Railway Way & Works: 155 years of service excellence | Sunday Observer

Railway Way & Works: 155 years of service excellence

Tamping machine engine
Tamping machine engine

One of the first branches associated with train operations in Ceylon was the Way & Works division. The first steam locomotive belched and thundered to Ambepussa in 1864. Therefore, this arm of the railway had to be in operation well ahead to prepare the route.

One of the primary tasks of Way & Works is the laying and maintenance of tracks. If there are no railway lines the trains cannot run. In the pioneer era of the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) the hard working men of this division were the daring trailblazers who cut through dense uncharted land. They encountered wild animals. It was these crews who surveyed hills and blasted them to create tunnels. The robust men of Way & Works used pick hammers and spades to dig the soil and transform the terrain into stabilized track beds. Among the train lines the upcountry line with its challenging steep gradient and inclement weather conditions bear testament to the enduring labour of these railway men. In 1864, the first phase of the Main Line was ready from Colombo-Ambepussa. Subsequently, under the visionary initiative of Sir Lindsey Molesworth the first Director General of CGR, the tracks were extended. The track reached Kandy in 1867, Nawalapitiya in 1874, Nanu Oya by 1885 and Bandarawela by 1894. The jubilant Way & Works teams finally reached Badulla in 1924.

One of the engineers who has seen this division grow for the past three decades is Chief of Way & Works, W.P.M. Fernando. The head office of this branch is located a few hundred yards from Lake House. One of the first things that struck me was a massive map of Sri Lanka indicating in detail the layout of the tracks - covering a distance of 1,567 kilometres. Engineer Fernando explained, “We are one of the busiest divisions in the railway. Apart from laying and maintaining tracks we have a specialized bridge building and maintenance branch. In addition, we also construct and maintain our railway buildings. At present we have a strength of 4,178 staff.” Today, the Way & Works division has 4 Deputy Chief Engineers, District Engineers, Bridge Engineers, Permanent Way Inspectors, Bridge Inspectors and Buildings Inspectors.

In addition, the backbone of operations is formed by spannermen, trolleymen, plate layers, electricians, patrolmen and gangers. A ganger is a member of a railway working gang. The patrolmen walk miles on foot inspecting the rail lines for any form of danger. They check for imminent loose stones, earthslips and wash-aways after heavy rains. Any sign of hazard is made known to the Inspector in charge of that line. District engineers are located at Colombo, Galle, Trincomalee, Nanu Oya and Anuradhapura.

Tamping and tunneling

Way & Works has been engaged in laying railway lines from day one. In the early days wooden sleepers were treated with chemicals and placed on the line. Most of these sleepers were purchased from the Timber Corporation. Today, as innovation moves forward the division has begun using concrete sleepers - which are said to last for at least 40 years. Laying new tracks is always a challenge, depending on the terrain and the flow of the desired route.

Today, the Railway is blessed with heavy mechanized engines. The queen of this fleet is the Tamping Engine. A large and powerful mechanical beast, which does the work of many labour crews. The tamping engine is used to pack the ballast (stones) into the tracks to stabilize the track and ensure a smooth train trip.

An enjoyable part of train travel is passing the dark tunnels, especially, on the upcountry journey to Badulla and Matale. The captivating tunnels used to be at Hatton and Kadugannawa.

The railway network has 45 tunnels of various lengths. At present the longest tunnel (615 metres) is encountered on the Matara - Beliatte line near Kekanadura. This construction was done alongside Chinese crews. Interestingly, this tunnel does not go through a rock formation but was brilliantly engineered to slowly invade an earth formation - the tunnel encased the area to stabilize the earth formation.

Rail bridges

One of the sub-branches associated with Way & Works is the Bridge unit located at Dematagoda. With a staff of 170 this is a highly skilled branch that builds new railway bridges and repairs existing ones. In the recent past they have successfully installed bridges at Wellawatte, Dehiwela, Angulana and Unawatuna. They can fabricate and instal bridges up to 60 feet. This branch also has a heavy crane brought down from London in 1950. It is operated by a staff of six men. Thanks to consistent maintenance this powerful crane remains fully operational and has delivered great service to the nation. Using this crane and the human workforce a new short bridge can be laid in 3 to 5 days.

Another task of the Way & Works involves fixing safety gates at level crossings, which are commonly known as boom gates. Generally, at the main stations the station staff operate the boom gate. Many of the permanent gates are operated by men of the Way & Works, outside the jurisdiction of the main stations. In case of train derailments the crews of Way & Works are the first responders. The men of the Motive Power Department would tow away the engine and compartments. The Way & Works division performs quarterly inspections of all railway bridges, culverts, points and crossings.

Going forward

On the wall of the large office are a row of black and white photos. One shows William Cantrell, the chief engineer in 1885. Another is the first Ceylonese chief engineer Clarence Wijesekera. The chief engineer W.P.M. Fernando added, “Much progress has been done in terms of new track laying. IRCON (from India) laid new tracks from Omanthai to KKS. Also from Medawachchiya to the Talaimannar pier. At present we are upgrading the track from Mahawa to Omanthai. In the olden days there were narrow gauge lines to Avisawella. Today, all rail lines are 5 feet, 6 inches - broad gauge. The old tracks had 88 pounds to a yard. Today we have 45 kilograms to 60 kilograms per metre. The height of the track is 172 mm. This is our golden journey since the first steam locomotive left Colombo”. Thus the 4,000 men of this railway division continue to uphold the high standards set by their aspiring pioneers. 

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