Essays on Ceylon Railways (1864 – 1964)


Hemasiri Fernando

The latest publication by Mr Hemasiri Fernando – Chairman of the People’s Bank, the Chairman of the Committee to set up the National Railway Museum and the former Secretary to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, will be of immense value to the Department of Sri Lanka Railway and the general readers.

A hundred years of government activities from 1864 – 1964 resulted in providing the country with a modest but useful rail transport network. The railways served most useful, giving an impetus to and sustaining the new economy which was based on coffee and later tea and rubber cultivation in Sri Lanka. There was a form of interdependence between the plantations and the facilities available for transport. On this context the chapters of this book on Unforgettable Narrow Gauge and the Longest viaduct which concentrate on analyzing the history of Uda Pussellawa and Kelani Valley railways are interest to the readers. As Mr Fernando pointed out the construction of the Nine Arch Viaduct at Gotuwala between Ella and Demodara, "went into the history of Books of Ceylon Railways as one of the most unique colonial civil engineering marvels accomplished" (P 246). This huge viaduct known as Nine Arch Bridge was built entirely of solid rocks, bricks and cement.

This new scholarly book on Ceylon Railways contains useful information about track, rolling stock, train controlling systems, stations, signals, expansion, all illustrated by photographs. Of particular interest to any reader should be the chapters on Garratt Engines, Railway Signaling and safety, Legendary Class M1 and Landmarks which concentrate on the up country main line, train controlling systems, diesel electric locomotives, longest viaduct, Maradana Workshop, Demodara Loop and the Junction stations respectively.

Mr Fernando’s fascinating account highlights all the drama of his subject especially regarding the Locomotive Department and Way and Works Department. Regarding the Garratt locomotives the author comments that "the Ceylon garratt has a special page to its credit in the CGR history with a lot of positives and few negatives. They are robust, vibrant and memorable" (P.53). He writes of railcars including Sentinel rail car T2 – 322, petrol driven rail cars Clayton broad gauge steam rail cars and diesel electric rail cars. Not only that then he writes of rail based mail service (Royal mail Coach) including the travelling Post Office and about the Director Generals and General Managers of the Ceylon Government Railway from Sir Lindsey Molesworth (1856 – 1871) to Mr D B Rampala (1955 – 1970). At the same time he examines closely the problems faced by the engineers in constructing the railways such as the Demodara Loop, spiral railway and the Black bridge at Demodara etc., and about the fantastic locomotives introduced by the British (Beyer Peacock, Brush – Bagnall) and the Canadian (General Motors Diesel) companies. Thus the author has skillfully executed a difficult and challenging exercise.

The principal focus of the author is about locomotive power, carriages and wagons of the Department of Locomotive. Chapter V of this book on "Pre-Independence Diesel Traction, Chapter VI on "Legendary Class MI" and Chapter VII on "Canadian Engines" describe the modifications done by the Department of Ceylon Government Railways to improve the locomotives. Details of steam locomotives, diesel locomotives and power cars etc, used in the CGR described in this book are valuable to the readers who are interested in Railway Locomotives.

Mr Hemasiri Fernando is a "rail enthusiast and anything and everything connected with the railway was fascinating to him" (P 141). He is so thrilled of having these Canadian locomotives. He concludes his chapter on Canadian Engines as follows."

"Canadian engines of the CGR have stamped a very colourful picture in the hearts and minds of the people in this country for more than five decades. They are commended as perfect and most successful, in terms of efficiency, reliability and outlook. It is not easy to find someone who does not agree!" (P 153).

The photographs, tables, maps, block plans and appendices have enhanced the quality of this contribution of the author to enrich the knowledge of the Ceylon Government Railways. As Dr Lalithsiri Gunaruvan a former General Manager of the Sri Lanka Government Railway justly puts it, "history could teach us many lessons so that the success stories in the past could be the pillars of future success", (Socio – Economics of Colonial contribution to Railways in Sri Lanka, preface, P.V.). One can gather various success stories especially regarding the locomotives, carriages and rail infrastructure of the British Colonial period in Sri Lanka.

Flowing in a simple story–telling fashion, Essays on Ceylon Railways, (1864 – 1964) of Mr Hemasiri Fernando could be said as one of those books the readers do not want to put down, until they complete reading it. Finally I would like to state that this book on Hundred years of railways is a sound, lively and well illustrated record of a technology that has proved vital to the advancement of the Ceylon Government Railway.

Professor Indrani Munasinghe

Professor Emeritus of History University of Colombo


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