Two Unforgettable Railway Accidents

In the mid-1960s, the railways had a program to upgrade tracks and bridges in the system in order to permit heavier axle loads and higher speeds that have been proposed. Accordingly, the wrought iron bridge across Mahakandarawewa at 138m 40c near Medawachchiya on the Northern Line to Jaffna - consisting of three spans of 60ft each - was taken up for replacement.

The main girders of the new bridge and other components had been pre-assembled in the workshop and transported to site. The gang of workmen had taken up position there to attend to preparatory work such as cutting up rivets connecting the top and bottom wind bracings and the cross girders to the main girders and replacing them with bolts and nuts etc. As the weekend earmarked for the dismantling and removal of the old bridge and the launching of the new one approached, all concerned were duly notified and those who would do that work also moved to the site. As it was mandatory that a head office engineer should be present at any such major operation to oversee the work and provide coordination with other sub departments, the Deputy Chief Engineer, Way and Works, Kalidasan, had been selected for the purpose.

Kalidasan was a genial, gentle man who believed in peaceful co- existence with all - his peers as well as his subordinates. He was humane and understanding. He used his gentle ways and his powers of persuasion to make errant subordinate staff to desist from wrong- doing. Although he was able to achieve only modest success by this technique, he preferred that to using tough talk or adopting other punitive measures. He wasn’t the kind of person who would plot and scheme to push himself up over others. And when others below went over him, he took it with a smile and patiently and ungrudgingly moved on. Such a person would be expected to have had no enemies among staff. Strangely though, he had a couple of them as was found later; for the reason that he was born geographically away from most of us. Most also felt that no harm would come his way because of his goodness. Sadly that wasn’t so either. For all his good- natured ways, he was found to be accident prone and he was in the thick of two of the most serious accidents to railwaymen since Independence!

The work to be done that weekend commenced as scheduled with the dismantling of the old bridge after the last train that Friday had cleared the section between Parasangahawewa and Anuradhapura railway stations. That section of track had been taken over by the way and works department. This ‘line block’ was to last until the morning the following Monday in time to permit the passage of the first train for the day along the new bridge. Each item of work involved was carefully planned and the time slot required for such work to be completed was estimated based on previous experience. The ‘line block’ would adequately cover the total time required for all work from commencement of dismantling of the old bridge to completion and commissioning of the new bridge.

Kalidasan duly arrived at the site by inspection motor trolley. His saloon - the special carriage that provides him temporary abode near the site - was stabled a short distance away from the site, leaving sufficient room on the bridge approach to stack the materials and to move the 30 ton crane required for lifting purposes. The saloon was close enough for him to take a short walk to it from the worksite whenever he needed rest, refreshments, or his meals in between work. To get to the saloon from the work site, he had to cross another small 20ft span ‘open floor’ bridge. Walking along railway tracks, no matter what condition they were in, or crossing a bridge doesn’t ordinarily pose a problem to a railway engineer and Kalidasan already had years of experience on both counts. He also had by his side an employee, Chainman Shanmugan, the designated subordinate who would carry his umbrella, the message pad, the tape, the torchlight for use after night fall, and who would be of any other assistance to him as required.

The open floor bridge that Kalidasan had to cross on his way from the work site to his saloon, as the name suggests, was one where the bridge deck made up of cross girders and rail bearers was fixed on to the top of the main girders and did not have any protection underneath such as steel troughs filled with ballast; and the bridge was under-slung with the track placed above it. There was no footway on the bridge either, as it was not meant for non railway ‘pedestrian’ use. Some sleepers had been placed over the rail bearers at odd spacing for railway staff to get across.

Until Saturday evening work was proceeding according to schedule. That made Kalidasan somewhat relaxed. As darkness set in later that evening, Kalidasan retired to the saloon for his dinner. Walking back to the saloon with him was his faithful subordinate, Shanmugan, with torchlight in hand. Shanmugan, walking a few steps ahead leading the way, kept flashing the torchlight that helped Kalidasan to watchfully hop from sleeper to sleeper to cross to the other side of the bridge. Thankfully, the flashlights and the carbide lamps at the worksite threw sufficient light from behind them too lighting up the way ahead of their footsteps.

