Magnificent iron maidens of the Ceylon Railway | Sunday Observer

Magnificent iron maidens of the Ceylon Railway

Class JI- KV Line 220
Class JI- KV Line 220

The history of train operations in Ceylon is embellished with colonial charm. As we delve into the domain of railways we are able to trace the pioneering steam locomotives which once jubilantly thundered across the country.

The serene village landscapes were momentarily disturbed as these magnificent iron maidens unleashed the power from within their bosom, and hissed dominantly over the flat plains and salubrious hills.

Their beautiful black bodies glistened in the tropical sun, as their nostrils poured out hot smoke with pride. Her raucous movement and shrill whistle humbled the toughest of men. Her robust grace and unmatched speed captivated the Ceylonese to break into gleeful song, singing “anguru kaka, vatura bibee, kolamba duvana yakada yaka”- which would translate as, ‘the coal devouring iron beast gulps down water and thunders towards Colombo’. With the entrance of these locomotives the transport system would witness a colossal change, as the trains connected our provinces.

Living legends

Today these glorious queens are not seen often. They have been replaced by other diesel electrical beauties. Yet, the iron locomotives are alive and well. They live in semi-retirement at the Dematagoda Hydraulic Locomotive Shed. Under the care of Supervisory Manager K.A.S.Thennekoon these locomotives are maintained in operating condition.

There are three steam locomotives B2B Class 213 (the famous Viceroy Special), Class J1 -220 (from the discontinued KV line) and B1A-340 (Sir Thomas Maitland). I was fortunate to see these steam locomotives undergo their routine maintenance at the CME Yard Ratmalana. Covering an area of 68 acres with 34 workshops this railway yard was once the largest in South East Asia.

Joining me were engineers Sanath Wickramaratne the locomotive specialist with 30 years of experience and Sandun Wimalasena. We passed by a blacksmith’s forge.

The number 11 workshop, venerated by all staff- is where locomotives are serviced. As we entered the air was filled with the smell of grease and oil.

From a distance we could make out the shape of the Viceroy Special. Her sides were open and her firebox tender half filled with fist size pieces of coal.

I was stunned when a tall Englishman suddenly jumped down from the locomotive and said “Good morning I am Aaron Homewood.” Was he an illusion from the colonial era, no Aaron is a British locomotive engineer who had volunteered his time to help with the routine repair. He said, “I am very passionate about locomotives and I’m very happy that these good men of your country are still keeping these engines running. It is indeed a hard task.

British rail enthusiasts are proud of the Sri Lanka Railway. Not many countries still maintain their old engines. This is my second visit to Sri Lanka.”

Steaming to glory

I climbed up the four steps that connect to the massive iron locomotive. This loco has its boiler and chimney in front. The control panel is laced with handles and gauge indicators. The firebox tender on the B2B Class holds 3,300 gallons of water, on level one. The second level parallel to the engine can hold nearly five tons of coal. Eng. Wickramaratne said, “As you can see this was not a cozy job. It required lots of stamina and an alert eye. This locomotive has to be fired (the process of burning the charcoal) almost two and a half hours before the train can leave the platform. These engines had one driver and two firemen. In that era physical fitness was topmost for recruitment. Once the train began its journey the firemen attired in khaki shorts, had to shovel in the coal. There is no canopy for the firebox tender so the two robust men had to endure the weather - hot on the Northern and Southern lines and cold on the hill country line. Likewise, the engine driver had to operate standing; there is no way to sit down as that would obstruct the mouth of the loco where the coal is fed.” The front ‘running view’ of the track was not as easy as looking through a modern S-Class engine with wide windows. The locomotive designers for some reason had kept small windows on either side. Looking through this, one had to first see past the 10 foot long boiler section and then through tiny clouds of smoke. It would have been a challenge spotting all the semaphore signals on the tracks, especially at night. Once the loco was heated and the setting pressure reached a PSI of 150 the spring fixed safety valve would open automatically, giving the loco its famous hissing release of steam. A spark arrester made sure the burning hot cinders did not spill onto the rest of the moving train. Eng. Wickramaratne added, “Today we have the last three experienced drivers for the steam operations, it is a special skill. The driver must know how much steam to release, depending on the load. If he wastes steam, the firemen have to refill and build up the lost steam. Driving these locos comes with passion.”

We walked outside the shed and saw the CJ-1 narrow gauge locomotive, which once ran the KV line. The line has been changed to broad gauge and this locomotive discontinued. Yet she is in excellent running condition and was displayed at exhibitions. A few yards away were the best of these locos the B1-A Thomas Maitland. This is a massive 98 ton locomotive engine. I climbed up with Eng. Wimalasena. The operating space was better than the Viceroy Special. The wheels and pistons were in brilliant condition. This was the amazing loco that once pulled the carriages to Jaffna and Matara. On the Jaffna run the weary crew was replaced at Anuradhapura. In that era the train took 13 hours and 20 minutes to cover the distance of 256 miles from Colombo to Jaffna. On the Matara journey the crew was replaced at Galle.

The first loco to be acquired for the CGR was named Leopold in 1864. By 1953 CGR had used locomotives of various boiler capacities. They were purchased from Hawthorn & Leslie Ltd, John Fowler & Co, Kitson & Co, Vulcan Foundry (Lancashire) and Hunslet Engine Company.

The oldest restored loco built in 1898 the E1 (train number 93) can be seen at the railway museum. In 1951 the last steam locomotive was delivered by W.G. Bagnall Company from Stafford, England.

A reclusive queen

We left workshop number 11 to see a grand old iron queen, the C1-A Garratt engine bearing number 340. I was mildly disappointed to see her still covered in anti-corrosive red paint. Her interior was in need of urgent repair. The Garratt locomotives were first made in 1907 by Beyer and Peacock Ltd, Manchester. The design articulated the locomotive into 3 sections- with the boiler in the middle and two separate steam engines. This prudent design helped the Garratt to navigate her way on mountain tracks in comparison to a rigid body locomotive. Records indicate that Ceylon got her first Garratt in 1924 (H- Class). Today this engine at Ratmalana is said to be the last of three remaining Garratt engines in the world.

The Sri Lanka Railway hopes to restore this once dazzling beauty to operating status. The remaining three locomotives in running condition (at Dematagoda) still sustain that vibrant and glorious spirit of the Ceylon Railways. These iron maidens are very much part of our national heritage. 

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