Annals of rail transport
by Chandra Edirisuriya
From the Daily News of
Thursday, 13 December 2001
Engine shed at Kadugannawa and original
Rail transport started in this
country with the running of the first train from Colombo to Kandy on April 26
1867. In due course, the Colombo - Kandy line was extended to Matale, in 1880.
Colombo was connected to Badulla via Peradeniya Junction in 1924, to
Kankesanthurai via Polgahawela Junction in 1905, to Trincomalee and Batticaloa
via Maho and Gal Oya Junctions in 1927 and 1928 respectively, to Talaimannar
Pier via Medawachchiya in 1914 to Puttalam via Ragama Junction and to Matara in
In addition to the broad gauge
railway to the above destinations Colombo was connected with Opanayake via
Ratnapura by a narrow gauge line in 1919. As this line followed the Kelani
River it came to be known as the Kelani Valley (KV) line.
The newest addition to the Sri Lanka Railways fleet of
locomotives, the M9 Alstom engine.
It is significant that the
introduction of the railway into this country and to India was contemporaneous
with its birth in England because the British were keen on having a cheap mode
of transport for passengers and goods in their colonies. The British Government
had opened up vast tracts of land in the low country as well as the upcountry,
by giving it at one rupee an acre, to those who had the money, to grow tea,
rubber and coconut.
Plantation produce was taken
to railway stations, by bullock cart and later by motor lorry, from where it
was transported by train to Colombo to be exported. Passenger transport by the
railway went hand in hand with goods transport and the trains provided three
classes of compartments. The first class compartments were well appointed with
cushioned luxurious seats.
There were also the first
class sleeping berths. The second class compartments were a little less in
comfort and there were also the second class sleeping berths. The third class
compartments had wooden louvre type seats with a liberal coating of French
polish. All compartments were made of Burma teak wood and there were even
wooden carriages painted brick red to transport horses for races at Nuwara
Eliya and Galle.
We, as small boys, liked to
see the horses standing with their heads visible above the neck, through the
window in the carriages. There were even boxes in the guard van to transport
animals like dogs, the doors to which could be opened from outside. Even now
there are wagons for the transport of cattle and goats.
M 7 class locomotive imported to mark the second visit
of Queen Elizabeth II.
The first and the second
classes in the trains were at first exclusively used by Europeans. So much so
when my father and mother travelled for the first time by second class from
Gampaha to Nawalapitiya, around 1930, when my father was the Head master of
Ginigathhena Government mixed school and my mother, an Assistant Teacher, soon
after their marriage, some Europeans on the train had questioned as to how
natives could travel second class.
My father had explained to
them that, as a Government servant he was entitled to second class railway
The locomotives at that time
were steam powered, ranging from powerful double engined garrote class, bison
shaped giants, majestic class A load A locomotives to the smallest shunting
engines. The class A load A locomotives were named after British Governors and
the lesser ones after leading colleges like Ananda College, S. Thomas' College,
Royal College, St. Joseph's College and St. Peter's College.
The last class A load A steam
engine, painted red, was named after King George VI.The first diesel electric
locomotives to be brought to this country were the MI class General Electric
brick red engines, resembling elephants, from Britain and the inaugural run was
from Colombo to Kandy, taking Queen Elizabeth II, by special train, on her
first visit here in 1953. The next year, in 1954 M2 class locomotives made at
Montreal Locomotive Works (MLW) in Canada were brought under Colombo Plan Aid.
My first trip by train was on
the KV line from Pannipitiya to Cotta Road, in 1947, when my father and mother
were at Kottawa Government Mixed School and I was a standard 3 student at
Dharmapala Vidyalaya, Pannipitiya. In 1950 and 1951 when I was at Ananda
College and boarded at 18, Hedges Court my father used to take me home, for
weekends by the 7.35 p.m. Diesel De Luxe, with box spring cushioned seats, from
Maradana to Gampaha.
The Ceylon Government Railway
(CGR) as it was then called, was operating its services very smoothly at the
time. There were no train delays. If a train got late by even two minutes,
explanation was called for from the train crew. So much so I used to travel by
the 6.20 am Badulla night mail train from Gampaha. On Mondays returning to the
College hostel, after a weekend at home and it almost never got late, arriving
at Maradana at 7.00 am.
One day in 1954 as the train
stopped at Maradana railway station and started, on its last lap, to Fort
railway station, a First Class sleeping berth attendant was shouting, holding a
golf umbrella out of the window of the moving train "Mahattaya, Mahattaya Kude
Beriwela" (Sir you have forgotten to take your umbrella). Just then a gentleman
in a well starched tussore suit and tie ran up to the man and took the
umbrella. It was Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike returning, with his
family, after a weekend in Nuwara Eliya.
Coming out of the railway
station I saw their CY series blue Plymouth limousine under the porch.
The long distance trains were
like castles those days with excellent restaurant facilities. The only
complaint was an occasional cockroach in a compartment.Sometime later Chinese
made steel compartments were imported replacing wooden ones and M4 class MLW
locomotives also came in. Power sets were imported for suburban use the first
being those received under the Sri Lanka America friendship program. Later
Schindler Swiss made powersets, Hitachi and of Chinese made followed.
Romanian compartments were
added to the rolling stock subsequently. In the mid 1960s WI Henschel and W2
class, diesel hydraulic locomotives were imported from West Germany and East
Germany, respectively. Krupp locomotives from Germany and Kawasaki locomotives
from Japan were brought for the KV line. Already Hunslett Locomotives had been
imported for shunting purposes. The preference was for the diesel electric type
in view of future electrification and M5 class, Hitachi, M6 class Henschel, M7
class GEC to mark Queen Elizabeth II's second visit, M8 Indian and finally M9
class Alstom locomotives, were imported.
The last mentioned ones are
fitted with two units of 1600 bhp each, engines, ideally suited to long
distance haulage of heavy loads on flat terrain, once Sri Lanka is unified,
once again, to Kankesanthurai, Talaimannar Pier and Trinco-Batticaloa.
The railway was the safest
mode of transportation those days but there is a doubt now about it, because of
the number of accidents in later years starting with the Talaimannar-Colombo
train accident at Wilwatte in Mirigama in 1965, owing to a drunken driver
exceeding speed limits on a bend.
Train delays, uncleanliness of
both compartments and locomotives, sub-standard catering in restaurant cars and
above all the discourtesy and indifference of employees in station masters'
offices, to commuters are the negative factors that detract from attracting
passengers to train travel, even though fares are less than half the bus fares.