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Sunday, 1 February 2009

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Cameos of the past:

First train on line to Badulla from Colombo

The present generation of Lankans may perhaps know just a little about the history of the Sri Lanka Railway, which reaches back to nearly a century and half. In spite of the administrative changes that could probably have been introduced over the years, the railway service is still the most popular mode of commuter transportation in the country.

It was in 1830 that the railway was first introduced into England when a line was constructed between Liverpool and Manchester. The success of this venture gave rise to railway speculations in India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).

After a great deal of dialogue a company was formed in 1845, which was provisionally registered in England under the name and title The Ceylon Railway Company, providing for a capital of 1,000,000 pound sterling in 20,000 shares of 50 pound each, to build a railway line from Colombo to Kandy, at an estimated cost of 6,000 pound sterling per mile.

In 1846 amidst objections raised by villagers residing along the proposed route, especially the carters and carrier-organizations, who used the old road through the narrow Pass of Kadugannawa since 1825, the surveys went ahead.

The first sod of the new railway was turned by the Governor Sir Henry Ward, on August 3, 1858. In his travelogue “Ceylon Beaten Track (1940)” W.T. Keble describes the historical event thus, “Men in black frock-coats and top hats crowded the railway grounds in Colombo, and the Governor held a silver and ebony handled mammoty, ready to cut the first sod and place it in a beautiful wheelbarrow of Satinwood and Ebony. as it was the early days of photography, the newspapers had urged the public to remain perfectly still for a few seconds at the critical moment so that a picture might be taken.

The photographer disappeared under his black shroud. His hand appeared and removed the cap over the lens, and put it back again. He reappeared smiling. His effort, however, turned out a complete failure.

The most prominent feature in the foreground was found to be the back view of a lady with a most portentous breadth of crinoline culminating in a bonnet of delightful minuteness. Another picture was taken when only ladies who could be kept in order were permitted to be present.”

It was a time when a quick and reliable transport process was in demand, in view of the flourishing coffee plantations in the central mountains.

After some delay with the first contractors, the contract was finally awarded in 1863 to W. F. Faviell, who had the distinction of having successfully completed the first railway in India.

Unfortunately, in the initial stages of the construction a terrible accident occurred in which the Foreman Platelayer and 36 workmen were killed on the spot.

An engine backing a string of trucks laden with earth and workers rammed a trolley which was negligently left on the line by a pay clerk, at the 7th mile post near Ragama.

The line from Colombo up to Ambepussa was ceremonially opened on December 27, 1864 by the Duke of Brabant, heir to the Belgium throne (later King Leopold II) who happened to be holidaying in the island at the time. Many guest invitees, including Sir Henry Ward, participated in the historic journey.

The train was hauled by a 59-ton steam locomotive originally deployed for transporting ballast to the work sites. Leaving Colombo at 9 a.m. the train reached Ambepussa by 12 noon, covering a distance of 54 Km. Passenger traffic from Colombo to Ambepussa commenced in 1865.

It is on record that the villagers of that time stared at the “new monstrosity that had invaded their territory with no signs of excitement, and turned away to the business in hand without showing any particular interest.

Among them none called the engine the water-drinking, coal-eating, jungle-going devil who says h-o-o!” The children squeaking indelight ran down to get a closer look and shouted out, “Uda Rata Meniketa pata-kuda-dheka dheka!” in imitation of its noise. The line was extended to Polgahawela soon afterwards.

The most difficult section up the Kadugannawa Pass was completed 3 years later. This was the stage which baffled the construction engineers, so much so that, they even suggested the use of an additional engine to haul the compartments up with a steel cable, in view of the steep gradient of the line.

It is interesting to note that Robert Stephenson, only son of George Stephenson, inventor of the first workable steam locomotive, was functioning as referee between the Railway Company and the government of Ceylon, at this juncture.

In spite of many set backs, physical as well as financial, Faviell was able to complete the Herculean task, enabling the first train to make the complete journey from Colombo to Kandy, on April 30, 1867, and before the end of year the line was open for passenger traffic.

The precipitous nature of the Kadugannawa Pass provided ample opportunities of enjoying vistas of unparalleled scenery, especially between Alagalla and Kadugannawa stations. Tradition has it that the kings of old used to hurl their political prisoners from the top of Alagalla rock when they had to be executed.

Here across the valley Utuwankanda, once the stronghold of Saradial-Robinhood of Sri Lanka- comes into view. According to the railway history, Saradial was still operating in the area when the railway line was being built.

A cave frequented by him is said to have been used as a smithy during the construction of the Meangalla tunnel, which had been bored 300 feet through the solid rock. This is one of the eleven tunnels on the Colombo-Kandy section.

Before long, steps were taken by the government to extend the line from Kandy to Nawalapitiya and completed the work by mid-1874, and then on to Nanu Oya, which was completed on May 20, 1885.

The construction of the line from Nanu Oya to Badulla was undertaken by the Ceylon Government Railway with its own work force, which took 40 years to complete, and passenger traffic commenced on February 5, 1924.

Pattipola station after Nanu Oya is the highest point on the Kandy-Badulla section, being 6201 feet above sea-level. From here on passing Ohia, Idulgashinna, Haputale, Ella ad a number of stations en-route the track enters the famous Demodera Loop, where it encircles a hill and doubles back completely running through a tunnel 100 feet below the Demodera station before reaching Hali Ela and then Budulla terminus.

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