelty when it ran for a short period on the Main Line to Badulla in 1996. A souvenir photo of the railways at the Colombo Railway Museum

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    A souvenir photograph at the Colombo Railway Museum of unusual rail buses at Kurunegala station in 1999

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    A new diesel multiple unit train at Omanthai on the rebuilt railway line to Jaffna, reopened after nearly three decades

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    A diesel locomotive, Class M 10A passing a train at a Main Line station

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