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Ceylon Railway System

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The construction of a railway in Ceylon was first raised in 1842 by European coffee planters seeking a line be constructed between Kandy and Colombo as a quicker more efficient means to transport their product for export. After protracted negotiations the Ceylon Railway Company was established in 1845, under the chair of Philip Anstruther, Colonial Secretary of Ceylon, to build the colony’s first railway. In 1846 the company’s engineer, Thomas Drane, undertook preliminary surveys for the new rail line. In December 1856 Captain William Scarth Moorsom, Chief Engineer of the Corps of Royal Engineers, was sent from England to assess the project for the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Henry Labouchere.

The initial sod turning was on 3 August 1858 (near the present Maradana railway station) by Governor Sir Henry Ward. The Ceylon Railway Company’s contractor, William Thomas Doyne, soon realised that it was impossible to complete the work on the estimate submitted. In 1861, the contract with the Ceylon Railway Company was terminated, the subscribed capital paid off, and the government took over the construction work, under the name Ceylon Government Railway (now Sri Lanka Railway – SLR). At the end of 1862 the Crown Agents for the Colonies accepted, on behalf of the Government of Ceylon, a tender from William Frederick Faviell for the construction of 117 km (73 mi) of railway between Colombo and Kandy.

The service began with a 54-kilometre (34 mi) main line connecting Colombo and Ambepussa. Many Ceylonese people referred to the trains as Sinhala: “Anguru Kaka Wathura Bibi Colaba Duwana Yakada Yaka” (“coal-eating, water-drinking, metal devils which are sprinting to Colombo”).

Extensions were made to the main line in 1867, 1874, 1885, 1894 and 1924 to Kandy, Nawalapitiya, Nanu Oya, Bandarawela and Badulla. Other lines were added to the rail system during its first century, including an 1880 line to Matale; the 1895 Coast Railway Line; the 1905 Northern Line; the 1914 Mannar Line; the 1919 Kelani Valley Line; the 1926 Puttalam Line, and the 1928 line to Batticaloa and Trincomalee. For more than 80 years after that,no major extensions were added to the Ceylonese rail network.

Rail infrastructure was improved from 1955 to 1970 under the management of B. D. Rampala, chief mechanical engineer and general manager of the Ceylon Government Railway. Emphasising punctuality and comfort, Rampala led upgrades to major stations outside Colombo and the rebuilding of track in the Eastern Province to facilitate heavier, faster trains. He introduced express trains (many of which had iconic names), and ensured that Ceylon’s rail system was up to date and offered comfort to its passengers. Until 1953, Ceylon’s railways used steam locomotives. During 1960s and 70s, they changed to diesel locomotives under Rampala’s leadership.

The government began a 10-year railway-development strategy in the early 2010s, ordering replacement DMUs. The southern line, which was damaged in the 2004 tsunami, was upgraded from 2010 to 2012; its track was upgraded to handle train speeds of 100 km/h (62 mph).

Sri Lanka Railways began partnering with ExpoRail and Rajadhani Express in 2011 for premium service on major routes. Its northern line, affected by almost three decades of war, is being rebuilt; in 2015, it was restored to Jaffna and Kankesanthurai at pre-war levels. The maximum speed on this line is currently 120 km/h (74 mph). The southern line is Beliaththa was delayed.

Sri Lanka Railways has intercity service connecting major population centres, and commuter rail serving Colombo commuters. Commuter trains serve the busiest portions of Colombo and its suburbs. Most commuter trains are diesel multiple units and lack the three-class configuration of intercity service. Commuter trains, which alleviate rush-hour congestion on city roads, can be crowded. Electrification of the commuter-rail network has been proposed to improve energy efficiency and sustainability. The railway also transports freight.

Most intercity trains have several classes;

  • 1st class sleeper, with sleeping berths, is available on a few overnight trains.
  • 1st class observation class is available on some day trains, primarily on the Main Line. Normally at the rear of the train, it is occasionally behind the locomotive.
  • 1st class air-conditioned seats are available on some intercity express trains between Colombo and Vavunia and Colombo and Batticaloa. They are also available on the main-line Udarata Manike and Podi Manike trains.
  • 2nd class seats, available on all intercity trains, are unreserved or reserved.
  • 3rd class, available on most trains, have basic bench seats and fans.

