Rail bridges and the development of the SLGR, Sri Lanka

Railway Bridges and their maintenance in Sri Lanka

References:   Dr A.M.A.C.S. Bandara (csbandara@eng. pdn.ac.lk) and Eng. Prof. P.B.R. Dissanayake (ranjith@eng.pdn.ac.lk) at the University of Peradeniya,

The many working parts of a railway consist of complex but inter dependent components that include many features like:
>>>  Bridges
Freight Trains for hauling goods
Signaling System and
Train Routes and Passenger lines.
The road network of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) comprised of more than
4,800 bridges across major rivers, streams, reservoirs and canals all over the country.  Some of the brides built during colonial era, more than 120 years old still stand as giants remembering us the comprehensive transportation systems

The main objective of this article is to elaborate a few salient features of some of these bridges giving due recognition to their significant architectural or technological aspects. Also, this article attempts to highlight the need of preserving these national treasures for the benefit of future generations with the assistance of proper management systems while reviewing some of the findings of the bridge study recently concluded.

The construction of first trunk road, Colombo – Kandy Road (A1) took approximately 10 years. Dawson’s’ Tower near Kadugannawa Railway Station is a tribute to the British garrison engineer who steered the construction work in a difficult terrain, under trying conditions and succumbed to death after stung by a poisonous snake. During this period some unique bridges were constructed by British rulers. The Bridge of Boats over Kelani River, Mawanella Bridge and Peradeniya Bridge are some of the bridges with unique features.

The regular mail coach service between Colombo-Kandy was inaugurated in 1833. The Colombo- Galle mail coach commenced in 1838. But it was used not only for delivery of mail but for normal passenger transportation as well. The regular connection between towns were enhanced day-by-day. The mail coach from Colombo took 14 hours to reach Kandy due to steepness of the road and difficult climb. Also, it has taken 12 hours to return to Colombo at the beginning.

The next target is how to maintain the bridges in a sustainable manner. Development of a conducive environment and appropriate mechanisms is very important to put a
proper maintenance system in place. The area surrounding a bridge should not be polluted by dumping garbage. The vicinity of a bridge should be maintained as a beautiful site for recreational activities of the residents of the area close to the bridge. There are some bridges which are historically valuable and enhance the aesthetic value of the environment where the bridge is located.

Therefore the focus of this section is on Railway bridges maintained by SLGR.  At its inception the Ceylon Government Railways consisted of nine and a half miles of railway bridges and 3060 culverts that needed constant maintenance and repair.  A number of critical elements were the basic elements of railway such as locomotives, tracks, tunnels and bridges.
One of the early lessons in geography that I recall from my early childhood  was that Sri Lanka was blessed with a number of major rivers. At school we had to memorize the names of the major waterways of Sri Lank from Aruvi Aru to Mahaweli Ganga. If a railway system had to be designed bridge building proved to be an essential component.

Here are two examples of two beautiful rail bridges of Ceylon.

Nelum Pokuna Bridge on the Puttalam Line

Kotagala Railway Bridge in Sri L:anka


Some time ago, rail bridges in the Puttalam area were inspected as part of a study to evaluate their condition. “Instead of building a brand-new bridge, we proposed to repair the existing rail bridge by retrofitting the worn-out parts,” said Professor Ranjith Dissanayake from the Department of Civil Engineering of the University of Peradeniya.

Old rail bridges in Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka).
Many of the bridges in Sri Lanka were built over a 100 years ago when the railway system was constructed. At that time, most of the bridges were made of iron. Many of these have endured while providing services transporting people and goods over the years. A typical example is the railway bridge at Peradeniya by the Colombo-Kandy main road. In Sri Lanka, old iron bridges on railway lines have survived in spite of challenges in maintenance.

