A requiem for two unique road-rail bridges


by Prof. J. Sarath Edirisinghe

Sri Lanka had the unique distinction of having two remarkable road-rail bridges built by the British in the early 20th century. The intensive road construction in the modern sense began during Sir Edward Barnes’s time. He was the mastermind behind the great military road from Colombo to Kandy and the Governor who commissioned the marvel of the time, the satinwood bridge across the Mahaweli at Peradeniya.

The British realized the importance of establishing an effective and quick transport system to bring the produce, particularly the agricultural products from the hill country to Colombo during the early part of their rule. The first sod for establishing a railway system was cut by Sir Henry Ward, the Governor of Ceylon in August 1858. The main hub of the newly established railway system was centered in Colombo and the expanding network was the legacy of the colonial government of British Ceylon. The first train left the Colombo station on December 27, 1864, for Ambepussa, a distance of 54 km. This line, to be extended to the hill country, was designated ‘The Main Line’ (ML). The ML was officially opened for rail traffic on October 2, 1865. The extension of the ML took place in stages – up to Kandy in 1867, to Nawalapitiya in 1879, up to Nanu Oya in 1885, to Bandarawela in 1894 and finally to Badulla in 1924. The linking of other areas with Colombo took place during the extension of the ML and after. Matale line was completed in 1880, Coast line 1884, Northern line 1905, Mannar line in 1914, narrow gauge Kelani Valley line in 1919, Puttalam line in 1926 and Batticaloa-Trincomalee line in 1928.

The Batticaloa line starting in Colombo, deviated from the line going to Trincomalee at Gal Oya junction to Polonnaruwa and then to Batticaloa and is 217 miles long. Before the ethnic disturbances the line was regularly serviced by the powerful "Udaya Devi’. This line, together with the Trincomalee line, was classified as ‘Batticaloa- Trincomalee Light Railway’ and only locomotives with light axel loads were permitted to run. The route was re-laid to avoid numerous sharp bends and 1.44 gradients in 1950s so that the line was similar to the rest of the network allowing larger trains to operate. Royston Ellis in his travel book ‘Sri Lanka’ says that a railway General Manager commenting on the tortuous course of the original tract equated it to a path taken by an intelligent cow that went round every obstacle in its way.

The first of the unique road-rail bridges of our story was at Manampitiya beyond Polonnaruwa on the A11. This bridge, the only one across Mahaweli for about 80 km of the river, upstream or downstream linked the North Central Province with Batticaloa. It also provided access to major Mahaweli Scheme settlements of Polonnaruwa and Ampara districts. I remember crossing this bridge as a small boy and waiting hours to see a train crossing the Mahaweli on the same road surface. This old iron bridge built by the British in 1922 was one of the longest rail bridges in the island and measured 960 feet (in railway terms – six spans of 160 feet). The width of the bridge was less than five meters and no two vehicles could pass each other. This led to traffic in one direction to wait until the traffic in the other direction was over to cross the bridge. When it was time for a train to pass all vehicular traffic stopped until the train passed and incidentally this was one place where a motorist could come face to face with an approaching train if the signals were ignored! According to David Hyatt, an authority on Sri Lankan Railways, this bridge was originally built by the British as a railway bridge and there was no road access to the other side. Apparently some road vehicles were transported by rail across the river until 1951 when a road surface was added on to the railway tract.

The severe traffic congestion led the government to negotiate with the Japanese government and a new 1.3 billion "Sri Lanka Japan Friendship Bridge’, a bridge exclusively for road traffic, was declared open on October 25, 2007. At the time of opening, it was the longest bridge in Sri Lanka. The length of the new bridge is 302 meters and has a width of 10.4 meters. The old Manampitiya road –rail bridge, the first of the unique iron bridges of this type in Sri Lanka, still carries on servicing the railway line to Batticaloa.

The old Oddamavadi steel bridge (also known as the Valachchanai Bridge) constructed in 1924 by the British, was a road-rail bridge from its birth. The bridge spanned the Valachchanai lagoon with the single railway tract in the middle of the road. Although this grand old bridge served the nation for over eight decades, providing access to both rail and road traffic, the unprecedented increase in vehicular traffic and the resulting delays at the bridge led the government to initiate work on a new bridge for road traffic. The result was a magnificent new road bridge, 250 meters long with a width of 10.5 meters, presented to people in April 2010. The cost of the construction was borne by the Spanish government.

