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Time to look beyond Yal Devi

The last time I traveled by train from Jaffna to Colombo was in July 1975. I was returning after covering for the Observer Lake House, the Northern scene just after Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah’s assassination - Velupillai Prabhakaran’s first terrorist act. Travelling with me on the night mail was the late Stanley Premaratne then staff reporter for the now-defunct Lake House Sinhala daily, Janatha.

We hardly imagined the bullets fired on that fateful July 27 would spark off a chain of events leading to a 30-year long bloody campaign to bisect the island and destroy inter-ethnic relationships.

The events were a sign the Jaffna-Colombo train services would not last long since they symbolized the country’s territorial integrity, which was anathema to the Tigers.

Yal Devi train is back on track. Picture by Iresha Waduge

Now with the LTTE’s crushing defeat and the re-establishment of the rail link and the Tigers destroyed, we may look forward to a return to the old days. But bridging the emotional and psychological chasm, the so-called liberators caused between the North and South will no doubt take a considerable time.

Many Tamil teenagers born in the North beyond Vavuniya and never travelled outside have not seen a train, except may be in films and photographs.

While rebuilding the Northern line the Transport Ministry also needs to give serious attention to a complete overhaul of our railways. A small country like ours faces severe limitations and problems in building new highways, expressways and widening existing roads, especially in urban areas. Construction of flyways is obviously costly, although they may be necessary at certain points.

Instead right from the start our focus should have been on building a modernized railway system - including its electrification. Needless to say, train travelling is not only safer than road transport, but also faster, economical, environment-friendly and helps to ease traffic congestion in cities and suburbs in moving both people and goods. In Europe and Japan, where most citizens own cars, many travel by train to work after parking their vehicles near railway stations in their hometowns.

When the first locomotive of Sri Lanka railways steamed out of the Maradana station on December 27, 1864 it heralded an entirely new era that changed the pattern of Sri Lankans’ lives for ever. At that time the railway extended only up to Ambepussa.

It was the first stage of the Colombo-Kandy railway which was completed by August 1867. The project was hailed as one of the world’s great engineering feats. Japan had to wait five more years (1872) to see its first steam locomotive enter service. There is no question that trains played a major role in the socio-economic transformation of both Japan and Sri Lanka. But our misfortune has been that in developing public transport systems no post-independence government really recognized the great importance of giving priority to railways over other means of travel. They even failed to learn from neighbouring India.

By the time Sri Lanka regained her sovereignty in 1948 over 900 miles of line had been laid throughout the island. Three years earlier World War II had devastated Japan leaving her railways and most of the country’s infrastructure in shambles. Many of her industries were in ruins.

Yet it is our railway system that has been experiencing crisis after crisis whereas Japan overtook us by leaps and bounds many years ago.

Let alone Japan it is unlikely that Sri Lankan trains will ever reach the standards of even of Indian railways unless immediate steps are taken to address the problems that have been plaguing our train service during the past decade.

After the British departed not a single new railway line has been laid. The Kelani Valley line which extended up to Opanayake in the past today ends at Avissawella. (The only improvement is that it has been made a broad gauge line) The Nanu-Oya-Nuwara Eliya narrow gauge railway - which could have served as a major tourist attraction like its counterpart in Darjeeling, India - no longer exists.

It was within the past 40 years that the service gradually began to deteriorate. Earlier, during the two decades years immediately after independence, the discipline and efficiency which the British colonial administration introduced to our railways continued - especially during the administration of the late B. D. Rampala who became General Manager in 1955.

In fact the period that began with his assumption of duties was known as the golden era of Sri Lanka Railways. It was something we experienced first hand as children. Prior to being GMR Rampala was the department’s Chief Mechanical Engineer. It was during his tenure as General Manager that Sri Lanka imported M2 locomotives best suited for long distance trains. After more than half-a-century of use these Canadian-made diesel engines are still in good condition.

The purchase of these locomotives led to the introduction of three new train services - Yal Devi (Colombo-Jaffna), Ruhunu Kumari (Colombo-Matara) and Udarata Menike (Colombo-Badulla) in 1956.

They were all Rampala’s brainchild. Being technically qualified Rampala was able to personally inspect the engines, railway tracks and examine timetables and show drivers how to run the services efficiently. After every long distance journey the coaches were thoroughly cleaned and fumigated.

Station masters were entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining the stations well and making them look attractive. The comfort of passengers was foremost in the minds of the railway authorities.

Trains ran on time and people residing near railway tracks set their clocks according to the movement of trains - a far cry from the present day when railway time tables often earn the ridicule of commuters.

Cockeyed policies, mismanagement, frauds, unwarranted political interference and indiscipline that plagued the department over the years have all gradually contributed in bringing the service to a pathetic state. Critics attribute frequent railway strikes mainly to shortsighted changes made in the department’s salary structure, grading of employees and the method of promotions in 1982.

Although India operates one of Asia’s largest train systems, frequent railway strikes are unheard of there.

Our railway - although obviously far smaller than India’s - has 30 main trade unions and scores of others - a record for any country. And they go strike at the drop of a hat, crippling services as and when they want.

Not surprisingly these lightening strikes have caused immense difficulties to passengers, especially office and factory workers. Angry commuters have assaulted railway employees and damaged station property.

The worst of these work stoppages was when station masters staged a lightening strike over a salary issue a couple of years ago at 2 O’clock one afternoon, leaving passengers stranded on the tracks. And engine drivers staged the most hilarious strike demanding that they be designated as railway pilots! It is no exaggeration to say that improving train services should be on the very top of the Government’s development agenda in the post-LTTE years. It is not that Sri Lanka lacks the capability and skills in developing her railway network. If there is a will there is a way. Our railway workers demonstrated their skill and efficiency by repairing within 60 days the Southern Coastline track which the tsunami almost completely destroyed.

Next year will mark the 100th Anniversary of the publication of one of the best travel guides ever written on colonial Sri Lanka ‘Ceylon along the Rail Track’ by the pioneering landscape photographer Henry W. Cave, first published in 1910 as ‘The Ceylon Government Railway’. Cave stops at very railway station to give a very detailed description of the surrounding area - its people, climate, industries and lodging facilities available for the traveler. It is now high time to think of Sri Lanka along the rail track beyond 2010.


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