An engineering perspective of the past, present and future of Railways


Eng. B. D Rampala Memorial Lecture

The 9th Eng. B.D Rampala Annual Memorial Lecture organised by the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka (IESL), was held at the Wimalasurendra Auditorium of the institution on 20th December 2011. This year’s lecture was on the theme ‘An Engineering perspective of the past, present and future of Railways’ delivered by Eng (Prof) Amal Kumarage (Senior Professor of Civil Engineering, Department of Transport & Logistics Management, University of Moratuwa).

The significance of the theme and contents of the lecture that follows would surely be not lost on policy makers, administrators, professionals etc. and who could help revive the Sri Lanka Railways at the present times. The late Eng.B.D Rampala, as General Manager, Sri Lanka Railways (1955 -70) had risen up to the occasion when the country needed its sons to decide its own destiny. His sterling performance in that seat won acclaims both within and beyond the shores of our country and set an example to all others.

The IESL is the premier professional body, incorporated by an Act of Parliament, to serve the science and practice of engineering in Sri Lanka. It piously commemorates the engineering greats of the past who gave invaluable service to the country during their lifetime, with memorial lectures on themes that are relevant to the present times. The IESL which has over 14,000 members on its roll currently had the honour of having the late Eng. B.D Rampala as its President in 1958.

By Eng (Prof) Amal Kumarage

I consider it a privilege to stand before you to deliver the Eng B.D. Rampala Memorial Lecture for 2011 which is the one hundred and first birth anniversary of Mr. Rampala.

Even though the railways is a subject close to my heart and my professional interest, I did not have the privilege of knowing or associating with this man who to many Sri Lankan was the heart of the railways. As a school boy in the 1960s who used the train when going home for the weekend to the up country, I grew up knowing that the name Rampala meant Railways and Railways meant Rampala- alas that is all that I knew at that time. Later in my professional career it was evident it meant much more to many people who had associated with this great man. But it was not until a few days ago, when armed with a few books and articles on the Railways and Rampala I sat down to study the man and his work in whose honour I had been asked to deliver this lecture.

It did not take me long to come to grips with this compelling personality about whom many people had shared their experiences over the years. But the more I read, the more I was convinced that had been written and said surely was not enough. Even though all of what I have gathered about Eng Rampala is second hand, it is with much honour that I wish to share a little of his life I have come to know, realising with a tinge of regret that I should have either met or at least read of the life and work of this man earlier in my own life and career.

Bamunuarachchigae Don Rampala was born on 14 November 1910 and grew up at his ancestral home in Moraketiya Junction, Pannipitiya . He received his education initially at the Anglo Vernacular Mixed School Kottawa and after which he went to Nalanda College Colombo & completed his Senior Cambridge Examination at Ananda College. According to Mr. Ranjith Dissanayake who is researching material for his forthcoming book on ‘Ceylon Government Railway- Golden Era of B.D.Rampala and the Way forward’, Mr. Rampala entered the Colombo University College where he completed his examinations in Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Physics. After a few months training in the Police Department he joined the Ratmalana Railway Mechanical Engineering Department of the then Ceylon Government Railway (presently the Sri Lanka Railways) as a Special Apprentice in 1931. He sat and passed the Bachelor of Science Degree of the University of London as an External Candidate in 1933. He then went on to qualify as an Engineer through private study by obtaining the Associate Membership of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in October 1935.

Eng. B.D. Rampala rose to the position of Chief Mechanical Engineer and then to become the second Ceylonese (as we were known then) General Manager of Railways in 1955 at the age of 45 years, a position he was to hold for 14 years up until his retirement thus becoming the GMR with the second longest term of office. Eng Rampala was elected the President of the Institution of Engineers of Sri Lanka (IESL) in 1958, an important year for transport. It was the year of nationalisation of the bus industry and exactly 100 years after construction of the railways in Ceylon was inaugurated by Governor on 3rd August 1858. He was also instrumental in establishing the Ceylon Transport Board along with Vere de Mel and served in other statutory boards such as the State Trading Corporation and the State Hardware Corporation.

