I was very interested to find out why the much-discussed old CGR stations along the upcountry railway track were not functioning to the potential of their former glory days. With this in mind, I planned a visit to one of the upcountry stations surrounded by tea plantations.
I conveyed my eagerness to one of my friends at the CGR and he arranged a fact-finding tour for me to Rozella Station, which he thought would be ideal for my requirements. My friend, Udaya Senaviratne, introduced me to the Rozella Stationmaster Sujith Habarakada, who was very helpful and generous in helping me accomplish my mission. Kahadawa, the locomotive driver who was in charge of train number 5 UP, better known as Podi Manike, also gave me very useful tips when I met him at the Nawalapitiya railway station.
The story of the upcountry railway line is a very long tale. Accounts of trains, or the ‘Yakada Yakas’, plying the valleys and mountain ranges go back to the years following the conquest of Kandy. Perhaps the ambitious planters who already had experience in countries such as Assam, with its many tea plantations, were planning to reproduce this image here. But the transport of this produce to the harbour of Colombo for shipping was the big challenge. This finally resulted in the establishment of the upcountry railway line.
I travelled for almost two and half hours from Kandy, heading to the summit while clinging to the left side of Hatton valley, passing the green of the tea plantations as the gorgeous Mahaweli River ran beneath. I reached Rozella station, which is 1,166 meters above sea level, at around 11.30 a.m. Habarakada greeted me and offered me his fullest corporation, lending me his motorcycle so that I could travel to the surrounding areas.
Rozella. What a beautiful yet strange name. It belongs neither to the East nor the West as though it suddenly sprung forth from an enchanting magical box. According to the locals, its previous name was Bin Oya. The name was changed to suit British lips, remarks an elderly man rather sarcastically. At one point in time the station was the central point of commuter and goods transportation in the area.
The station is centred around six large tea estates, namely Rozella, Bin Oya , Templestore, Hydri, Injara and Barcapale. There would have been big demand for this station due to green leaf transportation sometime back. This is evident from the abandoned goods shed, which is now in a pathetic state. Even the road which leads to the goods shed is no longer visible.
What has gone wrong? What happened to this once busy and glamorous station? I was getting very curious now. I came up to the road which was above the station. I started to unravel the mystery. A nicely paved road!
I rode my motorcycle past the factory of Temple Store Estate. A sudden rain started to pour down and I stopped the motorcycle by the side of a small boutique. I then started talking to the owner of the boutique.
I was told that there are six buses travelling between Hatton and Hydri (3 km away from Rozella station) covering 19 km. Rozella is a small bazaar located along this route. The bus fare is Rs. 40 and it takes 40 minutes to reach Hatton from Rozella. In comparison, the train fare is only Rs. 10 and it takes only 15 minutes to reach Hatton by train. It is said that during the good old days people in the area used to plan their movements outside of Rozella based on the railway timetable. There are 25 to 30 trishaws in this area and banks or financial institutions have financed 90% of those.
I was made to understand that around 1-2 trishaws are being seized every month but the same number of new trishaws are being brought back to the area by financing or leasing. This is a clear indication of the oversupply of transport requirements as the repossession of vehicles is done by banks and financial institutions due to the non-payment of monthly rentals.
Defaulting on monthly rental payments takes place mainly due to the lack of income from the vehicle. There is a newly-built temple and old kovil in the area. The chief priest of the temple, Venerable Sugatha Soma Himi quoted the population of the area to be around 2,300 (That consists of 300 Sinhalese and 2,000 Tamils. They all live in harmony. Tamil children too are said to be attending the Sunday Daham Pasala conducted by the priest). A mismatch can be noticed between the availability and supply of transportation options and the population in the area.
There had been a Mudalali by the name of Perera who came from the South shortly before 1970. He is said to have been well-established and had a good rapport with the villagers. It is said that he used to go to India to bring down goods for villagers once a year to be sold at his shop. However, his descendants did not continue the business and the villagers moved to Hatton town instead of Rozella for their necessities.
The improvement to the road network and modes of transportation such as buses and trishaws would have contributed immensely to this cause. Other factors, such as the improvement of facilities in nearby Hatton town, would have paved the way for the villagers of Rozella to move out elsewhere for their shopping requirements.
Taking these facts into consideration, the plight of former glamorous stations such as Rozella could be described as follows. Proper regulations should be implemented when the areas are developed. The existing resources should be considered before local governments plan new projects. The central government should have a better idea of the big picture in any given area.
Similarly, CGR also has to be more competitive. They have vast untapped potential of resources within them. Like the UDA, the CGR can demarcate its boundaries for future expansion and development projects. One such lucrative project will be railway tourism. The writer wishes to focus on this subject with facts presented in his future articles.
(The writer is a member of the Institute of Management of Sri Lanka. He is presently employed as a General Manager of a Licensed Finance Company, registered under the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. He counts almost 30 years of experience in the financial sector out of which 18 years are in corporate management.)