“British enterprises are changing the face of the earth; but great projectors are often turn mad—it is a maxim in political economy that heavy goods can be conveyed by canal at less cost than by any other means..”. – Ceylon Herald …Sep 16, 1845

At 7 in the morning on October 2, 1865 a train carrying 84 passengers in 10 carriages, began its historical journey from Colombo to Ambepussa. – News item in 1865 - Matara - Beliatta railway extension commissioned

As reported in all media, a ceremonial train carrying Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Arjuna Ranathunga, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Members of Parliament Chamal Rajapaksa, Mahinda Amaraweera, State Minister Asoka Abeysinghe, former Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Southern Province Governor Keerthi Tennakoon and local politicians and representatives of contractors left Matara Station for Beliatta on Monday 8th morning commissioning the Matara - Beliatta railway extension. Chamal Rajapaksa it was stated, represented former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother.

The VIPs disembarked and unveiled ceremonial plaques at sub-stations at Piladuwa, Werahena Kekanadura, Bambarenda, Wewurukannala and Beliatta. Large crowds lined the 27 km new railway track and stations and welcomed as the train passed by. Addressing the public meeting held at Beliatta, a minister said that a railway line beyond Matara was first proposed by President Premadasa in 1991 and that the government appreciated initiative taken by former President Rajapaksa to commence the project.

It was a remarkable occasion where combined efforts of all governments irrespective of party rivalry acknowledged the work done for the development of much needed infrastructure. Former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa said that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted his good wishes conveyed.

However, it was marred by a few unruly elements affiliated to a new political party who gathered at Beliatta and Matara stations creating unwanted scenes. Mahinda Amaraweera MP, reiterated that it was a public requirement that the track be extended up to Kataragama and pledged their fullest cooperation.

150 years of Ceylon Railway: How it all began

“Strictly speaking there are no roads in the island…”, -- Revd. James Cordiner, Chaplain to Colombo Garrisons in 1807.

The Kandy Convention of 1815 ceding the island to British Empire saw a remarkable progress in the roads and other infrastructure development in the next five decades. With exceptional memorials of an early civilisation spread all over the island, and the many beautiful spots of picturesque exquisiteness with which environment has richly blessed the land, it turned out to be mostly important to have a roads system.

“Existing roads might have been upgraded and even new ones provided; but it was a futile attempt to solve the increasingly difficult problem of transport. Nearly 300 plantations were coming into bearing and it was feared that there would not be a sufficiency of carts or of cattle in the island for the transport of the crops. The planters and the merchants fully appreciated the value of Railway; they insisted upon early establishment of it. However there were men in the island who had reservations about this project.”’ continued the warning by the editor of Herald.

Beginning of rail transport

“Tramways” preceded Railways: they are believed to have had their foundations in the mineral districts of England in the late 16th Century when coal mining became an essential industry. The first rail track was laid between Stockton and Darlington, a 40-mile railway which was inaugurated on September 27, 1825. The first genuine Railway, originally, ran on George Stephenson invented steam engine.

It took only twenty years for Rail transport to be introduced in Ceylon. The Ceylon Railway Company – [CRC] was formed in October 1845, which commenced work on Colombo Kandy line, but took 13 years for negotiating commercial aspects. British engineers sorted out engineering complications before the cutting of the first sod on August 3, 1858.

The Ceylon Railway Company

A ceremony will take place on the August 3, at 5 p.m. at a point where the line crosses the Northern Extremity of Cinnamon Gardens in Malicaha Kande [Maligakande]. It will be inaugurated by His Excellency, the Governor, Sir Henry Ward, attended by the members of the Legislative Council.

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

[Public communiqué released to newspapers by the company announcing the ceremony]

The day’s proceedings as reported in newspapers were as follows:-

…At about half past five the Governor’s equipage dashed up, Guard of Honour presented arms….Capt Cumming carrying the silvered and the ebony-handled mammotie bearing an inscription commemorative of the occasion. Arrived at the spot, HE received the mammotie and Bishop Chapman implored the Divine Blessing on the work…the Governor cut the sod and deposited it in the wheel-barrow of polished satin wood and ebony.…next, the VIPs sat down to a banquet at half past six…Governor rose to the toast of the evening: “success to the Ceylon Railway”… Ceylon Observer -August 5, 1858.

The launch after seven years

It took nearly seven years to complete the stage I; a stretch of 34 ½ miles between Colombo and Ambepussa. The engineers and the dedicated work force were able to finish the work ahead of schedule on June 1, 1865, but delays in shipments of carriages compelled the authorities to delay the inaugural run. Thus the first railway commenced its operations on October 2, 1865. On October 2, 1865, the first train began its historical journey from Colombo to Ambepussa.

Ceylon Railways under the colonial administration provided the important link between different parts of the island and the capital of Colombo. Subsequently, passenger and commodity movement in the entirety of tea estates in the up country, and covering all the hilly regions ran through Kandy to Badulla. Later additions were, Northern and Eastern lines as well as the Puttlam. The city was connected to Opanayake through Ratnapura and Awissawella in a special narrow gauge track that catered to Sabaragamuwa estate sector.

When train services completed 150 years of existence four years ago, it had suffered two major tragedies, one in 1928 and the other in 2004. Referring to the first incident, the Colonial Secretary stated in Legislative Council,

‘I am sure, Sir, the house would wish me to express our very deep sympathy with the relatives of those killed and those injured in the appalling railway accident which took place yesterday evening. I have no authentic details at present, but I can assure the House that there will be a full scale inquiry into the matter’. -- Hon. Colonial Secretary.

– Hansard; 13/03/1928:Col. 538

It was March 12, 1928; an express train left Matara at 4.55 p.m. and was heading for Colombo with David Crowe as its engineer. The “Absolute block system, Tyer’s Tablet Instruments” had to be strictly followed by trains operated on the single-line track, where the engine driver has to collect the tablet from the station master, [the key that is used to ‘reserve the line’ between two adjoining stations]; This tablet which shuttles between, will be returned at the next station. As per conclusions of Lt. Col. Eustace of the Indian railways who was commissioned to enquire into this misfortune, the collision was a result of Colombo-Aluthgama engine driver’s negligence.

Kalutara’s SM Jayawardena instructed Bennett, the driver to take his train to a siding, as the Matara-Colombo express train has to be given priority. It was misconceived by the Engine driver of the slow train from Colombo to Alutgama. Bennett advanced at full speed towards South. SM, Jayawardene, dashed behind the train frantically waving his cap in an attempt to draw the attention of the guard. Failing, he sat on the rail track praying desperately for the heavenly powers.

Within 12 minutes he heard the loud bang that sent a pang on his heart and sound waves through air which stretched a few miles. The Colombo bound express had collided head-on against Bennette’s train at Katukurunda. Hundreds of passengers could not be rescued easily as their limbs were crammed between the wreckage.

The other disaster was caused by Sunami in Pereliya on 26/12/2004, of which all are aware.

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