Building a new rail bridge involving the dismantling of the old bridge and constructing a new one is costly. Many low-income countries face the same problem. When constructing a new bridge, the number of vehicles, the type of load (inclusive of unavoidable loads such as floods and wind), and the fatigue in the metal have to be considered, thus increasing construction cost. On the other hand, if an old bridge is unusable or fails under load, the damage caused to people and the economy will be enormous, quite apart from the inconvenience to its users of not having the bridge. The obvious compromise is of course the rehabilitation of existing bridges.

A solution: Rehabilitation of the existing bridge
Rehabilitation of a bridge requires the study of the structure and analysis of its parts for their strength and deficiencies. In that way, the remaining age (or the life time of the bridge) is estimated. Knowing which parts are weaker than others enables their replacement so that the entire bridge would live out its design life.

A rail bridge considered in this study was the 165m-long Kelaniya Railway Bridge, which is a nearly 150 -year-old truss bridge made of wrought iron (rather than steel that is used today). Fig. 1 shows a typical truss bridge form with its many parts or elements. Initially, the length, the width and the thickness of all the elements of the bridge were measured. Information regarding tears in the iron and weak points was obtained from

X-ray analysis. For material testing, the steel samples taken from the bridge were tested in the laboratory by chemical analysis, microscopic examination and mechanical property tests to identify the type of iron, its elastic modulus and types of strength (e.g. yield, ultimate and fatigue). It is yield or ultimate strength that is used as the basis of design under normal circumstances, but the fatigue strength under repeated load cycles can be an order of magnitude lower – see Fig. 2, which indicates that the allowable stress range will be drastically reduced with an increasing number of stress cycles (e.g. due to loading and unloading).

The next step is to perform the field load test. When trains travel on the track, various parts of the bridge experience extensions, contractions and vibrations depending on the load carried. These are measured using electronic transducers, strain gauges, acceleration gauges and electronic data loggers (Fig.3). Thereafter, a virtual computer model of the

actual bridge is developed and validated. Computer-simulation technology is used to construct a virtual bridge which is compared with the actual bridge in question. To build a virtual bridge, the dimensions of the bridge and its current condition are treated as inputs. The virtual bridge can be validated by imposing loads on both the real and virtual bridges, measuring deflections and strains in the real bridge, and checking whether the virtual bridge outputs are similar to measured values. After validation, the performance of the real bridge under even say earthquake forces can be estimated by imposing such forces on the validated virtual one.

The train time tables would indicate the number and magnitude of repetitive forces that need to be imposed on the virtual bridge for a target duration of bridge life. The stress ranges and the number of cycles experienced can be calculated. The fatigue strength drops significantly with the number of cycles (Fig. 2), and hence has to be estimated carefully.

Using the virtual bridge, the remaining bridge life is calculated, assuming that railway time tables and rolling stock loads will not change significantly. Even if they do, the virtual bridge can once again be used for simulation. This remaining bridge life can be calculated for the different elements of the bridge. If a particular part has very low remaining life (or in fact its life is theoretically exceeded), that part can be replaced via retrofitting. Thus, instead of building new bridges, the existing bridges can have their suitability checked and retrofitted accordingly.

The benefits and conditions
A considerable economic benefit through selective retrofitting (rather than replacing the entire bridge) is the main advantage. This type of targeted reinstatement of elements would probably incur only 5-10% of the cost to replace the entire bridge. Such retrofitting is also much faster than the time taken for new bridge construction. Rehabilitation reduces the need for new material, thus reducing carbon budgets and other adverse environmental effects too. In order to reap these benefits safely however, regular maintenance and periodic retrofitting of the rehabilitated bridge would need to be carried out.

