The Railways of Sri Lanka
by George Rutter, Chairman FNRM South of England Group Committee
17th May 1999
George gave the group an interesting insight into the railways in
this tropical ex-British colony. Surprisingly little has been published
on the history of the railways, and much of what George told us was
gleaned from discussions with the staff during his visit.
The first line was built in 1865 from Columbo to the
middle of the island. This later became junction to Jaffna, and
Trincomalee. Next section to Kandy is heavily engineered, rising 1450ft
in 20 miles with 12 tunnels, at a 1:44 ruling gradient. This line was
then extended to Badulla, again via a very mountainous section. All of
these lines are the the island's broad gauge standard of 5ft 6ins. There
was also a substantial network of 117 miles of 2ft 6ins narrow gauge,
which stretched from Columbo to Adams Peak and Openake. This network is
now cut back to Avissawella and even this is now dual gauged, with the
narrow gauge rails mainly used for tourist excursions. The narrow gauge
track is in a poor state and it is likely that the narrow gauge will be
George illustrated his talk with slides taken during
his visit. These included photographs of the running shed at
Dematagoda, which is full of relics, not much of which is in working
order. Indeed, there were only 2 serviceable broad gauge steam engines
available at the time of his visit, and these were in poor condition.
The absence of heavy machine tools will prevent restoration, however,
just as important is the absence of skills. There has been talk of
training some of the running shed staff at the Severn Valley Railway
boiler works, so that they can undertake comprehensive maintenance of
the locos. Unfortunately it did not prove possible to get financial
support from the UK or Sri Lankan governments, and the initiative
lapsed. With the right support and encouragement, a section of the
running shed could become an attractive museum.
Some of the engines there include a 4-6-0, No 240
built by Hunslet, and a Class B1d 4-6-0 "Fredrick North" built 1945
which is still in working order. There is also No 213 built by Vulcan
foundry in 1922 in the unusual format of a tender tank engine, 6 of
which were built for banking purposes. Even the tender is unusual in
that it has one fixed axle and a two-axle bogie! There are also several
narrow gauge locos, most in a derelict condition, with the exception of
Class J1 No 220, which was used to pull the tourist excursion.
George's excursion got off the a poor start, being
derailed because of a wrong point setting on the mixed gauge section.
The following service train, a diesel multiple unit, was delayed for
about 3 hours. Finally, a Henschl diesel brought up breakdown train and,
after a bit of effort, they got going and up to Avissawella.
The next day it was on to the broad gauge with The
Viceroy Express. This prestigious train was composed of two lounge car
either side of restaurant car. Each of the lounge cars were extensively
refurbished, and enhanced, standard cars with full air conditioning. The
train started from Mount Lavinia south of Columbo, and travelled
through to Badulla station at end of line.
George's slides showed lineside furniture which
would be recognisable to anyone in the UK who remembers steam in its
heyday; the signalling is typical British semaphore style, with
accompanying telegraph poles.
On the return, the train was stopped at a main road
crossing, away from any station, so that the passengers could de-train
to see the museum of traction engines. Again, the equipment was mainly
of British origin, some dated back to the last century.
However, the most interesting vehicle surfaced on a
following day, when No 331, a Sentinel built steam railcar, built in
Shrewsbury in 1928, took the party on another outing. it was one of
three built for the railway. The vehicle was extensively restored in
1990 and is unique in world as only working narrow gauge Sentinel
railcar anywhere in world.