Remembering the Railway’s Three Sisters | Daily News

Remembering the Railway’s Three Sisters

The Uda Rata Menike passes the Nine Arch Railway Bridge
The Uda Rata Menike passes the Nine Arch Railway Bridge
The prudent railway engineer and general manager of the railways B.D. Rampala came up with the brilliant idea to launch three trains to three popular destinations. These three trains were lovingly known as the Railway Sisters of Ceylon.
When we pause to reflect on the past, it generously offers us a deeper insight to appreciate the present. Travelling by train is a lovely experience that all Sri Lankans enjoy. The dazzling views of the villages, mountains, green fields and beaches will leave you with splendid memories. The beautiful old railway stations are an iconic reminder of the golden days of train travel in Ceylon.

By 1845 the Ceylon Railway Company (CRC) was formed. The new railway projects were full of challenges: there were rocks to be blasted, water clogged lands had to be filled and tunnels to be bored. Railway bridges would spring up in rural areas. In 1861, the Ceylon Railway Company was terminated and the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) formed.

We now fast forward to 1956 when plans were made to enhance train journeys and reduce travel time. The prudent railway engineer and general manager of the railways B.D. Rampala came up with the brilliant idea to launch three trains to three popular destinations. These three trains were lovingly known as the Railway Sisters of Ceylon. These ‘iron maidens’ were the Udarata Menike (Main Line from Colombo to Badulla), Yal Devi (Northern Line from Colombo to Jaffna) and Ruhunu Kumari (Coastal Line from Colombo to Matara). All of these trains were launched in April 1956, on the same day. They operate to this day, with modern changes to both trains and tracks.

Udarata Menike

The Udarata Menike is endorsed by travellers as one of the best railway journeys in Asia, traversing mist-covered hills and lush green tea estates. This 10-hour journey has captivated thousands of schoolchildren. The train negotiates steep gradients adding an aura of adventure. It is testament to the commitment of the CGR men who worked hard to lay rail tracks.

The need for railways in Ceylon was mooted by a request for the transportation of coffee by European planters. The planters pressured the Governor to provide a rail line for transporting their coffee to Colombo. Upon calling for tenders, the selected contractor was W.F.G. Faviell. Building the Main Line was not easy. These lands had to be surveyed and maps drawn. By 1864, the first phase of the main line was ready, from Colombo to Ambepussa. The belching iron locomotive thundered down the tracks, spewing out flecks of charcoal.

Under the initiative of Sir Lindsey Molesworth, the first Director General of the CGR, the tracks were extended, reaching Kandy (1867), Nawalapitiya (1874), Nanu Oya (1885), Bandarawela (1894) and finally, Badulla (1924). The entire mission of laying rail tracks took 60 years. In the 1950s under the Colombo Plan initiative, the Canadian government gave Ceylon her first diesel-powered locomotives. It was one of these powerful engines that hauled the Udarata Menike on her first uphill journey on April 23, 1956. Her passenger coaches were red Astra class carriages built in Romania.

The home base of the Udarata Menike is the Fort Railway Station. Since her inception 64 years ago, she always leaves the Fort Station from Platform No 3. The train covers a staggering 62 railway stations and cruises through 42 tunnels. Of these tunnels, the longest is Pool Bank (locals call it the ‘Singha Malai’ tunnel). It covers 562 metres and is located between Hatton and Kotagala. From Rambukkana the train begins her upward haul. At this point, an extra Pilot Engine is used to push the train from the rear guard’s carriage.

Today, the Udarata Menike is powered by Chinese built Class S12 Diesel engines. The scenic route from Nawalapitya continues up to Watawala, Hatton, Great Western, Nanu Oya, Pattipola, Ohiya, Haputale, Diyatalawa and Bandarawela.

From here, the iron princess gracefully begins her descent to Ella, Demodara and finally reaches her terminus station at Badulla. The Demodara station and its underpass loop are a marvel of Sri Lankan railway engineering.

The Nine Arch Bridge between Ella and Demodara is another engineering feat of that era. With the onset of World War I, the iron allocated for the project was reassigned for British war efforts. Therefore local contractor P.K. Appuhamy had to finish the task with stone, brick and cement. This bridge is 300 feet in length.

Another feature on the Main Line is the ‘tablet’ system. This is an innovative British safety system still in operation. From Kadugannawa the Station Master hands over a ‘tablet’ (a steel disc attached to a hoop) to the Engine Driver. This is handed down in a relay to corresponding stations. It facilitates the movement of the semaphore signal system. Pattipola is the highest point on the Main Line, nestled at an altitude of 6,225 feet.

Yal Devi

Seeing clusters of palmyrah trees rising into the skyline is part of the long journey from Colombo to Jaffna. For decades, the Yal Devi has been a cultural bridge, fostering ties between North and South. There was a need to extend the railway line to Jaffna from Polgahawela. After years of surveying and intense labour, the track was laid. The Jaffna station was built in 1902. The first train reached Jaffna in 1905.

During these early stages of the Northern Line, the entire journey covering 256 miles took 13 hours. There were 83 stations on this line. Almost 50 years after the inception of the Northern Line, the CGR introduced the concept of express trains to Ceylon. On April 23, 1956 the Yal Devi, painted in blue and white, completed her maiden run to Jaffna clocking exactly seven hours. The previous 13-hour journey was now thankfully reduced.

The launch of the Yal Devi express train would change the social and cultural fabric forever. CGR records indicate that during the 1970s, there were almost 6,000 people who travelled to Colombo and Jaffna daily on the Yal Devi, netting the highest revenue to the railways. The Jaffna youth got down bicycles transported on the goods wagon. The Yal Devi also brought patients to Colombo seeking the advice of medical experts. This happens even today.

During the tenure of former President and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, steps were taken to reconstruct the damaged Northern Line. Hundreds of men worked day and night to install the tracks and the signal systems. The Jaffna station was beautifully restored. The project was completed in October 2014, and when the Yal Devi reached Jaffna station, jubilant citizens gathered to witness her arrival.

Ruhunu Kumari

The Ruhunu Kumari is the railway princess of the South. She is the third railway sister. Since 1956, she has connected the citizens of the Southern Province to Colombo. She is the iron star of the coastal line. The coastal line begins at Maradana and moves down to Fort passing through Kalutara, Katukurunda, Paiyagala North and South, Maggona, Beruwela, Aluthgama, Induruwa, Kosgoda, Balapitiya, Ambalangoda, Hikkaduwa, Dodanduwa, Gintota, Galle, Talpe, Ahangama, Weligama, Kamburugamuwa and Matara. Passengers taking this long route are blessed with picturesque views of rivers, estuaries and pristine beaches. In the old days, Europeans had stopped to visit the village of Moratuwa which thrived in the manufacture of furniture. These carpenters also made wooden tea chests. These boxes were transferred by train to the tea estates. Little did the carpenters of Moratuwa realize their silent contribution towards the country’s tea industry.

The large iron bridge signals that the train is crossing towards Kalutara. Passing Beruwela one could see the 122 foot high Imperial Light House. Galle was the once the main town of the Southern Province, and has a large station with a Signal Cabin. Today, the Ruhunu Kumari operates to the Beliatta station. Operating the three trains requires teamwork. The trains are serviced by nine sub divisions - Transport ( includes Guard service), Railway Stores, Stations Branch, Motive Power Sub Unit, Mechanical Ways and Works, Signal Telecommunication, Commercial Section, Security (Railway Protection Force) and Accounts. The railway sisters have served millions of passengers over the decades.