As I read about Eng B.D. Rampala I was struck by the relevance of this man’s example for today, not just for the railways or but transport and for engineering and in fact for all Sri Lanka. He was an engineer par excellence. But he was also a planner, a designer, a builder, a leader, a mentor and above all a servant of the people. Today it is common to think these are all specialist skills and traits to be found in different departments and in different people. But in Mr. Rampala it becomes obvious they were all rolled in to one man.

In fact I may be guilty of subverting the title of my lecture to pay more attention to the man in whose honour I speak tonight. As such the title of this lecture may well be changed to ‘The example of the life and work of Eng B.D. Rampala for the present and future of the Railways and of Engineering in Sri Lanka’. Whatever the actual title of my lecture should be, what I wish to talk about today are the key attributes I am convinced are strong motivational examples for the engineers, planners and managers of today and of tomorrow.

First, I observe that Eng. B.D. Rampala was a Professional of Immense Integrity and Aptitude

Many examples have been written of Mr. Rampala who reputedly had the capacity to fix any problem he was faced with at any time, be it technical, operational, administrative, financial or in management of people. It was not merely positive thinking that got these done, nor was it that he had powerful political connections that gave him added advantages. But it seems to be the combination of knowledge, experience and a strong commitment to serve the people through his office.

His strengths appear to be his thorough knowledge of the workings of the railway, the commitment to practice what he had learned (what I call professionalism) and a reckless abandonment of caution on innovation and development for the common good. He comes across as a professional leader who had the capacity to lead his people and the organisation towards serving the people it stood for.

He was truly a railway-man and one cannot find evidence that he was in anyone’s pocket or a puppet on anyone’s string. He stood his ground on the strength of his professional views and competencies. His reputation spread even abroad and in 1956, the Institution of Locomotive Engineers in London recognised Eng. Rampala as the Best Diesel Engineer East of the Suez. He did not need any political support to get appointed or for survival therein or to provide insurance for any incompetency. He did not seek promotions or appointments by request and neither did he align himself to any power political or otherwise for popularity or protection. Such administrators and even engineers in state institutions are a rare entity today. Sadly this is a need of our times for engineers of integrity to stand up to lead and to protect the practice of engineering and the organisations they represent.

The collapse of engineering leadership in the Railways seems to have begun soon after Mr. Rampala’s retirement as GMR. Perhaps it was the political response to ensure a more subservient institutional head that the next GMR was appointed from the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) with an Additional General Manager to assist him in Technical matters. This even led to a very capable AGM (Technical) to retire prematurely from the railways and thus the mentoring and succession of engineering leadership of an engineering institution was broken never to be fully restored.

Eng ARP Wijesekera recollects a news headline in 1977 which stated ‘The trains are running to time, the stations are clean, Rampala is back!!. It was true that Mr. Rampala was back in the Ministry of Transport, but only as a consultant 7 years after retirement. Mr. Wijesekera a former Mechanical Engineer and later President of IESL in 1980, however notes that ‘his tenure was short lived as there was now no place for Rampala or others of his ilk’. So sadly, in just a few years the very organisation that he led for 15 years and the ministry could not properly accommodate his contributions. Things had changed even in the space of 7 years. Sadly the tide still keeps coming in and goes out with each passing change of political administration. Each tide keeps eroding the pristine procedures and practices that were in place before Mr. Rampala’s time which were the pillars on which he practiced his engineering and on which the CGR was built.

Today these engineering processes that were initially instituted by our Colonial masters are being dismantled in full public view. While the purposes of these processes when first instituted could be questioned, they were useful to ensure organisations serve the task they are set up for. They are to ensure that transparency and accountability are built in to the core processes of each organisation. Such processes be they for award of contracts or tenders, for recruitment or promotion or for engineering design or study or inquiry are built to honour, respect and protect the professional inputs that are the core competencies on which engineering organisation should perform.

Rampala’s era with the railways can be termed as an illustrious period in which he demonstrated what could happen when such procedures are in the hands of a true son of Lanka. He took the railway to serve not just the economy of the country but its people. He truly vested it as a national asset to the people and that is perhaps the biggest contribution we see of his tenure of office as GMR from 1955 to 1970.

Part II will be published tomorrow

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