This work was carried out by Eng. Dr A.M.A.C.S. Bandara (csbandara@eng. pdn.ac.lk) and Eng. Prof. P.B.R. Dissanayake (ranjith@eng.pdn.ac.lk) at the University of Peradeniya,

Hello Everyone – A History of the Ceylon Government Railway by Ghazali Raheem

I have always been captivated by trains. Their immense size, their power and design always fascinated me. As a school boy growing up in Sri Lanka during the 1950’s and 1960’s train travel was a common practice. I traveled by train to visit family in Jaffna and during the August school holidays and then once more  in December, our family would all travel together to our holiday home in the hills. I could never forget the now familiar sounds at a railway station. Crows making a racket, pigeons flying about local food vendors yelling out their wares and the announcement of next train to depart. Then came the hiss of the steam engines, the push and pull of the locomotives, the loud whistle of a departing train are all too familiar.

As a boy growing up, it is interesting to note that there are a number of great movies that feature trains or train rides such as  The Great Train Robbery, Von Ryan’s Express, From Russia with Love, The Harry Potter movies, Murder on the Orient Express, Trans-Siberian  Unstoppable etc. It is therefore no wonder we are all fascinated by trains and locomotives.

I had the good fortune to travel by train in a number of countries In Europe and in Asia. I have travelled by train from Zurich to Bern seeing the Alps, I have taken the trains in England, from Haworth to Keighley to visit the Bronte family household a  railway line featured in many British movies of the day. I have travelled by train from London to  Cambridge and back and in the US traveled by train from Washington D.C. to New York by Amtrak. In India I took the Shatabdi Express from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, while working on projects in India I travelled by sleeper car from Mumbai to Pune.

Once on the train I would listen to the steady clickety clack of the railway lines wonder how fast the train was travelling? We would depart from Colombo in the early hours of the morning and get to Haputale around 3:00 p.m. from where we would take a bus or be picked up by car. Sometime if several of us travelled as group, we would get off at the Ohiya Railway station and hike the six miles to our holiday home in Boralanda.

I would wonder about the number of tunnels we went through on our journey from Colombo to Badulla which I learned later on to be close to forty tunnels as well as a number of iron bridges that spanned the many rivers of Sri Lanka. The view from the window would switch from one side of the train to the other, as the train came through a tunnel. If one sat facing the engine, to the right side of the train one would see acres and acres of lush green tea estates and suddenly as the train exited the tunnel the view would shift to the opposite side of the train and the valley would drop off to the left side of the train.

THE CEYLON GOVERNMENT RAILWAYS, which have their system centred on Colombo, have 834 miles of 5 ft 6 in gauge track open, and 117 miles of 2 ft 6 in gauge. The first section of line was opened in 1865


Colombo in August can be oppressively hot and humid. As the train started to climb up into higher elevations to Nanu Oya  past Gampola to Nawalapitiya entering the Tunnel No. 14 (Singha Malai Tunnel) passing Watawala to Kotagala onto Thalawakele passing Nanu Oya then Ambewela and up to  Pattipola and Idalgashinna the train would reach the Main line summit at  Pattipola 6,220 ft  feet and finally reach Ohiya. It would then proceed to Haputale, Bandarawela, Diyatalawa and on to Badulla. From this point in the journey the air got increasingly cooler and the forests would be covered in rolling mist. One would change into a sweater to ward off the cold. It was great to be in this cool climate and leave the oppressive heat and humidity of Colombo behind.

While travelling the train on these early railway tracks my mind would drift to how the system got built, who was responsible for building the railway, how were the tunnels dug, did Ceylon use imported labor, were only hand tools used at that time or was dynamite used often to help dig  tunnels,  how did they plan for the curvature of the line, what were the measures to decide on how incline was needed to take on heavier loaded goods trains, would such trains make it up the hills, how did trains switch lines when approaching a junction were all the railway crossings manned by a person and what happened in the dead of night, how did the signaling systems work etc.?

In this narrative I try and answer as many of these questions. Why was it built, how did the government pay for it, who paid for it, where did the raw materials come from. Today the railway system consists of a extensive network of railway lines with a number of trains tha travel to every corner of the island. Nearly a quarter of a million passenger travel daily using the railway system to get to and from work. Almost a one hundred and fifty years ago these lines were laid and even today these trains run taking children, parents, workers  from town to town.


