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3rd January 1999
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A historic journey in 1864

By Aryadasa Ratnasinghe
pic 13The first train to Ambepussa from Co lombo (a distance of 54 km) began its historic journey on December 27, 1864. People who had come to see the 'iron horse' rushed to have a look at the belching locomotive of the train, which they had never seen before.

Obviously, the railway would have caused a stir in the placid rural society at the time. As they became accustomed to the noise, children, seeing an approaching train would yell "anguru-kaka watura-bebee, colomba duvana yakada-yaka" (coal-eating, water-drinking, Colombo running iron devil).

A special significance of this train journey was that the Duke of Brabant, the heir to the Belgian throne, who was later crowned King Leopold II of Belgium, travelled in the train from Veyangoda to Ambepussa and back to Colombo. He was accompanied by Major General O'Brien, the officer administering the country at the time, in the absence of the Governor, Charles MacCarthy (1860-1863), who had returned to England having relinquished his duties on the grounds of ill-health. The driver of the engine was Sir G.L. Molesworth, the chief engineer, who was appointed Director-General of Railways in 1865. He was also the resident engineer who had the distinction of completing the first railway in India.

A railway for Sri Lanka was first mooted in 1842, when the European coffee planters agitated for a railway from Kandy to Colombo, to transport their estate produce for shipment, quickly and regularly, as they had by then opened up virgin lands in the upland country to grow coffee, a viable commercial crop. After protracted negotiations between the planters and government, the Ceylon Railway Company (CRC) was formed in 1845, under the chairmanship of Philip Anstruther, to construct a railway in Sri Lanka. The company's engineer, Thomas Drane worked the preliminary survey in 1846.

On August 3, 1858, that first sod of earth was cut (from a place where the present Maradana Railway Station stands), by Governor Sir Henry Ward (1855-1860) amidst great jubilation, and his attitude was summed up in his own words "As Educators, Railways supersede roads in Oriental Lands."

In 1857, Capt. Morose was sent from England to examine the project and submit his report, within two months, to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. He recommended six alternative routes to Kandy and the average estimate to complete the construction of the line was in the region of £856,557. It was pointed out that there was no other way to reduce the estimate when heavy work such as tunnelling, cutting through solid rock formations and masses of boulders at the base of the hills, building steep embankments over valleys and ravines, filling of water-logged areas, constructing bridges and culverts etc., was found to be inevitable.

The contractor for the CRC W.T. Doyne, who undertook the laying of the line, was faced with practical difficulties, and he realised that it was impossible to complete the work on the estimate submitted. The bridge over the Kelani river, laying of the track from Rambukkana to Kadugannawa on steeper gradients, the filling of water-logged ground between Kelaniya and Ragama, tunnelling etc., were major engineering feats that consumed a bigger slab of the estimate. The CRC needed more money. In 1861, the contract with the CRC was terminated, the subscribed capital paid off, and the government took over the construction work, under the name Ceylon Government Railway (now Sri Lanka Railway).

The government called for fresh tenders. Of the tenders received, the lowest was from the contractor W.F.G. Faviell. Both Sir Molesworth and Faviell combined their talents and contributed in no small measure to the successful laying of the railway in Sri Lanka. They were able to push the permanent way up to Ambepussa within three years. In 1866, the line was extended to Polgahawela for both passenger and goods traffic.

In January 1864 the first locomotive was landed in Sri Lanka, and it was used by the contractor for the transport of bulk material and ballast to lay the line. It was this locomotive that hauled the Royal train to Ambepussa with the Duke. It was a 4-4-0 type two-wheel coupled engine with a tender. It had a fuel capacity of 5 tons and took 1,500 gallons of water for conversion to steam. The total weight of the engine plus tender was 59 tons. It is said that this engine was in service until 1926.

The first tunnel on the Main Line, which is 274 ft. long, is near Mirigama before reaching Ambepussa. The tunnels and overhanging rocks on the incline stand as lasting monuments to the genius of Sir Molesworth and to the great courage of Faviell, the contractor. From Colombo to Kandy there are 10 tunnels, and from Kandy to Badulla, 36 tunnels, the longest being the poolbank tunnel, between Hatton and Kotagala, which is 1,842 ft. long, and keeps passengers spellbound in the dark for about two minutes.

The railway engineers faced innumerable difficulties in constructing bridges of varying lengths. "The bridge over the Kelani river is a substantial structure of 800 ft. in length and was composed of 8 spans built on screw piles, and 12 spans of 25 ft. on brick piers. Following a heavy monsoon rain, one of the centre spans collapsed with an engine and its crew on September 20, 1872. The bridge was later replaced by one of fine aspects and construction consisting of 6 spans of 80 ft. in the centre, and 12 spans of 25 ft. plate girder deck spans, with 6 spans on either end. The main spans are supported on cast iron cylinders 6 ft. in diameter in the top section, and 7 ft. underground. These were sunk to a depth of 45 ft. to 50 ft. below the bed of the river to a bearing surface on a structure of sand and large pebbles."

Although it was originally designed to carry double tracks, the line was not duplicated until about 30 years later. However, after the duplication was done, the then consulting engineers, M/s. Gregory, Eyles and Waring, reported that "the bridge was not of sufficient strength to allow trains to run on both lines simultaneously". After tests carried out in 1950, which consisted of "hammer blow, lurching and rail joint strength at various speeds, it was decided that the bridge was safe for existing loading and even for future loadings". Investigations were carried out by the Bridge Investigating Committee headed by Conrad Gribbles,bridge consultant. They used modern apparatus like Farraday Palmers, and Cambridge Stress Recorders, Cambridge Deflectographs and Deflectometers.

The present Ambepussa Railway Station is a newly constructed one. The old station still stands, but is not in use, and passengers who travel by train can see it.

The first General Manager of Railways in Sri Lanka was W.T. Pearce (1882-1901) and the last European to hold the post was J.E.S. Bodger (1945-1948). He was succeeded by M. Kanagasabai as the first Lankan to hold the chief executive post.

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