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Sights and sounds along the railroad

I was ten years old then, and living with my parents in our ancestral village of Galwadugoda, Galle. Our house was situated besides the railway track - the Coast Line that ran from Colombo to Galle and Matara. As many a child of that age would do, I spent long hours of my leisure near the wall of our front compound, watching trains pass by. Some of the trains - the smaller rail cars bringing children to the nearby schools- would stop at the rail car halt very near our house. On days the rail car had overshot the halt, its locomotive would stop right opposite us. I would then run out and keep watching the stop and start routines of the fireman and the driver, shoveling coal into the firebox, releasing the steam etc. The only access to our home being from the track side, I had the opportunity of spending further time walking along the track on my way to school and back as well as running mother’s errands to Appuhamy’s boutique nearby.

Kangany Aaron Singho

I as a 10-year-old can never forget a man I used to regularly meet along the rail track near our home. Seeing him approaching from a distance, I would move from the track before he got close to me. His appearance and his manner of walking would frighten anyone my age. Clad in a checked sarong, shirt, and an open khaki coat with nickel-plated buttons, part of his shirt and his midriff would be exposed. His sarong and his bulging waistline were held by a broad black buckled belt. Attached to the belt on a hook would be a heavy bunch of keys clanging in sympathetic simple harmonic motion and in rhythm with his every step. He carried a watch in his coat pocket, attached to a nickel-plated chain anchored to one of the coat buttons. He wore a handle bar moustache, the ends of which he would curl using his thumb and forefinger every now and then. He would chew the flattened end of a black cigar with burnt ash hanging at its seemingly unlit front end. Occasionally he would move the cigar to a new position without using his hand and resume his chewing of the mouth end.

He would walk always along the center of the track, taking measured steps and looking intently at various points along the line. He would appear to authoritatively thump his foot on every sleeper with a heavy thud as if to stamp his authority and show off that he was the owner of the property and the one to enforce the law of no trespass on the rail track. The occasional sleeper would shake under the force of his foot, making us feel that it was his physical strength that did it. We knew that he had something to do with the track but didn’t quite know what.

We kids living in that part of the village needed no further warnings to keep off the track as we were already aware of the danger of walking on the railway line and has been adequately warned by our elders. However, when this guy was not around, we enjoyed hopping from sleeper to sleeper, performing the usual balancing act of walking along the crown of the rail or placing a thick copper one cent coin of those days on the rail when a train was due. We enjoyed the result seeing the coin flattened to various thicknesses, shapes and forms after the train has run over it.

As I grew older, I came to know that the man I had been meeting was Aaron Singho, the beat Kangany doing his foot inspection of the track. The sleepers that ‘moved’ under his feet were not due to his stamp of authority but rather his lack of oversight of the gang who had failed to pack the sleepers adequately to avoid a train accident! Aaron Singho had long retired by the time I had joined the CGR and made made my first inspection of his beat length.

Workmen like him have since disappeared altogether. The designation Kangany has been changed to Ganger. The practice in the railways then was to recruit floor staff from among sons of railway employees. Such recruits, already living with their parents in quarters near the work place, were thought to be somewhat familiar with the work and known to show more loyalty to the department than rank outsiders. They also ‘picked up the threads’ quicker. This recruitment practice was discontinued somewhere in the nineteen sixties when a Minister of Transport saw the difficulty in providing jobs for his constituents and opened the flood gates to retinues of men from all walks of life. Most such recruits had their loyalty to the political party their patron belonged to than to the work place. As time went on, there were applicants under the new scheme with both GCE `O’ and `A’ Levels even for jobs of track labourers.

The trappings of the Kanganies - the uniform, the buttons and the watch have also disappeared in the course of time for a variety of reasons such as cutting costs, non availability of some items and supply sources for others drying up.