The Components of a Railway System

The working parts of a railway consist of complex inter dependent components that include many features like:
Freight Trains for hauling goods
Signaling System and
Train Routes and Passenger lines.

Most of the railway system in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is broad gauge (5′ 6″) and today the system has close to1560 km of track. The Railway system aptly named the Sri Lanka Government Railway has many lines. At the time when plans were being drawn up to build a railway system, the existing roads, were not capable of handling the demands of the expanding plantation industry. After the formation of the Government Railway Company, Chief Engineer G.I. Molesworth was hired to build a new railway system. It was he who came up with a new route that was designed to be easier to build and would cost less than the previous estimates. In August of 1867 the ‘Main’ line to Kandy was completed.  The ascent into the hill country to Kadugannawa, involves a climb of 1,400 feet in 13 miles, a complex piece of railway engineering, considering the broad gauge nature of the line and a gradient sometimes of  1/45 with curves of 10 chains (201 m) radius).  This previous statement shows the complexity of railway systems design. A railway system needs tracks, bridges, stations, signalling systems, locomotives, rail cars and personnel. Over time it would carry freight as well as passengers.

Railway systems are a complex design of engineering marvel and they have a number of interlinked components, They all have a several railway lines, it has got tracks, railway stations, signaling systems, it carries freight, it carries passengers and has several thousands of employees. This is trues of all railway systems particularly in Asia.

Steam locomotives were first developed in the United Kingdom.   They were used throught the 19th century to the 20th century. In 1802 Richard Trevithick built the first steam locomotive. The first commercially successful steam locomotive was built in 1812–13 by John Blenkinsop.   A company started by George Stephenson and his son Robert built the first steam locomotive to haul passengers on a public railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825. Robert Stephenson and Company was the pre-eminent builder of steam locomotives for railways for the British Empire  including India and Ceylon.  Steam engines soon replaced by Diesel engines and electric engines

In 1864 with the construction of the main Line from Colombo to Ambepussa a distance of 54 kilometers  the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) was launched, CGR is now called the Sri Lanka Government Railway (SLGR).   The first train ran on December 1864 launching the system. It was not open to the public until October 1865 when the first passenger rail was run.

The line often referred to as the Main Line was extended in a number of stages. It was started to go up to Kandy in 1867. In 1874 the line was then extended beyond Kandy to Nawalpitiya.  In 1885 it was extended to Nanu -Oya and on to Bandarawela in 1894, and finally to Badulla in 1924. Th plan was ot link the entire country by railways. Soon construction began on the Matale line (1880) the Coastal Line (1895), the Northern Line (1905), the Mannar Line (1914), the Kelani Valley Line (1919), the Puttalam Line (1926), and the Batticaloa and Trincomalee Lines in 1928.  Most of the building of the railways in Ceylon took place between 1915 and 1928.

The system today operates over 411 passenger and 26 goods trains each day, on a network that comprises 1,567.62 kilometers of track and 380 stations, with a staff over 18,000 employees.

The system today, also has a number of passenger lines named in both  Sinhalese and Tamil after Queens and Princesses.  Udarata Menike (Upcountry maiden) from Colombo to Badulla,   Podi Menike (Little Maiden)  from Colombo to Badulla,  Tikiri Menike (Little Maiden) from Colombo to Hatton, Ruhunu Kumari (Princess of “Ruhuna” – southern province) and Yal Devi (Princess/Queen of Jaffna) from Mount-Lavinia to Kankasanthurai and many others.


An annotated Bibiliography

When researching the subject I came across references and images from the Library of Congress including those at the  the Brigham Young University Library collection and the Faviell Collection  of photographs at the  Cambridge University Digital Library and many other sources. A number of these volumes were available using the Inter Library Lending (ILL) system of the Fairfax County Public Library (FPCL) where I found an old copy of  – G.F. Perera’s The Ceylon Railways -. There are a number of interesting books on Ceylon, the Railways, some quite readable, including a few dry graduate papers on the Asian Transport sector,  thesis of no great depth,  Here is a short list of recommended books you may want to review.

