Ratmalana Workshop: Heart of the Railways | Sunday Observer

Ratmalana Workshop: Heart of the Railways

30 December, 2018
Iron wheels at the yard
Iron wheels at the yard

Thousands of citizens travel by train daily, from every corner of the island. Like any fleet of vehicles the trains too require routine maintenance. The largest railway workshop in South Asia operates at Ratmalana in Sri Lanka, housing an assortment of workshops, covering an area of 56 acres, perhaps a fact not known to many. From the turn off at Kaldemulla Road, the railway ‘zone’ comes into view. The vintage colonial complex with its polished wooden staircase is the office of the Chief Mechanical Engineer W.G. Wickremeratne. This officer is responsible for the complete maintenance of every diesel engine, carriage, goods wagon, oil tank and rail cranes that enter this colossal yard.

Engineer K.G.S. Bandara escorted me to the workshop entrance where we were joined by Supervisory Manager, Lal Ranasinghe. There were many compartments belonging to different trains - office trains, express trains, guards’ compartments and a unique wooden compartment painted light blue in which Queen Elizabeth had travelled to Ambepussa during the steam locomotive era of the Ceylon Railways. We entered workshop 13 - where the wheels take priority. The term ‘heavy workshop’ takes a whole new dimension here as each wheel unit with an axle weighs 1,200 kilograms, while the bogie (the iron under carriage of the engines/compartments) weigh 2,000 kilograms each. Manager Ranasinghe explained, “As you can see there is nothing we can move by hand, everything is heavy. We use two cranes that carry each wheel set and bogie. The crane operator has a crucial duty to pick up each bogie and wheel set and keep it in place for the ground crews to begin work. The two overhead cranes were fixed by the British somewhere in the 1930s and we still use them”. The cranes are amazing to watch. They glide with ease on massive iron beams carrying their heavy loads. This workshop covers one full acre. The high ceiling and brown bricks display British type of architecture. The building itself is a railway relic. Some workers are busy applying grease to the wheels. In a corner are two large hydraulic press machines. These are heavy machines with a capacity of 500 tons, able to remove the iron wheels from the axle.

The wheels are then given a new cover like rim, which is a precision fitting task. The workshop smells of diesel and grease. From here we are joined by Saman Bandara, who is busy attending to the boiler repair of steam locomotive 251.

As I have mentioned previously Sri Lanka Railway takes pride in operating a few steam locomotives (referred to as Yakada Yaka in that vintage era). Saman and his crew have re assembled a boiler unit (mounting). This involves intense labour, performed with much passion. Saman explained, “We deal with heavy repairs of engines. Look behind and notice the M-5C engine which was damaged in an accident. We have to refit the damaged parts. Every process of the repair will go through many workshops”.

The Ratmalana Workshop comprises the following:

Workshop number 9 - deal with rail bus repairs, workshop 10 attend to diesel engine radiators, steam is taken care of at workshop 11 and 12 obliges with the repair of engine bogies. From here we walked onto workshop 13 where the wheels are done, shop 14 is the engine maintenance area, while the examiners check the repairs at shop 15. Four stoke engines are repaired at shop 16, while the road vehicle fleet of the railways is cared for at shop 17 and 18.

Shed number 19 is home to mild running repairs. Carriage body repairs take place in shop 20 where seats and cushions are refitted, windows cleaned and doors readjusted. Workshop 25 gives a facelift with fresh paint. Painting each compartment in accordance to its train class is an interesting job. The yard has a fully powered saw mill at workshop 21, because, in the past, all the compartments were built of wood.

Even today the wooden goods wagons painted black are kept in operational condition. It was good to see women working alongside men. Young women were employed in technical positions. This is the way forward to becoming a developed country. We passed a large tank filled with sodium hydroxide and water. The radiator of a diesel engine is heavy and therefore can’t be carried and washed by hand. It is soaked in this mixture and the water is pressured about to rinse the radiator. An integral part of a railway network is the bridges. Building railway bridges is a challenging task across ravines and rivers. This is where the two massive steam operated cranes - 5728 (displacement 30 tons) and 5841 (displacement 35 tons come to the rescue.

We were fortunate to see crane 5728 in the yard. She had been brought in for a valve repair.

H.L.K. Navarathne is a senior person and an expert in this field. He says, “This is an amazing railway crane built in England, by the company Ransomes and Rapier of Ipswich in 1950. We are proud to keep her in peak operating condition. We take this crane to attend to train engines involved in derailment.

This crane was used to build the railway bridge at Wellawatte”. The steam crane is mounted on a massive bogie, which has an iron jib (the extendable arm) and can rotate 360 degrees. The unit has a separate train engine to pull her to the desired destination. She has a fire tinder (box) where coal and chopped wood is taken. Another tank carries almost 5,000 litres of water. This mighty crane is the first responder to any trail derailment. She has a permanent crew of seven men.

The Railway Workshop at Ratmalana, with nearly 3,000 staff does a fine job, keeping all passenger and goods trains in running condition.

Train commuters must be responsible and use this public transport with respect, without scribbling on compartments, cutting seat cushions or hanging on foot-boards, which add strain on the steps.

Many Asian countries are switching to trains that have automatic door systems. The Sri Lanka Railway can also aspire to this level as they certainly have a talented and skilled workforce. The Ratmalana Workshop does an excellent service, working behind the scenes to sustain and enhance rail travel.