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How Sri Lankan railways came into being

The origin of the Sri Lanka Railways would have been in the ‘tram-ways or wagon-ways’ of the mineral district of England in the middle of the 16th century.

It was nearly 151 years ago that the first sod of earth was cut at Maradana, in Sri Lanka, by the Governor Sir Henry Ward, ceremonially, for the laying of the main railway line (Colombo to Kandy) on August 03, 1858.

It was on December 27, 1864 that the first train from Colombo reached Ambepussa. The engine of this train was driven by the Chief Engineer, G. L. Molesworth, who was appointed Director General of Railways in 1865. It should be noted that he had the distinction of completing the first Indian Railway.

Coal-mining was, as it is even today, an important and prospective British industry. Large quantities of the mineral had to be transported from the collieries to the port for export. A large number of carts carrying heavy loads of coal used the roads and their thoroughly bad condition eventually led to the placing planks of wood at the bottom of their many ruts.

All these resulted in the formation of special roads with planks suitably placed on the surface in two parallel rows. Stout beams or ‘trams’ soon replaced the planks and cross-beams or ‘sleepers’ came gradually to be placed at suitable intervals to keep them in position. The flat wheels of the carts, however, often slipped off the trams and these were soon provided with ‘flangos’ to guide the whole on them.

About 1670, strips of iron, called ‘scantlings’ came to be placed on the parallel beams, considerably enhancing thereby, the life of the tram. But the iron strips could not long resist buckling under the increased loads they were required to sustain. They also had an adverse effect on the wooden rollers or wheels of the wagons. To remedy these defects, iron wheels were introduced in about 1734 and iron rails in about 1740. The wheels were flat and the rails known as ‘plate-rails’ had an upright ledge or flange to keep the wheels on the track.

In these processes, the horses could haul with ease much heavier loads than before and the germ of the modern train was seen in the traction of a number of trucks linked together.

William Joseph, in 1789 introduced the ‘edge-rail’. Sometime back he transferred guilding the ‘edge-rail’. Sometime back, be transferred the guiding flange from the rail to the wheel and thus established the modern flanged wheel. The horse continued to be the motive power and steam traction was yet unknown when the first railway was sanctioned in 1801 from Kandsworth to Greydon - the Surrey Iron Railway. The Stockton and Darlington secured Parliamentary sanction in 1821. Even then there wes no mention of the locomotive and the company proposed to employ animal power.

James Watt invented the first locomotive in 1784. Richard Trovithick introduced a self-acting steam engine which he successfully adopted for drawing wagons on rails in 1804.

George Stephenson in 1814 put a locomotive named ‘Blucher’ on the Killingworth Line which hauled eight wagons of coal at the rate of five miles an hour. In 1825, he placed his locomotion on the Stockton and Darlington Railway enabling the company to employ steam instead of animal power as originally contemplated. This railway organization may properly be called the first genuine railway. It was 40 miles long. On September 27, 1825, the day that the line was declared open to the public, George Stephenson himself acted as the driver and the engine hauled a train of six loaded wagons, a passenger carriage, 21 trucks fitted with seats and six wagons filled with coal.

Stephenson’s engine ‘Rocket’ was put on the road on September 15, 1830. The Liverpool and a Manchester Railway may be called the first public steam railway.

In the meantime, the other countries saw the great importance of this invention. France and Germany implemented railway schemes. The United States commenced work soon after Stockton and Darlington and was opened and in 1830, a steam line was at work in Carolins. Belgium took up railway construction in 1834, employing George Stephenson himself.

RM Stephenon in 1844 submitted to the East India Company in England, the first proposal for the construction of railways in India. As a result, an experimental line of 100 miles from Calcutta towards Mirzapoor was formed. The East India Company Guaranteed Railway Company was formed in 1849 for its construction. The great Indian Peninsula Railway Company was formed soon after and the contract was concluded on October 31, 1850, for a track from Bombay to Kalyan and it was opened to the public on April 18, 1853 and extended within a year to Kalyan and then to Vasind. The line was opened to the public on October 01, 1855. The first section of the Madras Railway, between Madras and Amoor, was opened on June 28, 1856.

The history of the railway enterprise in India is a record of steady progress under the beneficent policy of Lord Dalhousie. Within 25 years of the introduction of the Railway in India, companies with state aid had laid down 6,128 miles of railway. The record of the next 25 years was even more remarkable. On April 01, 1902 the total length of railway opened to traffic amounted to 25,304,073 miles.