  1. Davy, John An Account of the Interior of Ceylon and its Inhabitants,  with travels in that island, London 1821
  2. De Silva, Colvin R.,  Ceylon Under the British Occupation  1795-1833 Colombo 1953
  3. De silva, L. S. and Mendis, D. L. O. A History of the Sri Lanka Government Railway
  4. Emerson, Ceylon, An account of the Island,  Physical Historical and Topographical, Two Volumes,  London 1859
  5. Ferguson, John  Ceylon in 1884,  London 1869
  6. Fernando, Hemasiri Essays on Ceylon Railways, (1864-1964) 2017
  7. Knox, Robert,  Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon, London 1861
  8. Munasinghe, Indrani  The Colonial Economy on Track  , Roads and Railways in Sri Lanka 1800-1905,  Colombo 2002
  9. Nandasena, S and Wickremeratne, V  Ceylon Railway Heritage by K.A.
  10. Peeligama, Udaya  Essays in Railroading  (Darshana Marketing Enterprises (Pvt) Ltd.)
  11. Perera, G.F   The Ceylon Railway: The Story of Its Inception and Progress  Ceylon Observer, 1925 – Railroads – 297 pages
  12. Shepherd, Ernie  The Atock/Attock Family A Worldwide Engineering Dynasty  The Oakwood Press, 2009
  13. Sir Samuel Baker, Eight Year Wanderings in Ceylon, London 1855
  14. Skinner, Major Thomas Fifty Years in Ceylon, an autobiographical sketch by his daughter, Annie Skinner, London 1891

Public Domain Images in Museums and Libraries (Ceylon Railways)

Note: Simply click on the smaller images to enlarge them  !!!

A selection of (public domain)  images from Libraries and websites relating to railways and history.   While researching this topic I came across a number of articles, image and photo galleries that are housed in a number of libraries all over the world. Most of them are in Colleges in the UK and the United States. Here are a few useful image gallery links.


The BYU Library World Transport Commission Collection , William Henry Jackson 

Faviell Collection of Ceylon [i.e. Sri Lanka] Railway views, 1867

Images from the FIBIS Gallery

Images of Ceylon


RailwayBridge Ceylon1856  CetlonRaiwlaySteamEngine1910




ColomboKandlyRailwayLineConstrcution2 ColomboKandyRailwayConstruction OldRailwayStation

In the Beginning…..

At the time when the British had captured the Kingdom of Kandy, and imprisoned the last sinhalese King,  trade was not a priority. The movement of goods and people was not as urgent. The interior of the country was only accessible using narrow jungle paths. Sinhalese Kings of ancient Ceylon unlike kingdoms nearby strove to make their territories inaccessible.  Kings in Europe for example, built walled cities to protect their citizenry behind moats, forts or castle walls.  Kings of ancient Ceylon moved their kingdoms to remote locations accessible only by using steep and narrow jungle footpaths. Major Thomas Skinner once wrote at that time that ”  the approaches to Kingdoms in Ceylon were difficult and treacherous. Kandy was accessible only by narrow jungle paths so steep and rugged as to be quite impossible for any description of vehicle”.

A lady on a Palanquin

Simple modes of transport were lacking, only the rich and the powerful transported themselves on a palanquin at a leisurely pace or on the backs of elephants.  It is with this background that the transport set-up in Ceylon originated. Over time however once the British captured the whole Island the plantation economy led to an increase in the flow of goods to the port. In order to get  produce efficiently and profitably to the port, roads and railways had to be built and trade and economy began to improve.

Here is an excerpt from a book I discovered while researching this topic that you may find intersting.