The Steam Locomotive - Yakada Yaka

We always looked forward to watching the fascinating scene of a steam locomotive, Carl Mullers’s Yakada Yaka approaching from a distance. If we were walking along the track and we heard that short crisp and sharp whistle so characteristic of the steam locomotive blown just once, we knew the driver was acknowledging that the signal had been lowered for him to proceed past it. We would then wait in anticipation until it took the curve round the Maha gala, a rock outcrop lying dangerously close to but just clear of the track about half a mile away from our home. In an instant, the locomotive, this huge black mechanical monster, would appear. The driver would blow a long sustained whistle that warns everyone- humans, cattle etc - to keep well away from the track and open the throttle to come hurtling towards us and hurry through the home stretch over the dead straight track from there onwards.

As the steam locomotive got closer, we would quickly move further away from the track towards the safety of the side slopes of the embankment and position ourselves for a good view of the locomotive doing its ‘dance’ as it thundered by. We would remain motionless as if to pay homage to it. Whilst it huffed and puffed large bursts of black smoke through the funnel on top of the boiler, it would also thrust out small bursts of white steam through the valves of the cylinders on either side of the engine with an accompanying rhythmic hiss with every stroke of the steam pistons working the driving wheels. In rhythm with the piston movements, the locomotive would sway from side to side and make several movements such as pitching, hunting, lurching etc., all unique to the steam locomotive.

It was indeed like ‘poetry in motion’. We would stand with our eyes fixed on the moving locomotive and train until it ran passed us on its way to the Galle railway station. How thrilled I felt when much later in life I was able to correlate these movements described above to the reason that caused them while I was doing my design for the professional interview - a hundred foot span steel railway bridge to carry the heaviest steam locomotive of the B1 class. As I then learnt, it was the action of the steam driven piston eccentrically attached to the large driving wheel of the locomotive that delivers the ‘hammer blow’ effect on the wheel. Consequently an impact factor incorporating this effect has to be added on when designing bridges, culverts and any other structures supporting the track.

The pioneering work during commercial trials for trains hauled by a locomotive carried out in Britain in the early part of the nineteenth century that pushed inland canal transport out of existence had been done using the steam locomotive as the motive power. Most railways the world over, like the Sri Lanka Railways, had to follow this practice whenever a railway network was set up in their countries.

The fleet of steam locomotives was retired from service in the late sixties on a departmental policy decision after introducing diesel locomotives which were considered more efficient, more powerful and cleaner to handle. Only a few steam locomotives were retained for special assignments such as haulage of freight traffic or as a tourist attraction on charter trains. These old war- horses are therefore still earning revenue. They have also found their way to the railway and national museums in almost every country having a rail service. Although the steam locomotives have been withdrawn from active service they could not be altogether removed from the minds of enthusiasts; and the admiration for them have grown rather than diminished.

The Diesel Locomotive

During the steam era, diesel trains were a rare sight. There were three diesel train sets, each long enough to carry a train-load of passengers. They were named the ‘Silver Spray,’ `Silver Mist,’ and `Silver Foam’. They were diesel driven integrated steel structures, made up of four sleek cars articulated and coupled together with driving cabs at either end that enabled the crew to shift from end to end when it became necessary to reverse the direction of travel. They were clean, less noisy, and saved time on the journey with quicker acceleration and braking and also by avoiding the need for attention en route as in the case of the steam locomotive. One of these silver diesel sets used to visit Galle every now and then in place of the regular express train. They had a brand of admirers of their own. There was also a rail car smaller in length that catered for the rail car service especially for school children and staff commuting daily between Alutgama and Matara, stopping at all the rail car halts as well.

The Dakkuwa

The dakkuwa would even now be a familiar sight for those living close to the railway track as it was then. Others may be familiar with the word in a totally different context: a vehicle that is not roadworthy. Sometimes even battered though functional vehicles are contemptuously referred to as a "dakkuwa." The dakkuwa is a curious and funny contraption. Made entirely out of timber planking on a solid timber frame measuring about 6ft x 6ft it is fitted with two pairs of small wheels and axles underneath the frame for mobility but has no power unit to propel it.

