Saturday, 16 November 2013

Colombo to Jaffna (Sri Lanka) by train

This is a fictitious story based on many real life journeys. I wrote it for fun, being a railfan. It was originally posted on the website of Ifthar Rizvi, a fellow Sri Lankan railfan. Then, a couple of years ago, an edited version ran in the Plus section of Sri Lanka's "Sunday Times" newspaper along with my illustration seen below.

Colombo- Jaffna- KKS by Train.

By N. Senthilkumaran


An imaginary journey based on fact along the northern railway line in the island of Sri Lanka (Ceylon, to you tea drinkers). Since the late 1980s, due to the escalation of the war in the north of Sri Lanka, train services were severely affected and following June 1990 no trains have run beyond Vavuniya. This write up takes the reader by train from Colombo to Jaffna and is a compilation of many journeys the author had made in the 1980s. The idea is to give you a taste of what such a journey was like at that time.


Colombo Fort Station 5.30 a.m.

In the pre dawn darkness passengers and well-wishers alight from their buses, auto-rickshaws, taxis and cars onto the main concourse of this long station. An uncle of mine is wearing sunglasses in the dark--- honest!!!!!!  Some queue at the ticket counters for last minute ticket purchases anxiously. 


I have my tickets for the reserved seat sleeperette coaches which have two coaches in 2nd Class and one coach in 1st Class. There may also be an air-conditioned 1st class coach. Most coaches have seats facing each other, the sleeperette has airplane type seats facing in one direction and can be reclined. The coach is labelled sleeperette in the three national languages. Train travel is popular in Sri Lanka as it is smoother and more comfortable than the buses. Also a lot of passengers don't pay for tickets so it is a free ride for them! This popularity leads to overcrowding so the sleeperette reserved seats are much in demand and you have to book very early and even then use your "connections" to be assured of a seat.


Past the ticket checker onto the platforms which are linked by overhead bridges under a vast train shed. Looking around for the correct platforms for our train No.37 Up, the Yal Devi. (Yal for Yalpanam, Jaffna, City of the Lyre/Harp. Devi is a typical Tamil name for a woman. All of Sri Lanka's express trains are named after women, please don't ask me why). Announcements in Sinhala, Tamil and English through a tinny speaker system which makes all the languages sound the same. A male voice drones out the never ending list of stations- a slow express train!


Yep, this is the correct platform. The train thunders in from the yards to the north to which we will be returning on our way out. The locomotive is either a Canadian built (MLW, now Bombardier from Alco designs) Class M4 in blue and silver or the German (Henschel) built Class M6 painted in red and green with yellow speed whisker. Both are diesel-electrics commonly used on this route and are rated at 1700 hp with Co-Co/A1A wheel arrangements and are very long beasts. The loco pulls in long hood forward. Once the train is halted it detaches and runs to the other end and couples ready for its journey north with short hood (low hood for the M4) forward.


Now as the train pulls in and before it comes to a halt, people are already scrambling aboard to get a seat, preferably a window seat and one away from the odorous toilets in the middle of the coach. Young boys in the family are brought along for this task as they can even hop in through the windows. Thanks, thamby! The passengers consist of a large number of Tamils as they are heading back home to the north which is predominantly Tamil populated. The train is usually full of Sri Lankans of all races and a smattering of tourists with backpacks. Families on holidays, young men on leave from their jobs in the Arabian Gulf laden with gifts for the family, Government servants with their ubiquitous DSI standard issue leather bags going back on leave using their warrants. Another reason for the mad scramble, once the locomotive uncouples to go around to the front of the train, there is no power or light in the coaches. Sri Lankan trains draw power from the loco. So for about ten minutes you are in darkness in the coaches except from some light filtering in through the windows from the platforms- remember, dawn is just breaking outside. This is the period when the pickpockets have a good time, an aunt of mine once lost her handbag in this darkness. You have been warned.


In the sleeperettes another mini-drama is usually unfolding. As there are two second class coaches, they are labelled by writing A or B with a ball point pen on the leaf of an exercise book which is stuck next to one of the doors. It is very easy to miss this even in broad daylight, presuming it hasn't fallen off during the journey from the yard to the platform, or that there was one stuck on in the first place! So you can imagine the confusion in this darkness. People sit in the correct seat numbers but in the wrong coaches. When the rightful occupant comes along there is much huffing and puffing and speaking of English as that is the language of the privileged classes. "Damn fool, Bugger, Idiot, Are you blind or something, can't you see the A written on your ticket man? Don't talk to me like that." Much sushing of husbands by wives, children watching everything to eagerly pick up new English swear words, indignant hauling of luggage to the correct seat just as the locomotive is re-coupled to the front of the train and the lights suddenly come on. One advantage of these encounters in the dark is that you may not recognise that damn fool who was in your seat if you meet him again.

