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Tuesday, 16 November 2010

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B D Rampala :

Engineer, entrepreneur and legend

One hundredth birth anniversary memorial lecture yesterday:

The Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka (IESL) held ‘Eng B D Rampala Memorial Lecture 2010’ to mark 100th birth anniversary of this national icon yesterday, November 15 at the IESL’s Wimalasurendra auditorium at Vidya Mawatha Colombo 7

This year the theme is ‘Successful turning around of Indian railways and lessons relevant for Sri Lanka Railways’, which was delivered by a young railway engineer, Eng Keerthi K Hewavithana - Engineer Headquarters, Sri Lanka Railways.


Eng B D Rampala

Eng B D Rampala is said to have received the accolade ‘the Cleverest

Engineer East of Suez’ after he successfully corrected a technical defect in hydraulic transmission of a batch of locomotives imported to the country when the experts from the manufacturing company failed to find a solution.

In recognition of his originality, talents and skills in the sphere of mechanical engineering, the London Institution of Locomotive Engineers, awarded him a special prize for the ‘Best Technical Paper’ presented before that Institution, that year, at a comparatively young age. In 1956 the Royal Engineering Society of the United Kingdom recognized him as ‘the Best Engineer in Asia’.

Chief Mechanical Engineer

The legendary Bamunuarachchige Don Rampala was born on November 14, 1910. He completed his education at Nalanda Vidyalaya and Ananda College and joined the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) in 1934 after completing his engineering apprenticeship at Colombo University College. Fifteen years later in 1949 he became the first Sri Lankan to be appointed as the Chief Mechanical Engineer of CGR and then in 1955 his career was in full throttle as the General Manager Railways (GMR).

He continued as the GMR for 15 years, ushering in ‘the Golden Rampala Era’ of the CGR. He had a full lease of life and died on June 20, 1994 at the age of 84. He was a Chartered Mechanical Engineer by profession and a fellow of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka. He was made an Honorary Life Fellow by the IESL for leading the Engineering Community in Sri Lanka as the President of the IESL, from 1958 to 1959 and his outstanding contribution to the country.

Sound entrepreneur

First and foremost he was a very good engineer, clever, pragmatic, cost conscious and results oriented. He set the example and commanded the respect of fellow engineers, politicians and the public alike. He mastered engineering to serve the public and was adapt in using engineering knowledge to gain technical and cost advantages that were translated into rich dividends of comfort and economic fares for the public.

He achieved many firsts in the build-up of local ‘Diesel Shunting Locomotives’ at the Ratmalana Workshops; the introduction of ‘Colour Lights Signalling’ with ‘Centralized Traffic Control’ to ease the ‘congestion’ at peak hours in the suburbs of Colombo; the installation of a network of ‘Radio Trans Receivers’ at central and terminal stations within the Railway System, for direct communications pertaining to crucial operating matters and for emergency situations.

At the same time Eng Rampala was a visionary. He envisioned the transformation of the CGR from a facility that served the needs of the colonial masters to an efficient public utility that assured safety, access, reliability, speed, comfort and joy to the public. He introduced ‘Observation Cars’, ‘Long Coaches of 55 feet’ and the provision of ‘Better Seating Facilities’ in our long distance trains. Dieselization of the steam engines and introduction of ‘Long Distance Fast Express Trains’ were also among his pioneering efforts.

Eng Rampala was a sound entrepreneur as well. He had his ‘railway daughters’ Yal Devi, Udarata Menike and Ruhunu Kumari born in mid-1950s and he drove Rhunu Kumari to Matara on its first run. Since then for generations these ever green damsels have been great friends of the Sri Lankan public and tourists. They connected people, did the mileage and raked in revenue. For many decades to follow no child grew in Sri Lanka without imitating the movement of a train reciting the rhyme Udarata Meniketa Pata Kuda Deka Deka with a ‘hooo..... hooo’ in between to produce the sound effects! Many a couple met in the train and tied the knot living happily ever after.