When I first saw a dakkuwa in my ancestral village during my school days, I was amused at first glance at the sight of the officer seated like a ‘bibikkama’ – (a word made famous by the young Turks of the left movement in Sri Lanka during the mid nineteen nineties to bring their wrath on the then head of state) on a long rattaned seat fixed to the front of the dakkuwa. He was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt, khaki shorts, and stockings with their top ends neatly folded below the knees. A foot rest was provided for his seemingly tired feet. Though his ample forehead was already covered with a hat, his un-tanned body was further shaded by an improvised hood. He was every inch a ‘brown sahib’ who had taken over duties from the white Imperial Masters, along with all the trappings, including an air of superiority over the ‘subjects’ - in this case his own countrymen, four of whom, bare footed and pouring with perspiration, provided propulsion by pushing the dakkuwa. Perhaps it wouldn’t have much mattered much during that era of social inequity. But sadly both the dakkuwa and the way it is propelled continue.

The procedure for the use of the dakkuwa is complex and uncompromising from the point of view of its handling as well as its running safety. It weighs about half a ton and has to be manually lifted and placed on the rails with the help of at least four to five men. The only practical way it could be used in mid section without delaying other scheduled trains is to have its own protection with the help of two or more flagmen. While the men at the push trolley have to keep pushing the dakkuwa whether on level track or along up grade, the two flagmen with red and green flags and other paraphernalia planted at specified distances at the start have to maintain the distances while they keep running or walking at the same speed as the dakkuwa. Enormous responsibility rests on them to protect the dakkuwa from on coming traffic.

An attempt was made briefly to replace these vehicles with a motorized version that would have relieved the staff of manually pushing it. Although a few sample trolleys capable of running on its own power with all the other functional needs included were imported, the few trial vehicles received were found to be lacking the strength and durability required of them and the proposal was abandoned.

Commuting to school by train

After a few years we shifted residence from our village to Hikkaduwa. Strange enough our new home, owned by a station-master, was once again adjacent to the railway station with the compound extending right up to the palisade fence of the station. There was far more activity and things to see now. Almost every train was stopping and the locomotive of Galle bound trains would stop right opposite the compound. The steam locomotives had several brass plates attached to its sides. They carried data that identified each locomotive. Such data included the class of locomotive, e.g. A, B, or C etc and a suffix. Another plate carried the name of a British Governor of the past. The locomotive had an additional routine to perform at Hikkaduwa - to fill up from the ‘water column’ at the end of the platform.

Being a crossing station there was plenty of activity I had not seen before right in front of me. It was a rare opportunity indeed. Trains would enter the platform line, drop passengers propel back again out of station limits, enter the loop line and stay there to allow the crossing train to be taken to the platform line. At other times, goods trains having arrived at the station would perform several shunting operations detaching loaded wagons, attaching the empties, etc. The signal cabin would then be playing a central role pulling levers that set the direction of crossovers ‘switches’ from one track to another crisscrossing through the railway yard.

‘Fly’ shunting was the most thrilling event I saw among all the activities. When a single wagon had to be detached, the goods train that hauled it will back it on to the goods line with a calculated hard push over a short distance and let it off giving the wagon sufficient momentum to take it to its final destination. As the wagon moves, the shunter will jump on to the wagon, perch himself on the axle box and hang on to the brake handle and so remain until it nears the place the wagon has to be detached. He would then jump off the wagon pulling the brake handle down simultaneously in time to apply the brake on the wagon to bring it to a dead stop.

I watched the daily routines with curiosity and interest whenever I had the chance. I began making records of the things and the activities I saw. There were three tracks in the yard with several crossover points to move vehicles or trains from one track to the other at each end of the station. An elevated signal cabin with a large number of signal levers in which there was a signalman on duty was an important place. This controlled train movements within station limits. I saw how admission and departure of trains were authorized only after a tablet was exchanged between the station master and the driver of the train.

I had been spending so much of my leisure time on this pursuit that my cousin once passed on a note to me saying that some day very soon, a locomotive will run into my mouth!

