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Tale of the “Yakada yaka”


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“A railway is an absolute and imperative necessity or Ceylon would cease to exist as a coffee producing colony in the face of Brazilian and Javanese competition,” reported British Governor Sir Henry Ward in 1855 to his masters in London.

By D. C. Ranatunga

Coffee was being sent down to Colombo from Kandy in bullock carts and it took several days to cover the 120 km distance. The demand for a railway from the planters to transport their produce to Colombo had started in 1842 but the project had been abandoned due to the depression in 1847 and a financial crisis in England. In fact, a company named the Ceylon Railway Company had been formed in London in 1845. In February 1855, at a meeting of planters held in Kandy it had been suggested that the export duty on coffee be re-imposed for a limited period to finance the proposed railway.

In July 1855, the Legislative unanimously agreed to the Governor’s proposal that a loan of £ 800,000 be guaranteed by the Ceylon Government to the Railway Company. A provisional contract was signed and the work was begun on the railway line from Colombo to Kandy. Amidst much pomp and ceremony Governor Ward cut the first turf on 3 August 1858. The ‘Observer’ reported that “the number of spectators, including the masses of natives who crowded the surrounding cinnamon gardens or climbed the scattered trees to obtain a better view, could not have fallen short of from five to six thousand.” The report added that “the scene, in truth, was a rare combination of the primitive elements of humanity, and of the representatives of progress and of power of rule, firm, but gentle and beneficent.”

The contract with the Railway Company was cancelled when the Company submitted as estimate for £ 2.2 million in comparison to the one made by the engineer appointed by the Colonial Office which was £856,557. In 1863 another London company, Favielle was awarded the contract and the job was done for £ 1.7 million.

Tunneling through

On 27 December 1864, the first train ran from Colombo to Ambepussa. The line to Kandy was opened in 1868. The laying of the first 80 km of the track was easy but the climb from Kadugannawa to Kandy posed problems. Ten tunnels had to be constructed within a distance of 20km. There are 46 tunnels in the main line between Colombo and Badulla. The longest tunnel is the Poolbank tunnel between Hatton and Kotagala. Its length is 562m (1842 feet). It has a curvature in the middle so that one end of the tunnel cannot be seen from the other end.

In the ‘Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon’, the chapter on ‘Railways’ states: “The Colombo-Kandy Railway remains among the great railway engineering feats of the world - a solid and enduring testimony to British engineering skill and ingenuity. Substantially constructed on the broad Indian 5 ft 6 in gauge, with lofty viaducts and a series of tunnel, and rising to a gradient of 1 in 4 in places, the line is a marvel of adaptability. The grandeur of the scenery through which the railway passes enhances its impressiveness. If Ceylon had no other spectacle to offer than this line, the visitor from afar would be well repaid the trouble and expense of the long sea voyage.”

The track was extended in sections until it reached Nanu Oya in 1885. It reached a height of 6,200 feet at Pattipola from where it took a steady down-gradient past Haputale and Bandarawela to reach Badulla by 1921. Meanwhile, the railway to Matara was completed by 1895 and to Anuradhapura by 1904 reaching Kankesanthurai the following year. The completion of the track to Talaimannar in 1914 connecting to the ferry service to South India enabling the import of cheap Indian labour to work in the plantations. A light line using narrow 2 ft 6 in gauge was used for the Kelani Valley line up to Opanaaike beyond Ratnapura mainly to serve the rubber districts.

Right up to the early 1950s steam engines were used. They carried names of British governors for easy identification. Some used names of colleges - I can definitely remember Ananda and Royal and as Anandians we felt quite thrilled during our student days if the train we were travelling in had the ‘Ananda College’ engine!

Evolving engines

Diesel-electric locomotives gradually replaced the steam engines. The first lot was a gift from the Canadian government. Those engines had the different states in Canada for identification. I remember trying hard to pronounce ‘Saskatchewan’! By 1969 the steam locomotives were completely withdrawn.

The ‘Tablet’ which is exchanged at every station was introduced to give the authority for the engine driver to proceed from one station to the next. It ensured the safe operation of trains on single lines as speeds and frequencies increased. The station master in his uniform and cap waits to receive the train and as the train approaches the station, the engine driver hands over the tablet    and picks up the other.

In the early days the signals were operated manually for high level booths built for the purpose. These booths were situated in between stations with telephone facilities to indicate the movement of trains. Colour light signaling and centralized traffic control was started in 1959. The railway telecommunication system has since been modernized by the introduction of VHF/UHF radio telecommunication facility between stations and control offices.


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