Ceylon in 1893

Describing the progress of the island since 1803, its present agricultural and" commercial enterprises, and its un equalled attraction to visitors.
With useful statistical information, specially prepared map, and upwards of one hundred illustrations.

by John Ferguson,  Co-Editor of " Ceylon Observer," " Tropical Agriculturist," " Ceylon Handbook," etc. ;  Life Member of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asia tic Society ;  Honorary Corresponding Secretary of the Royal Colonial and Imperial Inst,  

Published by John Haddon and Company London 1893

He goes on to say….When the English landed in Ceylon in 1796, there was not in the whole island a single practicable road, and troops in their toilsome marches between the fortresses on the coast dragged their, cannon through deep sand along the shore. Before Sir Edward Barnes resigned his government in 1831, every town of importance was approached by a carriage-road. H e had carried a first class macadamized road from Colombo to Kandy, throwing a ” bridge of boats ” (which is only now, in 1893, to be superseded by an iron bridge) over the Kelani river near Colombo, erecting other bridges and culverts too numerous to mention en route, and constructing, through the skill of General Fraser, a beautiful satin-wood bridge of. a single span across the Mahaveliganga (the largest river in Ceylon) at Peradeniya, near Kandy. O n this road (72 miles in length) on the 1st of February, 1832, the Colombo and Kandy mail-coach—the first mail-coach in Asia—was started ; and it continued to run successfully till the road was superseded by the railway in 1867. There can be no doubt that the permanent conquest of the Kandyan country and people, which had baffled the Portuguese and Dutch for 300 years, was effected through Sir Edward Barnes’s military roads. A Kandyan tradition, that their conquerors were to be a people who should make a road through a rocky hill, was shrewdly turned to account, and tunnels formed features on two of the cart routes into the previously almost impenetrable hill-country.

The Railway Company and the CGR (Ceylon Government Railway)

The United States celebrated the  one hundred and fiftieth  anniversary of the Golden Spike on May 10, 2019  linking  east and west. This celebration one hundred and fifty years ago, help to complete the US Transcontinental Railroad.  What used to take up to eight weeks by coach or horse back now took a mere ten days to complete, from Chicago to California.
For more go to -> https://www.nps.gov/gosp/index.htm

Even as a young boy I have always been fascinated by railroads and railways. I have spent the past few years researching this topic on rail travel and railways.  For the past several years my primary focus has been to understand how such railway systems for example in  Ceylon were built ? While a number of questions keep coming up, I will try and provide some answers to a few of those listed below,

  • What were the primary reasons to build a railway system in Ceylon ?
  • Where did the iron rails for the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) come from  ?
  • What was the original source of the railroad ties or “sleepers”,
  • From where did the CGR Ceylon purchase the coal to run its railway ?
  • How soon after George Stephenson invented the steam engine did Ceylon get its own railway ?

When one travels today by train in Sri Lanka, very few people ponder the questions; how was the system built, who was responsible, for building it, how was it financed, what were some of the design, engineering and construction chellenges did they face ?

The first sod was cut on August 3, 1858 by the then Governor Sir Henry Ward (1855-1860) amidst great jubilation.  The construction of a railway in Ceylon was proposed way back in 1842, when the coffee planters agitated for a better and quicker mode of transport to  Colombo for shipment. It took several weeks by bullock cart, and  during the monsoon season, the shipment often arrived late, after several weeks often the shipment was ruined.

The need for transporting coffee in bulk was so pressing that an idea for a company was floated in England around 1845, known as the Ceylon Railway Company.  The company’s engineer Thomas Drane worked on the preliminary survey in 1846 and the estimated cost of the project was 850,000 British 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 Ambepussa (32 miles) for a mere 258,000 pounds.

In 1856 a provisional agreement was signed between the Government of Ceylon 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.

A modern railway system that carries both goods as well as passengers need a high level of maintenance. From Thailand, to Canada rail there are numerous examples of how each country maintain its railway systems for the safety and comfort of those traveling on them. All countries inspect their lines and carriage before a train can depart. One of the frequently upgraded material on a railway system are the wheels, the tracks, and  railroad ties.


