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 Post subject: The Northern railway of Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sun Mar 02, 2008 3:51 pm 
The Northern railway of Sri Lanka

The Northern railway line branches
northward from the main line at Polgahawela,
passing Kurunegala, the
capital of Wayamba Province, before
continuing to the historic cultural and
religious centre of Anuradhapura.
This city was established in the 4th
century B.C. and contains many sites
of religious and archaeological interest.
The service which is now curtailed
by the Ceylon Government Railway,
was considered the most important
transport facility for travellers to and
from Colombo. The major factor that
contributed to the increasing number
of train travellers, with the increase
of population, was the non-availability
of other modes of transport other
than carts to compete the railway
transport during this period.

The Northern line was built by the
British to serve several purposes.
While they wanted to end the isolation
of the Jaffna peninsular and link
it with the rest of the country, they
also wanted to minimise the high
death toll among the immigrant Indian
labourers, because of the arduous
journey from Mannar to the Kandyan
province. Another reason was that the
Indian labourers were responsible for
spreading diseases like cholera and
small pox to adjoining villages in the
North and North-Central province of
Sri Lanka.

The British appointed a Commission
in 1877 to look into the feasibility
of the Jaffna railway line. The Commission
proposed extending the rail
track from Polgahawela to Jaffna.
Work began to extend the track to
Kurunegala, in 1891.The track was
opened on February 14, 1893. In 1903
work began on the extension of the
track to Anuradhapura.

A rail track
between Kankesanthurai and Chavakachcheri
was laid on March 10,
1902 and it was extended to Palaly by
September of that year. Work then
commenced to link the track to Anuradhapura.
The Talaimannar line extended towards
the North West from Madawachchiya.
By 1912 the bridge that
linked Mannar to the main land was
completed. On February 24, 1914 the
Indo- Lanka Railway Service commenced.
The transport facilities provided
by the Northern railway not only enabled
the majority of Indian labourers
to migrate en masse with their
families, but also saved the lives of
both labourers and villagers in the
North Central Province, since the
spread of infectious diseases could be
prevented as the immigrants no longer
had contact with the population
in the North Central Province.

The creation of the Northern line
acted as a catalyst for social change.
It linked communities, ended the
isolation of Jaffna, broke down social
tradition, caste prejudices, and
also spread new ideas and customs.
For the first time newspapers from
Colombo were available to all, which
helped to increase the reading habits
of the people and broaden their
outlook.. This also led to the growth
of education since people in Jaffna
could send their children to Colombo
or vice versa.

Canadian M2 locomotives

The Canadian government
originally planned to donate
only five of these engines in 1954
under the Colombo plan. These
engines were manufactured by
General Motors Canada. The
Sri Lankan government named
these locomotives after several
Canadian provinces. Painted in
blue and silver 14 of these were
imported in batches from 1954

It is said that some Canadians
were not too happy by the fact
that names of only five provinces
were used. Learning about this,
B.D. Rampala, the Chief Mechanical
Engineer asked Sir John Kotelawela,
who was the Minister
of Transport to ask the Canadian
Government to increase the
number of engines from five M2
or G12 locomotives to 14 locomotives
so that the names of all Canadian
provinces could be used .
The ploy worked and the Canadians
gave us 14 locomotives.

Regarded as the most reliable
locomotives even after 50 years,
almost all the engines are still

Names of the Canadian M2 locomotives are:
No 569 Ontario
No 570 Alberta
No 571 Saskatchewan
No 572 British Columbia
No 573 Quebec
No 591 Manitoba
No 592 Nova Scotia
No 593 New Brunswick
No 594 Prince Edwards Island
No 595 New foundland

Of these, Diesel Electric Saskatchewan
was destroyed by a bomb explosion and No 591 Manitoba
was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami.

Yal Devi - Queen of express trains

By Rathindra Kuruwita
@ The Nation , 02 March, 2008

Yal Devi made her maiden journey
on April 23, 1956, with two other trains,
Udarata Menike and Ruhunu Kumari
and because of this many, Sri Lankans
considered them as three sisters.

