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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.