Railway Ties or crossties, are an important railway component. Generally, the rail sleeper is always laying between two rail tracks to keep the correct space of gauge.

Having been developed for more than one hundred years, the railway ties need to meet the different requirements of the various railway tracks. In the past time, railroad ties were usually made of wood and had continued for about 50 years.

A railroad tie or crosstie (American or railway sleeper (British English) is a rectangular support for the rails in railroad tracks. Generally laid perpendicular to the rails, ties transfer loads to the track ballast and subgrade, hold the rails upright and keep them spaced to the correct gauge.

Railroad ties are traditionally made of wood, but prestressed concrete is now also widely used, especially in Europe and Asia. Steel ties are common on secondary lines in the UK;  plastic composite ties are also employed, although far less than wood or concrete. As of January 2008, the approximate market share in North America for traditional and wood ties was 91.5%, the remainder being concrete, steel, azobé (red ironwood) and plastic composite.  The crosstie spacing of mainline railroad is approximately 19 to 19.5 inches for wood ties or 24 inches for concrete ties.

Historically wooden rail ties were made by hewing with an axe, called axe ties or sawn to achieve at least two flat sides. A variety of softwood and hardwoods timbers are used as ties, oak, jarrah and karri being popular hardwoods, although increasingly difficult to obtain, especially from sustainable sources. Some lines use softwoods, including Douglas fir; while they have the advantage of accepting treatment more readily, they are more susceptible to wear but are cheaper, lighter (and therefore easier to handle) and more readily available. Softwood is treated, while creosote is the most common preservative for railway ties, preservatives are also sometimes used such as pentachlorophenol, chromated copper arsenate and a few other preservatives. Sometimes non-toxic preservatives are used, such as copper azole or micronized copper. New boron-based wood preserving technology is being employed by major US railroads in a dual treatment process in order to extend the life of wood ties in wet areas. Some timbers (such as sal, mora, jarrah or azobé) are durable enough that they can be used untreated. Problems with wooden ties include rot, splitting, insect infestation, plate-cutting.

Engineering the Dream – Building the Railroad – Part I

During the time of the British colonial administration it was decided to introduce the railway to Ceylon. As a number of coffee and tea plantations had begun, and in order to transport these goods to Colombo quickly and safely demand was made for a railway system. The first line was built in 1864 from Colombo to Ambepussa a distance of 54 miles.

Sir Guildford Molesworth was Ceylon Railways first Chief Engineer responsible for managing the construction of the railways. He later became its first Director General of the Ceylon Railways and the local inhabitants called the trains Anguru Kaka Yakada Yaka (Coal eating iron monster).Molesworth

Between 1864 and 1905 there was a tremendous expansion in the building railways in Ceylon. The service was expanded to Kandy Nawalapitiya,  Nanu Oya, Bandarawela and on to Badulla including passenger rail. The line to Matale was built around 1880, The Coastal Railway line in 1895, the line to Jaffna from Anuradhapura in 1905 and the line to Mannar and then on to Puttalam in 1926.

No major extensions were added after 1926 and in 1947 the British left Ceylon and the country changed its names to Sri Lanka in 1972..

The Engineers, Builders and Governors – Part II

A committee appointed to oversee the progress and finance of commerce and trade of the Colonial administration in a report to the Governor in 1847 said the following;
“A general scheme of roads should be constructed having reference to the principal places of production and of trade in order to hasten the economic and the transit of merchandise.”

Governor Barnes

Governors who were appointed by the King (and the Queen) to administer the colonies. Many of them subsequently lent their names to streets and avenues in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon).As someone growing up and attending schools in Colombo, Ceylon, one became familiar with the names of the colonial administrators.