In Sri Lanka, the Governor Sir Henry Ward projected the first Railway, subduing strong opposition to the innovation, himself cut the first sod of earth in August 1858. However, he did not live to see its completion. He died in Madras on August 02, 1860. The Ceylon Railway Company took over the contract to construct the Railway line from Colombo to Kandy on July 06. The agent, the Ceylon Railway Company issued the following Memorandum dated July 07, 1858 trough the local press:

The Ceylon Railway Company

‘The ceremony, which is to inaugurate the commencement of the Railway Works, will take place on Tuesday, 3 August, at 5.00 p.m. at a point where the line crosses the Northern Extremity of the Cinnamon Gardens in Malicaha Kande, distant half a mile North-east from the Moorman’s Mosque in the Marandahn Road.

The ceremony will be conducted in an imposing manner by His Excellency the Governor, Sir Henry Ward, attended by principal government officials and the members of the Legislative Council.

Refreshments will be provided by the Railway Company in a large building erected on the ground.’

The first locomotive engine was landed on the soil of Sri Lanka and utilised by the contractor for the transport of material for ballasting purposes. It was on 27.12.1964 that the first ever train from Colombo reached Ambepussa. The engine of the train was driven by the Chief Engineer Sir G. L. Molesworth who was appointed Director General of Railway in 1865, it should be noted down that he had the distinction of completing the first Indian Railway.

The historic significance of the journey was that the heir to the Belgium throne and who was later crowned King Leopold of Belgium, Duke of Brabant, travelled in the train to Ambepussa from Veyangoda and back to Colombo accompanied by Major General O’Brien, the officer administering the island in place of the Governor Charles MacCarthy (1860-1863), who had to relinquish duties due to ill-health.

However, it was only on October 02, 1865 that the management could open the line for public use. On that day this particular train left Colombo at 7.00 a.m. and proceeded to Ambepussa, carrying 84 passengers of whom 69 were third-class, exclusive of those who had free tickets. The collection on that day was sterling pounds 31-1-11.

At that time the Station Master of Colombo was Twynam and Hoffman was the Station Master of Ambepussa. Each of them had been paid a salary of Sterling pounds 250.

However, it is in history that, although the fact that there being 334 1/2 miles of railway open to public traffic rendered the occasion one of considerable importance, there was no great notice taken off this historical inauguration.

It was since January 01, 1866, Colombo-Kandy mails were conveyed by train between Colombo and Ambepussa and the Royal Mail Coach, which used to ply between Colombo and Kandy commenced to meet the trains and conveyed from Ambepussa to Kandy and vice versa.

A private company named ‘Railway Agency and General Carrying Company Ltd’ was formed with the opening of the railway to Ambepussa to handle the traffic between Ambepussa and Kandy by means of bullock carts. However, it was not a success. It collapsed before long.

The extension of the railway line to Polgahawela was completed with great difficult in the beginning of the second half of the year 1866, and it was opened for both passenger and goods traffic on November 01, 1866.

After the bridge over the Mahaweli Ganga and the girder bridge over the Maha Oya had been completed, the last rail to join Colombo and Kandy was laid on April 15, 1867. On the following day, the first engine drawing a material train entered the Kandy Railway Station between 7.00 and 8.00 a.m.

On April 30, 1867, an engine with a train of materials, operated the whole way from Colombo to Kandy, thus bringing the two cities to within a few hours of each other. On Aug.1, 1867 it was opened for the public. The time and Fare Table issued on the occasion was as follows:

‘On Sundays, there were only two trains (up and down) starting from both ends at 7.00 a.m. They were passenger and mail trains. Coolies travelling in these fares must be in groups of not less than six and must produce certificates from the Superintendents of estates to which they belong that they form a gang.

Those giving false certificates are liable to a fine not exceeding £20.’

The railway extension to Badulla was completed and opened to public use by Sir William Manning on February 05, 1924, which completed the construction of the main line. The Matale line was opened for public use on October 4, 1880.

On the coast line, the line was extended from Colombo to Moratuwa as the first phase and opened for traffic on March 01, 1877, to Panadura on September 01, 1877. Then it was extended to Kalutara on September 22, 1879, Alutgama in 1890 and Ambalangoda in 1893 and to Matara on December 17, 1895.

The survey on the Kelani Valley Railway was carried out in 1896 and the construction was completed and traffic commenced up to Ratnapura on April 18, 1912 and to Opanayake in 1919.

On the Northern line, the Polgahawela to Anuradhapura line was completed on November 01, 1903 and later on the line was linked to Kankesanturai by 1905.

The Talaimannar line was surveyed in 1908 and the construction work was completed and the line was opened for public use on February 24, 1914.

The duplication of the main line up to Rambukkana was completed in October, 1926 and the coast line duplication up to the Panadura bridge was completed in September 1933.

The Puttalam line was opened up to Negombo in 1909 and finally extended to Puttalam in May, 1926.

The survey on the Maho-Batticaloa - Trincomalee line was carried out in March, 1920.

The track up to Gal Oya Junction was completed by 1926 and reached Trincomalee by 1927.

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