The road – rail bridges of Manampitiya and Oddomavadi are no more. Even when they were in use only a few have had the unique experience of crossing these world renowned road- rail bridges. Nevertheless millions of railway enthusiasts the world over knew about these two road - rail bridges though they were of the simplest of the different kinds of road-rail bridges seen in other countries.

A road-rail bridge in the simplest form will carry a road surface for vehicular traffic and a railway tract for trains. The railway tract may be in the centre of the road surface as was in Manampitiya and Oddomavadi. In this instance all vehicular traffic must come to a halt when a train is crossing the bridge. In other forms of road-rail bridges the railway tract and the road may be separated at the same level, side by side or one, either tract or the road may be located above or below the other. The more complicated and of course more sophisticated ones will have several railway tracts, four to eight lane road surface, a passageway for bicycles and a walking strip for pedestrians. Almost all these bridges are toll bridges and motorists may have to pay a flat amount or a rate depending on the hour of the day.

One road - rail Bridge that is iconic and recognizable by many is the Sydney Harbour Bridge. This road- rail bridge was opened on the March 19, 1932. The opening ceremony was a momentous affair that had been imprinted in the minds of many older Australians. On the day of the opening there was pomp and pageantry and a crowd variously estimated at 300,000 to one million attended the ceremony. The Labour Party Prime Minister of New South Wales was to cut a ribbon to open the bridge when a man in military uniform, on horseback, slashed the ribbon with a sword and started riding across.

He was soon arrested and identified as Captain Francis De Groot of a right wing Para-military group that opposed Lang’s leftist policies. De Groot was arrested for inappropriate behaviour and following a declaration by a psychiatrist as being sane, fined five dollars. The bridge links the Sydney Central Business District with the North shore. The length of the bridge is 1,149 meters and has a width of 49 meters. It carries six lanes of road traffic on the main roadway, two more lanes on the eastern side and two railway tracts on the western side with a bicycle path. The bridge is nicknamed ‘The Coat Hanger’ due to its arch-based design. This grand old bridge marveled by the thousands of early settlers from Europe lost the first place as an icon to the Sydney opera house in recent times.

Another remarkable road – rail bridge is the Oresund Bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark. It is a combined twin tract railway and a dual carriageway bridge tunnel across the Oresund strait and is the longest in Europe. The rail tracts are located beneath the four road lanes. While connecting two countries, the bridge links two world famous cities – Copenhagen (Denmark) and Malmo (Sweden). The Oresund Bridge was opened in the year 2000 despite a few setbacks. One was the discovery of 16 unexploded World War II bombs in the seafloor just beneath the bridge. Crown Prince Fredrik of Denmark and Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden met midway across the bridge tunnel to celebrate the completion. The tolls are high and there are different kinds of packages for the users. The tolls are paid on the Swedish side.

The Asian region can boast of a unique road – rail bridge, the Tsing Ma Bridge in Hong Kong. This is one of the longest road – rail bridges of the world linking the principal air port with the Lantan island. The 41 meter wide bridge has six lanes for road traffic – three in each direction. The lower level has two rail tracts. There are also two sheltered carriageways in the lower level for maintenance work but would allow road traffic during bad weather such as typhoons. It is a toll bridge.

Currently 34 countries operate road- rail bridges. This number is after deleting the two listed for Sri Lanka (Manampitiya and Oddomavadi). United States of America has the largest number of road – rail bridges and they are found in 13 different states. China has eight and Canada six. The grand old bridges of Manampitiya and Oddomavadi still carry on at least servicing only the railway. These two British built bridges, though now used only for rail traffic cannot last forever and have to be updated or replaced. I wander why nobody thought of replacing them with a state of the art road – rail bridges that would provide not only access to road and rail traffic, cycles and pedestrians but also could carry water, electricity and telecommunications lines as well.

The two road – rail bridges of Manampitiya and Oddomavadi served our motherland well. Though the old must give way to the young and new, let us not forget these marvels of construction during the British period that put Sri Lanka in the annals of railroad history.

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