Living in Hikkaduwa, I had to now commute to Galle by rail car to attend school. It was convenient that at the Galle end my school overlooked the railway station so that I didn’t have any much walking to do at either end. Train travel was a whole new experience for me. While having seen enough of the train from the outside up to then, I was now seeing it from the inside. I made new friends with some of the other regular travelers attending my own school as well as other schools. Some student travelers had earned a reputation for bad behaviour and mischief.

Train travel was not always without incident. Once on a big match day, the evening rail car from Galle to Alutgama was packed to capacity with the more adventurous youth overflowing on to the footboards. One of them, hanging on to the train with one hand with one foot on the foot board, stretched his free leg out while passing a bridge. He attempted to kick the head of a man who had stopped on the bridge abutment until the rail car passed to cross over. He merely brushed the man’s head saving him from falling into the water and possibly killing him. But luck was against the schoolboy. He lost his own balance and grip, fell off his footboard perch on to the very abutment where his victim was standing, hit his head on a stone suffering instantaneous death.

The eventful period of my school life now seemed to come to an end. I had completed my `A’ level examination and was enjoying a well earned rest of six months before taking the next step. Repeating the examination was not in fashion in those ‘non-tuition’ days and the first shot was considered the best shot. Repeat classes started in schools only after the results were out. I was happy to see my name in the list of passes and accordingly left school to begin a fresh life in Colombo at the age of around eighteen. The change was also severing my long association with trains and tracks, leaving me with lingering memories.

I spent the next four years doing my university studies at the Colombo Campus. It is ironic that, in the last days of my university career, while sitting the final examination, I got this rare and unexpected opportunity to respond to a call from the department of railways to any interested students taking the examination to join them. This I did leading to a 30-year career in the railway.

A glance from the inside

After I joined the railways and began studying the subject more closely, one thing that struck me very early was that the railway system was, in many respects, not a good enough deal the British had given us.

When Imperial Britannia then ruling the waves, took control of our island, the vibrant, robust and prosperous agricultural economy set up by our ancient Sinhala kings during their rule was yet alive. Farmers of that era were producing rice, the Asian staple, in such abundance that the country, it is said, were supplying rice to the whole of Asia, thus earning the ‘sobriquet’ of the ‘granary’ of the East! The British who began prospecting for gold, then coffee and finally settled on tea and rubber, turned the existing economy on its head and began tea and rubber plantations and industries allied with them. Moving such produce from the hinterland to the sea ports of Colombo and Trincomalee thus became an urgent and pressing need. As a proper road system or a railway network did not exist in the country at the time, the British began to build the infrastructure with a road and rail system as a priority. The CGR was thus born.

These changes were to have far reaching consequences. They deprived the indigenous people of their staple, introduced new food habits requiring import of some foods and raw material to prepare others, creating a new import cost; deprived the farmers of their preferred self employment, and the country of foreign earnings from the possible export of rice. We are paying the price for this folly even today when tea and rubber prices have slumped and rice prices have shot up plunging the country into the doldrums economically speaking.

The ramifications don’t end there. The liabilities inherent in the railway network at the time it was set up and handed down to us at Independence, heavily outweighed any assets. For instance the track gauge and the rail profile are critical determinants that relate to matters such as how many countries and how many factories would be making the rolling stock we need. If factories that make them do exist, what is their availability off an assembly line as opposed to custom building them? All this have a direct bearing on the cost.

The track gauge they had used in our system is 5’6" - the Broad Gauge. The gauge used in the first commercial trials by George Stevenson in 1829 in Britain was 4’-81/2" - the Standard Gauge - which was subsequently approved as the future British standard by an Act of Parliament in 1847 and adopted throughout Britain. At present their system carries a total of 16,814 km of Standard Gauge track and just a few km of the 5’ - 6" Broad Gauge track.

I have searched the old documents at our National Archives relevant to the subject and the period looking for any reason why a track gauge that was good enough for them hadn’t been good enough for us, even though the price difference was clearly seen. I couldn’t find any evidence in support of that decision. As a consequence, the cost of a locomotive, a carriage, a wagon and spares are much higher as they are bigger in size and also have to be custom made. To this day, the annual import bill for such products keep increasing, at times exponentially. The cost of a locomotive is nearly Rs 200 million at present.

