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13th June 1999

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Train to Badulla

By Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

If one wishes to enjoy the vistas of unparal leled beauty of our island, he must travel buy train from Colombo to Badulla on the main line.

This journey covering a distance of 290 km., passes through 46 tunnels and 68 railway stations. The track was laid by the colonial rulers, in response to repeated requests made by the European planters to transport their produce for export to the UK as shipment had to be done in Colombo. After protracted negotiations, the first sod of earth, laying the foundation for a railway, was cut by the Governor Sir Henry Ward on August 3, 1858.

The main line journey offers a rare panorama of up-country views. There is a change of climate and choice of scenery to gratify the senses, as the train passes through rugged country along the serpentine track, to ascend to the highest point at Pattipola (1,898m. above sea level).

Overhanging rocks along the mountain slopes, torrents that flow over rocks, cascading waterfalls and other beauties of the landscapes, impress the traveller. Among the sights is St. Clair Falls near Talawakelle, having a first drop of 73m. and a second drop of 43m. As the train approaches the Kadigamuwa station, one can see at a distance a huge rock, somewhat similar to the Sigiriya rock, known as the Batalagala or the Bible rock, as some call it, standing majestically from the lower valley. Here the panorama assumes its most enchanting forms: at one moment on the edge of a sheer crag about a thousand feet below, and on another by a mighty crag about a thousand feet above. As the train zigzags through the mountains, fresh views appear at every turn.

Before dieselization, the steam locomotives, puffing and coughing, hauled heavy goods on the incline, sometimes over a ruling gradient of 1:44, i.e.. 1 foot in height to every 44 feet in distance. Some of the locomotives in use were the double-engined Garrats introduced in 1928, which eliminated the need to couple two locomotives to each train to carry the load. The single locomotives often coupled to trains were the Nanu Oya Superheaters and the Big Bank engines. I suppose that a few of the Garrats are still in use between Nawalapitiya and Badulla. Among the tunnels on the main line, the longest one is the Poolbank tunnel between Hatton and Kotagala, which is 561m. long, with a curvature in the middle so that from one end the other end is not seen. It is one of the great achievements in tunnel engineering because boring was done from both ends to meet in the middle. All tunnels on the main line stand as a lasting monument to the genius of the Chief Engineer, Sir G.L. Molesworth and to the courage and ability of the contractor F.W. Faviell. Sir Molesworth was the first Director-General of Railways (1865-1871) and, even today, he is well known to engineering students on account of his famous pocket book on engineering. The Kadugannawa incline is said to be the only one of its kind in Asia where a broad-gauge track (5' 6"), rises to such an elevation within such a short distance of 21 km., reaching an altitude of 422m. The Balana Pass, through which the train ascends to Kadugannawa, was a military post during the days of our kings, to keep watch over those enemies who tried to infiltrate into Kandyan territory.

The first tunnel on the main line is near Mirigama (84 km.), and the longest tunnel between Rambukkana and Kadugannawa is 334m. in length. From Kadugannawa to Nawalapitiya (44 km.), the train runs almost on flat terrain, and it is from the latter station that the ascent begins up to Pattipola. From this point the train descends to Badulla (67 km.), after passing 12 railway stations. In the old days, when steam locomotives ploughed the track, two engines were coupled to a train, one in front and one at the rear, chiefly when hauling goods or long passenger trains. When a train is in down-line, two engines are coupled together in front, and the position is known as 'double-headed'. There are nine tunnels between Rambukkana and Kadugannawa, and among them, the Meeangala tunnel (82 m), bored through solid rock, is said to have unpleasant memories of many fatal accidents. It is believed that this tunnel was the cave occupied by Saradiel, the Robin Hood of Sri Lanka, which the railway engineers had used as a smithy for their foundry. The spirit of Saradiel is said to haunt the place and cause accidents.

The most notable feature on the main line is the Sensation Rock, between Balana and Kadugannawa, and it is actually supposed to produce the real sensation of an imminent fall of the engine into the abyss below, when viewed through the window of a compartment, as the engine takes its bend by the curve under the rocky hood known as 'Lion's Mouth'. The drop at this point is about 600m. The scene can best be seen from outside as the engine enters the perforated rock. It was the popular view among the European planters that the main line should begin from Colombo and enter into the heart of Kandy as the first step in the construction of a railway in Sri Lanka.

Among the engineers who toiled hard to see the dream of a railway in the island comes true were: C.H. Newton, G.L. Molesworth, D.J. Scott, G. Harrison, J. Traill, F.W. Foot, W. Horne, J. R. Heine, J.L. Gallott and W.J. W. Heath. In the year 1866, Mahara (now Ragama), Henarathgoda (now Gampaha) and Veyangoda railway stations were completed. Facing great difficulty, the laying of the track was pushed through in sections: to Ragama in 1863, to Ambepussa in 1864, to Polgahawela in 1866, to Kandy in 1867, to Gampola in 1873, to Nawalapitiya in 1874, to Talawakelle in 1884, to Nanu Oya in 1885, to Haputale in 1893 and to Bandarawela in 1894.

Passengers travelling from Badulla, and before approaching the Demodera station (a distance of 15 km.), can have a view of the railway station above the tunnel. Such a wonderful scene is nowhere found in the island. The topography of the land compelled the engineers to take the circuitous route as trains cannot make the ascent or descent within such short distance. The Overland Ceylon Observer of October 16, 1892, reported that "the dawn of light and civilization has crossed the dividing range of hills at Pattipola and the smoke of the first engine had been seen all over the bleak and barren plains of once desolate Uva. M/s. Craig and Cockshott, under Mr. Oliver the engineer, on the Bandarawela extension are going ahead in right good style and advancing the work at rapid rate, while Messrs Hampton and Mayes, the two surveyors are doing all other matters in connection with the Demodera Loop."

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