|Saturday, 3 August 2002|
by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe
It was on August 3, 1858 that the first sod of earth was cut by the Governor Sir Henry Ward (1855-1860) amidst great jubilation, for the construction of a railway in Sri Lanka although the idea was mooted as far back as 1842, when the European coffee planters agitated for a better and quicker mode of transport to haul their produce in bulk from the upland country to Colombo for shipment.
With the fall of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815, the European planters looked for suitable investments as they were attracted by the mild climate and rich soil in the up-country region and they selected coffee as the most viable commercial product for export. The coffee mania was at its highest in 1845.
The Governor, public officials, the military, the judges, the English clergy and most of the members of the civil service became coffee planters having acquired crown lands so cheap as 50 cents an acre.
The need for transporting coffee in bulk was so pressing that a company was floated in England in 1845, known as the Ceylon Railway Company under the chairmanship of Philip Anstruther to build a railway for Sri Lankan planters. The company's engineer Thomas Drane worked on the preliminary survey in 1846 and the estimated cost of the project was 850,000 sterling pounds to lay the line up to Kandy. As the estimate was found to be too high it was decided to lay the line up to Abepussa (32 miles) for 258,000 sterling pounds.
In 1856 a provisional agreement was signed between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Ceylon Railway Company to lay the line from Colombo to Kandy at a reduced cost of 800,000 sterling pounds.
The planters became alarmed at the prohibitive cost and wanted a fresh survey done. The Secretary of State in England taking into consideration the appeal made by the planters sent Capt. Moorsum to Sri Lanka to examine and report on alternative routes which would be less expensive.
Capt. Moorsum came to the island in 1857 and on his findings a suitable route was selected (through which the trains now run), and the engineer W. T. Doyne with his staff came and started work in 1857.
He found that the crossing of the River Kelani as a difficult task as the ground on both sides had to be raised for the flood waters to escape freely during monsoonal rains when most of the lowland area became submerged by the gushing waters and even the high ground and the ridges proved to be inadequate elevation for constructing a railway.
A bridge of 800 ft. in length with spans of 62ft. 6 ins. built on screw piles and 12 spans of 25ft. on brick piers was planned. After completion following a heavy rain one of the spans collapsed with an engine and crew on September 20, 1872. What we now see is a replacement strongly built to withstand duplication of trains and it was completed in 1902.
Doyne was placed with practical difficulties from the very beginning and he requested for additional funds to lay the track.
This led to the cancellation of the contract and in 1861 the government took over the assets and liabilities of the company and the capital subscribed was paid off. As the railway was an urgent need fresh tenders were called first and after proper investigation the lowest tenderer W. F. Favielle was given the job. G. L. Molesworth was appointed resident Engineer who later became the first Director General of Railways in 1865 and he was succeeded by J. R. Mosse in 1871.
The combined talents of Molesworth and Favielle, no doubt, contributed in no small measure for the successful completion of the first railway in Sri Lanka up to Kandy. However the permanent way was pushed to Ambepussa on roughly finished track to run the first train conveying the Duke of Brabant (later King Leopold II - 1835-1909 of Belgium) on December 27, 1864.
The locomotive that hauled the Royal Train was a 4-4-0 type, two wheel-coupled engine with a tender, manufactured by R. Stephenson & Co., Birmingham, England.The locomotive reached Ambepussa rushing and panting, puffing and screaming with a sort of consciousness and pride that it was reaching the terminus when large crowds stood alongside the track to see the iron horse with tremendous excitement. It can truly be said that the train caused a stir in the placid and contemplative society of that time, as no other single factor could have done.
In the year 1866 Mahara (now Ragama), Henarathgoda (now Gampaha) and Veyangoda stations were completed. In the second stage of the work from Ambepussa to Kandy great progress was made in spite of bridges and tunnels that had to be constructed to lay the line under grave hardships using antediluvian equipments tools and machinery. The first train to Kandy from Colombo ran on April 26, 1867.
The tunnels and overhanging rocks on the main line stand as a lasting monument to the genius of the Chief Engineer, Molesworth and to the great course of F. W. Favielle, the contractor. The first tunnel is at Mirigama (274 ft. long) and upto Kandy there are 10 tunnels - the longest being 1,095ft.
People who travel by train know only a brief history of the railway in Sri Lanka but there is much to know.
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