There was a unique ‘railway culture’ enriched during his tenure. Retired Station Master Mailwahanam Vipulaskandha who grew up near the Jaffna Railway Station reminisced to the Sri Lanka Railways Forum about the hustle and bustle of the once busy Jaffna Railway Station and the express train to the North, Yal Devi. “Yal Devi commenced its journey in the 1950s. As a boy growing up in Jaffna, I remember all the commotion which took place at the Jaffna station when the Yal Devi arrived,” he said. “In its heyday, Jaffna railway station was the second largest station. The porters rushed to the platform ready to put the luggage on their heads.

The tea-boys were ready with their kettles and the vendors of vadai switched on their kerosene stoves,” he reflects. Yal Devi has been somewhat sick and not been able to do the full journey for a long time. We wish her a speedy recovery and that she soon be able to travel the full distance between Yaalpanam and Colombo bringing loads of Karthakolomban and other delicacies from our Northern friends while taking delicacies from the South in exchange! It would have been an added satisfaction if the track were constructed by our engineers and tradesmen.

Tsunami devastation

Railway commuters agree that not only Yal Devi but, the entire railway system has been sick for sometime now. Is it because there are no engineers of the calibre of Eng Rampala now? Or is it because of other reasons? Perhaps we must engage in a constructive dialogue on this important subject as a mark of respect for this great railway engineer.

Indian railways was also quite sick not so long ago. Then came a revolutionary and inspiring turnaround strategy that was carefully planned and meticulously implemented. There may be lessons relevant for Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) from this turnaround story and Eng Keerthi K Hewavithana provided an insight to these lessons at the Eng B D Rampala Memorial held yesterday, November 15.

The country can still remember how SLR repaired and restored the coastal lines, bridges and signal systems in record time after the tsunami devastation and put trains back on track on full steam with the able assistance of the State Engineering Corporation (SEC), Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) and the State Development Corporation (SD and CC). The cost incurred was a decimal from the estimates given by foreign companies and the time taken was just a small faction.

Everybody thought that this momentum would be maintained and SLR would soon be out of the rot. Perhaps we have missed a golden opportunity by not carrying on the momentum of rebuilding tsunami affected tracks and moving on to undertake the construction of new tracks on our own, at one quarter of the cost we now pay to foreign contractors and use the resulting experience to undertake overseas railway construction contracts.

Perhaps, it may not be too late to engage in an open and honest constructive dialogue that will make SLR a sustainable technologically driven utility provider that meets the expectations of the commuters. Our engineers have the required talent, business acumen and dedication and they are ready to take a leaf from the book of Eng Rampala and also learn from the success stories in India and elsewhere in putting the SLR on the right track. From an engineering perspective Sri Lankan engineers are talented, competent and confident. Our engineers are capable of following the shining example of Eng Rampala providing technological leadership and our railway workers are ready to take the challenge.

National framework

One might argue that the likes of Eng Rampala, Eng Wimalasurendra and Eng Dr Kulasinghe are exceptionally gifted people and the country may be lucky to have a few of them born in each generation. If that is the case, it is important to recognize them when they show the first signs of exceptional talent and brilliance. For that we must have a national framework conducive to recognize them, nurture them, empower them and handover the baton of technological leadership to such prodigies to take our public and private enterprises to the next level and mark the technological destiny of the nation.

Perhaps there may be a few Rampalas, Wimalasurendras and Kulasinghes out there even as we will gather on Monday to commemorate the legendary Eng Rampala, while dozens have left for other countries that respect their talents and provide them the latitude and altitude to use their professional aptitude.

If we as a Nation spot the remaining ones as a mission of urgency and prevent the upcoming ones fleeing away, and utilize their brilliance, talents, capabilities and dedication to good effect then, Sri Lanka would undoubtedly be the ‘Miracle of Asia’! The writer is the IESL Mechanical Engineering Sectional Committee Chairman

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