After his dinner that was prepared by the saloon attendant, Kalidasan lay down in his bed for a well-deserved rest. He wanted a short nap and then quickly get back to the site. However, he soon fell fast asleep. So did Shanmugan and the saloon attendant who also had their dinner and went to sleep in their section of the saloon. When Kalidasan got up it was near midnight. He looked for Shanmugan but found he wasn’t awake. He felt sufficiently fresh to get back to the site. He could hear the noise of the staff, the machines and the clanging of the steel coming from the worksite. He looked for the torchlight but couldn’t find it. He remembered that the path to the saloon was illuminated by the lights at the worksite and felt that he could manage without the torch. His compassion towards subordinates and his gentle selfless nature prevented him from waking up Shanmugan. However his sense of duty, as the senior officer at the site, made him decide to get back to the worksite without any further delay now that he had refreshed himself.

He opened the saloon door onto the darkness of the night, and went through the tricky part of getting down to the two tiered wooden foot boards on the side of the saloon beneath its floor. He then carefully lowered himself on to the earth formation besides the track without hassle, although the drop from the lower saloon foot board to the ground which has been partly eroded, was much more than between a train and a platform at any railway station. He thereafter began his walk towards the site, taking step after careful step upon the track sleepers. As he came up to the open floor bridge that he had to cross, he stopped briefly and turned back to see whether by any chance Shanmugan had doubled up to him. As he did not see any signs of the man, he once again gathered himself up, and with trepidation, took one more step on to the next sleeper. He then realized that there was some difficulty in seeing the rest of the sleepers on the bridge as the glare from the flashlights at the worksite were blinding him.

Despite the difficulties he was presently experiencing in going any further, he was reluctant to return to the saloon and wake up Shanmugan. He took a couple of steps more on the sleepers ahead of him, gingerly but without much confidence as they were spaced unevenly. As he was taking the next step, he was totally blinded and missed his step completely. Instead of placing his foot on the next sleeper, he stepped between the sleepers and, in a flash, fell with a thud between them and on to the river bed. The invert was over fifteen feet deep. Like the man who fell from a tree being gored by a bull, Kalidasan was to suffer the worst effect from the fall since he had hit a pile of rubble which had been dumped in the vicinity of the abutments at that end of the bridge sometime earlier as a means of preventing scouring their foundation by the rush of water during times of high tide.

Nobody saw the accident nor did they hear the noise of the fall. Kalidasan was in terrible pain and unable to move, leave alone get up. He could only groan, but the noise of the worksite drowned that too. Shanmugan was fast asleep in the saloon. It looked as if Kalidasan was consigned to his fate, unable to draw the attention of anyone to his plight in order to get urgently needed medical aid. He spent the remainder of the night alone and in pain on the rubble dressing of a riverbed - not a very congenial environment to be in!

Nearing dawn the next morning, Shanmugan got up and looked for his boss in the bedroom of the saloon. Observing that he wasn’t there, he realized his folly of having overslept. He was fully well aware that Kalidasan was one who would not wake him up if that could be avoided. He panicked at the thought that Kalidasan may have walked alone to the worksite. He jumped off the saloon and ran towards the worksite. As he was passing the ‘near’ end of the open floor bridge, he suddenly heard someone groaning in pain from down below. Flashing the torch light towards the riverbed from where the voice came he got the shock of his life. His master was lying on his back, his clothes stained with blood, his voice now feeble. Shanmugan raised shouts and succeeded in drawing the attention of those at the site. They all came rushing. They lost no time in physically carrying Kalidasan to the river bank and from there to the track side. They used the Motor Trolley to transport him to the Anuradhapura railway station and thence to the Anuradhapura hospital by a road vehicle.

Among the staff who worked at the worksite and accompanied him to the hospital was Anton, the assistant district engineer railways, stationed in Anuradhapura. He was from the second batch of university civil engineering graduates who joined the railways after a long lapse. He was a keen officer and already had made a mark for diligence in his duties. But he remained the same playful fellow he was on campus carrying with him to his railway job some of the playful spirit that pervades university life. He therefore didn’t fail to see the lighter side of any serious matter. He had been at the site through the night and on hearing about Kalidasan’s accident, had promptly run to his rescue that early morning and accompanied the other staff carrying him to the hospital.