Trains no longer arrive at the
Jaffna railway station. The familiar
‘kuchu kuchu’ of locomotive engines
and the ‘hoooooo’ of their whistles,
no longer rent the air. Porters are extinct.
Taxis are conspicuous by their
absence. Because, the Yal Devi goes no
further than Vavuniya.

Times have changed. The Yal Devi
was not destined to terminate its journey
at this tiny railway station in the
middle of nowhere. It was to stop at
the great Jaffna station. It was meant
to link Colombo with the northern
most city, Jaffna. To connect two different
cultures, Sinhala and Tamil.

To take kalu dodol from the south and
bring back thal hakuru and karthakolomban.
It is a past that Mailwahanam Vipulaskandha
remembers well. This retired
station master, who grew up near
the Jaffna railway station, reminisced
on 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 remembers.

Yal Devi made her maiden journey
on April 23, 1956, with two other trains,
Udarata Menike and Ruhunu Kumari
and because of this many, Sri Lankans
considered them as three sisters.

Many factors led to the launch of
these three ‘express’ trains. Not only did
the government want to expand the passenger
transport network of the Ceylon
Government Railway (CGR) but also
show the general public of their detachment
from the colonial past and their
ability to outdo the British. The timetables
of the three trains were arranged
so that a commuter who boards the Ruhunu
Kumari from Matara after breakfast
would reach Jaffna for dinner.

Although all three trains were called
express trains, Vipulaskandha assures
us that, compared with the Yal Devi, the
other two were insignificant. “Easily
identified by its white and blue colour
scheme, with its name boldly painted
across the length of the carriages, in
all three languages, the Yal Devi was
the queen of express trains. That’s why
they always gave her platform number

It always left Fort railway station, precisely,
at 5:45 each evening, packed. As a
kid, I have travelled on that train many
times. I remember the train leaving the
railway station after giving a mighty
holler. I also remember children of my
age trying to imitate the noise of the engine,”
Vipulaskandha said.

Blazing through Travelling a distance of 409 kms
(256 miles) it only stopped at the “big”
stations such as Ragama junction, Polgahawela
Junction, Kurunegala, Maho
Junction, Anuradhapura, Medawachchiya
Junction, Vavuniya, Elephant
Pass, Jaffna and Kankesanthurai. It
made this long journey in express time,
often passing regular trains that started
long before she did.

“The train raced at speeds in excess
of 45mph, past small stations
that dotted the northern line, without
slowing down. This often reminded
me of an arrogant belle who ignores
suitors she thought not worthy of her
attention,” he said.

Vipulaskandha recalled an idyllic era when the Sinhalese
would flock to Jaffna on festive
occasions, visit local taverns, imbibe
palmyrah toddy, eat masala dosai and
prawns, indulge in karthakolomban
for dessert and visit Nallur Kanda
Swami Kovil and Naga Devale. “When
I started working at the CGR, many
Sinhala friends visited me. We used
our CGR credentials to book the observation
carriage, to escape from being
sandwiched and squashed by the
thousands of passengers,” he said.

End of a journey But now, all that has changed. The
Yal Devi does not go beyond Vavuniya.
The decades-old civil strife put an
end to Yal Devi’s journey to Jaffna in
the early 1990s. The once grand Jaffna
railway station is now in ruins and
the train itself carries only a handful
of compartments, and Vipulaskandha
told me that even these are almost
empty after Anuradhapura.
“The train stops at the single-platform
Vavuniya station.