Trains and Routes

SLR divides its network into three operating regions, based in Maradana, Nawalapitya and Anuradhapura. The network consists of nine lines, and several services were named during the 1950s.

  • Main Line – Colombo Fort to Nawalapitya, Nanu Oya, and Badulla : (Udarata Menike, Podi Menike, Tikiri Menike – to Hatton), (Senkadagala Menike – to Nawalapitiya), (Colombo – Badulla Night Mail Train)
  • Matale line – Peradeniya Junction to Kandy and Matalale
  • Northern line – Polgahawela Junction to Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Jaffna and Kankesanthurai : Yal Devi, Rajarata Rejini, Jaffna night mail, Jaffna intercity
  • Mannar line – Medawachchi Junction to Mannar and Talaimannar 
  • Batticaloa line – Maho Junction to Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa Udaya Devi, Meena Gaya
  • Trincomalee line – Gal Oya Junction to Kantale and Trincomalee
  • Coastal line – Colombo Fort to Galle, Matara and Beliatta; Beliatta to Kataragama under construction. :       Ruhunu Kumari, Samudra Devi, Galu Kumari, Sagarika, Rajarata Rejini, Dakshina intercity
  • Kelani Valley line – Colombo Maradana to Avissawella
  • Puttalam line – Ragama to Puttalam   Muthu Kumari, Puttalam mixed and express trains, Chilaw express

Top Benefits of Rail Transport

1. Cost-effective

Compared to other modes of transport, it is cheaper to transport goods and passengers via train than by car or plane. Thailand’s train network, for example, is known as one of the most affordable modes of transport in the world, according to Fleet Logging’s latest index.

2. Environmentally friendly

Rail transport is one of the most environmentally friendly forms of travel, as trains emit fewer greenhouse gases than their land and air counterparts, thereby encouraging greater green efficiency.

3. High carrying capacity

Trains have a higher carrying capacity, enabling more cargo to be carried at one time. This results in lower transportation costs.

4. Safety

When the network is engineered thoroughly, rail travel is less likely to involve accidents than road travel, making it one of the safest modes of transport currently available.

5. Reduced traffic congestion

One of the biggest cons to living in a city is traffic congestion. However, train transport can positively impact congestion by ensuring fewer cars are on the roads. This has a further knock-on effect of enabling travellers to reach their destination on time too. 

6. Energy-efficient

Rail transport is one of the most energy-efficient modes of transportation, as trains consume less energy per ton-mile than trucks or planes. In terms of logistics and cargo transportation, a train’s impact on the environment is more minimal than other modes. 

7. Job creation

Designing and building a train takes an extensive network of industries: manufacturing, engineering and logistics, to name a few. As an example; to build the HS2 railway in England, it is estimated that at least 34,000 people will be needed to complete the contract, thereby helping to boost the local economy.

8. Reduced carbon footprint

According to Our World in Data, transport accounts for around one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions. However, taking a train instead of a car for medium-length distances would help cut individual emissions by 80 percent, making it a more sustainable option.

Finally the rail transport can be a cost-effective, environmentally friendly, reliable, and safe mode of transportation with myriad benefits. Its high carrying capacity, flexibility, energy efficiency, and job creation potential mean that the opportunity for cities and outlying communities to become integrated is possible. As rail networks continue to be an essential part of both the local and global transport system, they will significantly contribute to reducing traffic congestion and the carbon footprint of the transportation industry, making it a more sustainable option for the future.


“Ceylon Railway Enthusiasts Circle (CREC)/SLRF”. Sri Lanka Railway 145th Anniversary Trip. 2 January 2010.

“Sunday Observer”. Cameos of the past: First train on line to Badulla from Colombo. 19 July 2010. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016.

 “Construction of Matara-Kataragama railway line in Southern Sri Lanka”. ColomboPage. 6 April 2010

“Dailynews”. Railway gets new power sets from China. 23 April 2010. Archived from the original on 8 March 2012.

Farzandh, Jiffry (19 December 2011). “B. D. Rampala – an engineer par excellence”. Ceylon Daily News. Archived from the original on 13 January 2012. Retrieved 3 January 2012.

 “The Island”. Rampala regime in the local Railway History. 19 July 2010.


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