Having seen to the comfort of Kalidasan and having also used his own influence at the hospital in order to arrange for the best treatment possible as he personally knew some of the hospital staff, he was on his way back to the worksite along with the others around mid morning to rejoin the work. Approaching the worksite, Anton and the rest had to walk along the track past the saloon and over the same bridge where Kalidasan fell. They were, in short, repeating the same journey that Kalidasan had taken the previous night. As Anton came up to the bridge where Kalidasan fell, he paused for a while. He was unable to ‘fathom’ how Kalidasan would have ‘succeeded’ in missing his footstep on the timber. Now that Kalidasan was out of danger and under proper medical care, he was perhaps somewhat amused by the whole business of his boss falling through the bridge. Turning back towards the others behind him, he said "this may be how he walked last night" and with a grin on his lips, in the full view of his staff, he began to mimic Kalidasan’s disastrous few steps the previous night. By the time he took the next step, distracted by his own antics he lost his balance and instead of placing his foot on the sleeper ‘succeeded’ in falling between two sleepers. In a flash he was gone right down to the river bed just as his boss had done the previous night.

He found the same resting place as Kalidasan did on the river bed with the same ‘rocky cushioning’. But luckily for him, being younger and more athletic helped him avoid broken limbs and broken bones despite the fall to the same depth as the boss. He was injured, though to a lesser degree, and had to be hospitalized in a like manner. Within hours of the first incident, Anton was in the same hospital and ward as Kalidasan and in the bed next to his, much to the amazement of the hospital staff. It took some persuasion to convince them that Anton fell through the same bridge at the same spot as Kalidasan and that his was no accident but an act of self-destruction. Only the cause of this accident was different, but that part of the story no one in his proper senses would believe. This unforgettable accident was flashed in an evening daily the very next day.

Kalidasan dislocated his hip and both his ankle joints as a result of the fall. He had to go through major surgery in order to reset the hip and the joints, have steel pins inserted to hold the bones together, and have both feet in a plaster cast for several months before he was able to walk again after a long process of healing, physiotherapy and rehabilitation. The injury had a debilitating effect on him from which he couldn’t have recovered when bad luck struck again – he suffered another accident far worse than the one described above.

In mid 1973, as the annual South West monsoons set in, the upper districts began to experience incessant rain. Consequently, there had been wash-away of the track embankment in several places along the Nawalapitya - Badulla section as was usually the case during rains. It had been reported that a section of track just below the Rozella railway station had suffered badly causing subsidence and that a track length of about 60 feet was suspended in mid air as a result. Train traffic beyond Nawalapitiya had been completely suspended until repairs near Rozella station were completed. That was a spot normally not affected by rain. In view of the importance of expeditiously completing the repairs near Rozella with the least possible delay to enable restoration of normal services, the Chief Engineer ordered that two head office engineers should proceed from Colombo to the site to personally inspect it and take appropriate measures to repair the damage so that traffic up to Nanu Oya and beyond could be restored early.

Accordingly, I traveled up to the site the day after I received orders. I was particularly happy that it was Kalidasan who would be joining me as by then I had cultivated a friendly relationship with him. I had gone with him on inspections several times before and enjoyed his company. He was a good raconteur, spinning old railway yarns whenever he got into the mood after a hard day’s work on the field, a quick one and dinner.

He arrived at the site a day later and stabled his saloon in close proximity to the site. The District Engineers’ Inspection Motor Trolley was available for Kalidasan’s use also at the site. A special service train was shuttling up and down from the site to Nanu Oya to attend to the District Engineer’s requirements such as transporting material, food for the staff, and anything else he considered important.

In terms of the rules for emergency working at a site where traffic has been disrupted and cannot be restored any time soon, the section between the two nearest stations had been duly taken over by ‘Bullet’ Pieris, the District Engineer, Nanu Oya no sooner he arrived the day before. The arrival was preceded by the exchange of the usual written messages between him and the respective the station masters. He had organized the site work well. Huge quantities of 9" rubble were required to fill the yawning gap created in the embankment. The depth of the cavity created by the wash-away was about fifty feet, suspending the track in mid air over a length of about sixty feet. Trains loaded with rubble would arrive regularly at site to be unloaded by the staff. Additional gangs have been ordered from other sections in Pieris’ district to facilitate the work at the site. There was nothing more that needed to be done. It was a matter of getting the work done quickly for which the district engineer and his staff were fully mobilized.