Similarly the rail profiles adopted by the British when the railways were set up were the 80 lb./yd and 88lb/yd., which were available only with the British Steel Corporation for several decades. These too had to be rolled out as special orders as they are non standard. There was some advantage in the case of rails when the British government offered rails on a free grant for a few years and withdrew that thereafter.

My career in the department

At the time I left my home town, I thought that I was leaving behind all my association with whatever I saw and heard and carrying only memories. However, here I was enjoying, from the inside, the railways I had loved and spent virtually all my leisure on. The nature of my duties required me to constantly travel; and also while traveling, to use several types of vehicles and specified positions in those vehicles. They were the foot plate of a locomotive, the last vehicle of a train, the Motor Trolley, and the dakkuwa. I also had to do additional foot inspections of track. In my career I would have walked many a mile and certainly a good part of the Upper District from Matale to Badulla.

I was one day, traveling from Colombo to Galle on the foot plate of a steam locomotive – the most sensitive position on the train to look for track defects. Approaching Galle it suddenly dawned on me that I was seeing the signal opposite the Mahagala, the place where I as a kid was seeing the locomotive emerging from the curve. The driver blew the short whistle, and the next instant the long sustained whistle, while entering the straight exactly as the locomotive always used to do and kept moving further past familiar places around our village, past the rail gate, past the changing front of the home we had once lived in, the place where I used to meet Aaron Singho, and the place where we used to keep those one cent coins on the rails. It brought back nostalgic memories of those distant days – but this time as an officer of the Railway.

I also carry fond and lasting memories of another very special journey that I made as a passenger from Galle returning for work in Colombo one Monday morning in the mid sixties. Arriving late at the station, I ran and hopped into the nearest compartment of the moving train. There I was to meet, quite by accident, the love of my life and my wife for the last thirty six years.

When I got my first chance to represent the railways at an international railway seminar in Tokyo in 1975, the host welcomed the guests from railway administrations of nearly twenty countries as ‘members of the global railway family’. What a truly wonderful feeling it was. And he sure meant what he said. For, on every subsequent trip I made overseas, no matter where, I received right royal treatment from their railway administrations. I had the opportunity to travel in trains of many overseas railway administrations, on the cab of a Bullet train running at 210 kmph from Tokyo to Osaka, by the French TGV from Paris to Lyon running at the world’s highest train speed of 325 kmph, on the German, Switz, Thailand, and the Indian railways at different speeds and having different levels of comfort.

Locomotives and trains had the inherent attraction in them to draw admirers from among the most unexpected classes of society. As railway enthusiasts these men (no gender discrimination here, as I do not see any women members) have branded themselves into Model Railway Clubs and enjoy the hobby of setting up model railway yards and railway networks in their own homes and run model trains on them. They will also never miss the model steam locomotive when they set up their models, may be for what they have missed running real ones. These model locomotives, rolling stock, track segments and other components are amazingly accurate scale models of the real ones, down to the smallest detail. Among members of this club were very busy politicians like the late Kumar Ponnambalam, who had so many irons in the fire, company chairmen like Ranjan Canakaratne and university professors like Dr. Wijeratne, who migrated to New Zealand some decades ago.

One of the most prominent personalities of the time who, seemingly, was an admirer of locomotives and railways was a past President of our country, a most powerful one at that. I was once officiating at the Annual General Meeting of a trade union of railway employees. The President had been invited to the meeting by the trade union as the chief guest. While delivering his address, he said that he would occasionally visit the Kollupitiya railway station, and, if a steam locomotive happened to be there, he would keep walking round it admiring it. And then, to the surprise of the entire audience of union members, railway and ministry officials and ministers who were in attendance he added that his ambition then was, some day, to become a locomotive engine driver!

I went home that day thinking to myself what a difference that would have made to the railways of today in this country although I surely felt that the country would have become the poorer by that decision.

(The writer retired as General Manager of Railways)

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