Sir Thomas Maitland

Names such as North, Maitland, Wilson, Brownrigg, Barnes, Paget, Campbell, Barnes, Wilson, Wilmot-Horton, Stewart-Mackenzie, Campbell, Emerson Tennent, Torrington, McCarthy, Ward, Lockyer, Wilkinson, O’Brien, Robinson, Robinson Irving Gregory Longden, Douglas Hamilton-Gordon, Havelock, Ridgeway, Blake, Clifford, McCallum, Chalmers, Stubbs Anderson, Manning, Clifford, Fletcher, Stanley Thomson and Caldecott Moore were all familiar to most school boys growing up in Colombo, Ceylon.

From 1800 to 1867 and since the capture of Kandy several key factors played a role in the building of a road network in Ceylon. The main objective of the early administrations were to strengthen the foothold of the entire island and to prepare the ground work in case of a local uprising, which did occur as the Kandyan kingdom rose in rebellion.

Governor North

Governor Fredrick North in his attempts to depose the king of Kandy said in his speech that “A road would facilitate the movement of troops from central Ceylon to the coastal areas. “ This was also important in case war broke out with French, who were at this time nearby in the Indian ocean.  In addition most Kingdoms in Ceylon were built in inaccessible places and several garrisons were located some distance from Colombo such as the case in Badulla and needed supplies and munitions from Colombo.

Governor Ward

The period between 1800 and 1815 did not see much expansion in terms of new road construction. Once the British captured the maritime provinces. The Governor North in Colombo and Sir Thomas Maitland worked on the repair of the old road from Colombo to Galle. Bridging rivers to cross Governor Wilson and Sir Robert Brownrigg cleared the way for the construction of roads leading to Kandy.

Building Ceylon’s Railway Network and My Research

Train from Colombo passing a tea estate 1894

It all came together when I read Stephen E. Ambrose’s history on the American Railway  “Nothing Like It in The World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869″ . He writes that the construction of the Railway in the United States, began soon after the end of the civil war ” to heal a nation divided “.  President Abraham Lincoln had always wanted to build a railroad that would link East and West. Ambrose goes on to say that the building of this railroad ” tied the United States together,” he asserts, “from east to west “. What was fascinating for Ambrose in this impressive book was the awe-inspiring construction of the Trans Continental Railroad, an engineering feat of mammoth proportions.  In most of the large land masses like Russia, Canada, and the United States, transcontinental railways were being built with the sole purpose of uniting these countries.  In the United States the trans continental railway linked east and west, soon after a bitter and prolonged civil war, and the country progressed from being based upon an agricultural economy to an industrial one.

Tunnel construction near Ohiya from the Brigham Young University Library Collection

I have always been curious as to how this took place, why did this happen ?

Construction along the Haputale line

As a boy growing up in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) I spent my school holidays in a small village between Haputale and Welimada six miles from the Ohiya railway station. At night I would hear the mail train as it made it way from Badulla to Colombo blow its horn at cattle that strayed into the many tunnels to keep warm. Going to bed at night I would hear the train, blow its horn, practically at the same minute each night. It is a sound one would ever forget.

This got me thinking as to how the railway, came to be built ? Who were the principal figures who made this possible? What challenges did they face, what influenced choosing one route over another, where did the need for supplies of iron, gravel, wood, machines and coal, come from ?  Where did the labor come from in order complete the work ? As in the construction of other major railway systems like the Trans Continental Railways, were there limits to the grade and curve of each line, could, the locomotive of the day, pull their weight up six thousand feet elevations ? As in most successful large scale projects who, what and how were these challenges met, were some issues I was curious about ?

The latter half of the nineteenth century was a period of great change in Ceylon.

Matara Rail Yard 1895

After conquering the coastal areas of Ceylon in 1796 the British in a short period of time, in a 15-year period, consolidated their hold on the whole island by becoming rulers of the entire island by 1815. This allowed the British to turn the island’s economy to be based on plantation agriculture. The colonial masters of Europe and the British in particular, expanded this hold on colonial lands and moved these economies in

expanding European markets, to be based upon  a demand for agricultural products. As a result of this both in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and in India, the transport network of roads and railways, came to play an important part.