Around midday Kalidasan was in his saloon. I joined him as the gangs stopped work for lunch. Pieris was standing just outside the saloon. He had hooked up his portable site telephone to the telephone post by the track side near the saloon and was talking to the Nanuoya station and to his office on matters connected with the work. Kalidasan decided that he should proceed to Nanu Oya to check out some work related matter. He told Pieris he was going up to Nanuoya and calling the driver Haramanis, walked towards the parked Motor Trolley and sat in the front left seat meant for the senior officer. At his request, I too joined him and sat in the front middle seat leaving the front right seat for the driver of the trolley.

A motor trolley is a box structure, slightly bigger than a jeep whose lower half is metal and the upper half glass. It is driven like a jeep and is fitted with a six cylinder diesel engine. It only lacks a steering wheel for the obvious reason that it is guided by the rails. It is capable of reaching speeds of 50 mph on straight flat track, but much less in the upcountry areas.

The officer in charge of the section was Pieris who had been informed by Kalidasan of his intention to travel up to Nanu Oya by motor trolley. We therefore left the site and set out to travel up to Nanuoya, a journey that would take about six to seven minutes. We had hardly gone two miles when emerging from a tunnel and on to a reverse curve, we saw an approaching train just in front of us. There was hardly any reaction time left for any of us including the driver to take any preventive action as the distance between us and the locomotive was so small. Seated in the middle, I was well and truly trapped.

We were now heading right on to the front of the locomotive weighing at least sixty tons of metal. Haramanis’s speed was too much for him to apply the brakes and bring it to a stop and avoid the impact. The wheels of the trolley started screeching which meant that even the brakes he applied were ineffective. I momentarily felt that the trolley was sliding towards the train and certain disaster and that the any chance of survival was very bleak. There was a deep precipice on to the right of us, which was in fact the outside of the curve. Any impact with the locomotive would throw the light trolley hurtling down the slope may be a few hundred feet.

In just a few seconds it was all over. The front of the trolley had taken the full impact. The buffers of the locomotive had pierced the trolley somewhere near the floor of the trolley. Kalidasan was shouting ‘both my legs are broken, I cannot even move them.’ The driver Haramanis on my right was a heap of broken limbs in a pool of blood. He was shouting ‘Budhu amme, mang ivarayi.’ Those in the rear, masters at the art of escape as track labourers constantly jump on and off the push trolley, had leaped off after carefully calculating the risk. Perhaps they had more reaction time than us - just a fraction of a second more only – as they were behind us.

As for me, those seated behind me later told me that a split second before the impact I had impulsively stood up and in the process hit my head on the roof and got thrown back on to the middle of the trolley rather than forward to the front. As a result, I had been able to avoid the greater force of the impact with the front of the trolley. As I hit the roof, however, I took a blow on my nose breaking the cartilage. After the impact, the trolley that was thrown back some distance had came to a halt on its own without being thrown off the track and down the precipice. That saved us from further disaster. The train crew had stopped the train and come dashing towards us. The front door of the trolley was jammed and couldn’t be opened. I walked to the rear of the trolley and was able to walk out of the rear door and on to the cess side of the track. Kalidasan and Haramanis had to be bodily carried out of the trolley and on to the train. We were sent to the Nuwara Eliya hospital in a lorry, the only vehicle available at the Nanu Oya station at the time.

I was fortunate to have escaped major injury. On the advice of the doctor at the Nuwara Eliya hospital, an X-ray of my head was taken to check for any internal injury. The X-ray showed none and I was discharged. I had a contusion of the back of the chest as I had fallen on the back rest of a seat due to the impact and this needed some rubbing down.

Haramanis has broken his left leg in three places and his right leg in one. He was medically condemned as unfit to be employed in any capacity and retired from service. Kalidasan had to be in a cast for over six months, and take more steel pins to keep the pieces intact. Both his ankles had broken again and needed repair. In addition he had lost a quarter of an inch in his left leg, and was now walking with a limp. He was away on long accident leave for several months before he could return to work.

A few years after retirement Kalidasan and family migrated to Canada. I have not met him since his departure from Sri Lanka. Since leaving the railways, Anton had worked in the Middle East for some time and I have come to know that he too has migrated to Canada. What I do not know however is whether he still follows closely on the foot steps of his boss, Kalidasan, or is spending his retirement away from active life contemplating on its vicissitudes.

(The writer retired as General Manager of Railways)

www island.lk

Copyright©Upali Newspapers Limited.

Hosted by


Upali Newspapers Limited, 223, Bloemendhal Road, Colombo 13, Sri Lanka, Tel +940112497500