The charges for Elephant Pass, Jaffna and Kankesanthurai
are still displayed at the
station. But everyone knows that this
is the end of the line,” he said
Even though the Yal Devi stopped
going to Jaffna in 1990, Vipulaskandha
said that the beginning of the
end started much earlier. “Because of
the insurgency, people stopped commuting
by train. In the mid 1980s, the
track was removed at several points,
but the Indian army laid it back. But
only a few people travelled by train,
when the Indian army left and the
LTTE captured several sections of the
northern line. That was the end of the
Yal Devi’s journey to Jaffna,” he said.
All downhill

It was all downhill after that. Although
it is still an express train, it no
longer whizzes past other trains. Now
it stops at every station after Maho
Junction and is no longer the trim
and proper belle that it once was. The
compartments are old and untidy. Its
once magnificent restaurant is now
reduced to a counter that serves weird
looking, awful smelling short-eats. Its
toilets are unusable. Porters do not
flock the platform when the train arrives.
‘Tuk-tuk’ drivers hardly care
for the passengers the Yal Devi now

“The Yal Devi has grown old and
like an old woman, it travels slowly
and shakily, stopping to rest at every
station,” Vipulaskandha said.
Because the train no longer arrives
at the Jaffna railway station.

My uncle worked at the CGR in the
1960s and is a friend of Vipulaskandha.
Although he never worked on
the northern line, he has travelled
several times to Jaffna by Yal Devi.
Sometimes, he recounts tales of Jaffna,
to me. Of the karthakolomban,
prawns, Naga Devale and the majestic
Yal Devi. Whenever I remember these
stories, I wish I could travel to Jaffna
by train and enjoy the city, the way my
uncle did. But, I know I can’t, because
trains no longer arrive at the Jaffna
railway station.

Growing up near the Jaffna
railway station in the 1950s,
Mailwahanam Vipulaskandha
always dreamt of joining the
Ceylon Government Railway
(CGR) and becoming a station
master. One must remember
that at this time the CGR was at
its zenith. Station masters and
engine drivers lived like royalty,
living in comfortable railway
quarters and served by an
assortment of servants.
“I always wanted to join the
CGR and my dream came true
in 1967 when I joined as an assistant
station master. I was
sent to the railway training
school and then was posted to
Batticaloa in 1969. After one or
two years I went to Vavuniya.
After that most of my service
was in the Northern line,” he
From 1970 he worked as a relief
station master in the northern
line working in stations
like Chunnakam, Anuradhapura,
KKS, Mankulam, Vavuniya
and Madu. “As a relief station
master I have worked all over
the Northern line,” he said.
Although the late 1960s and
1970s were a time of peace, the
Northern line was a pleasant
place to work in. But things
began to gradually deteriorate
in the 1980s. When violence escalated
between government
troops and armed groups, railway
officers like Vipulaskandha
were trapped in the middle.
Violence and assassination became
a part of daily life.
It was while working at the
Madu railway station in the
mid 1980s that Vipulaskandha
faced what he calls, the most
traumatic experience of his
life. “I was working at Madu
station in 1985 as the relief station
master. Unlike today, back
then, there was a small Sinhala
community living in Madu.
There was a Sinhala school as
well, the Madu Maha Vidyalaya.
Several of my porters too
were Sinhalese. One day several
members of an armed group
came to the station dragging
two Sinhala women to the station.
They shot the two women
in front of my own eyes. Then
they came to my room and
asked me whether there were
any Sinhalese people working
in the station. I said ‘no’. Then
they went away,” he said with a
Little did the gunmen know
that Vipulaskandha was concealing
one of his Sinhalese
porters behind his chair. “When
they came in and talked to me,
one of the Sinhala porters was
hiding behind the chair I was
seated on. I was trying to play
cool although I was very scared.
If the armed assailants realised
that I was hiding someone from
them they would have killed
both of us on the spot. It was
the most horrific experience I
have been through, although
I’m glad I was able to save a life.
Now that boy is a man in his
late 30s. He still keeps in touch
with me and comes to see me
from time to time,” he said.
Although he’s now retired
from the CGR, Vipulaskandha
still has fond memories of the
Northern railway line and its
legendary train Yal-Devi. “I
spent my youth working at the
northern line. I have also seen
the Yal-Devi speeding like a bullet
on that line. I wish that my
children could one day go to
Jaffna travelling on the Northern
line in that magnificent
train,” he said. (RK)

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