The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

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3 January 2006

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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 abandoned shortly.

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.