Rajadurai; "The cheek of that bugger, no? Why do they allow these donkeys in here?"

Mrs. Rajadurai; "Aiyoh, relax will you, your blood pressure will go up. I don't want you dropping dead in the middle of the wedding, what will the in-laws think!"

It happens every time I have travelled- same incidents, only the people involved are different.


Well- wishers having helped with the seat finding and luggage usually disembark now but there is a breed of macho men who insist on hopping off only after the train has started moving- despite pleas from their passenger friends against this. Hopefully that pretty, doe eyed creature in the blue cotton sari in the next seat will recognise and be bowled over by this display of  bravado. Will this be true love? No, most likely a broken arm or amputated leg if he is not careful. This scenario is likely to be repeated at every station, hopefully the doctors are not on strike again.


Suddenly the Station Master blows his whistle, a bell is rang, green flags are waved, the driver gives a long blast of the air horn and with a jerk, we are off! Much waving of hands out if the window. See you, Bye, Thanks for putting us up, Come to Jaffna, I'll put a call when I get here…..the pickpockets, now on the platform, do a final round of relieving watches and chains off these outstretched hands.

"So how, machang?"

"Not bad, I got a Rado and a Seiko but this chain looks like imitation jewellery."

"Better luck with the Kandy Inter City."


North east to Polgahawela

Dawn is breaking as the train accelerates through the yard, past the commuters on the platforms at Maradana station, on through the yards at Dematagoda where you can see a few locos in the running sheds. A long line of vehicles wait as we roll over the gated level crossing at Baseline Road, then its past Kollanawa and at control speed over the Kelani River, we are technically out of Colombo Municipal limits at about 6 a.m.


As the driver notches up to run 8 on the double track stretch to Polgahawela, we meet trains in opposite directions running on the adjacent track, some loco hauled like the Colombo bound Jaffna night mail, Mannar night mail and diesel multiple unit commuter services. Early morning mist rests on the fields. Short stops at Ragama and Veyangoda, then onwards  at  speed  in a north easterly direction running express past many small wayside halts. Colour signals change from clear green to danger red as the loco passes. A loud howling noise is set up, reflected sound of our train on the adjacent steel rails of double track. Small children cover their ears to minimise this roaring sound. The sun rises higher into the sky bringing bright blue skies. The air blowing in from the open windows is refreshingly cool.

Some passengers catch up on their sleep, others peer out the windows at the school children in stark white uniforms crossing the emerald green fields. Maybe a flash of saffron as a Buddhist monk goes about his morning duties.


Polgahawela Junction. A stop of a few minutes. More passengers embark, few disembark. This is the junction with the main line into the hills and the line north which we shall be taking. This station also marks the end of the colour light signal and the beginning of tablet working and sephamore signalling.


Kurunagela and Maho.

We are off again, taking the branch to the left onto the northern line, which true to its name runs vertically up the centre of the island. From here to Kurunagela, the track winds its way through coconut groves and houses, lush green countryside. Speed is limited by the curves, the ballast of the track is so minimal, and the grass so lush, that looking out of the window ahead of the loco, it seems as if the train is running on grass and not on rails! The Yal Devi is usually nine coaches in length.


Young Sinhalese men break into a spirited Baila song. The track now is the traditional one with jointed rail, so the clickety clack of the train gives them a rhythm beat to work with. Further percussion is obtained by drumming hands on the tops of suitcases, plastic buckets, whatever comes to hand. The enthusiasm of the band makes up for any lack of professional training and soon many small children are tempted to dance, stopped only by the stern stares of their parents- who pretend that their own feet are not actually tapping and keeping time. Young ladies in the train hide their smiles behind hands and handkerchiefs at the boisterous and sometimes ribald lyrics to the Baila. Even the Tamils, few of whom understand the Sinhala lyrics, are amused by this impromptu musical performance.


A further inspiration to the singing youth are the many damsels bathing in the streams and by the wells as the train rolls pass- their sarongs tied high around their bosom pretending the train does not exist. Bathing is a much enjoyed event in Sri Lanka as relief against the heat- it seems to be a national pastime. I am always amazed that there is always someone to be seen bathing at any time during this 8 hour journey.


On a minus point is the number of rail accidents caused by people on the tracks. Village folks everywhere in Sri Lanka use the tracks as a quick point to point road. The broad gauge track allows two to walk abreast easily. These folks are so used to this that even when a train approaches, they wait until the last minute to step away from the track and then resume their walk as soon as the last coach passes. Every few times a year you read about some poor soul being hit by a train while walking along the track. Suicides in this manner are also too common- very upsetting and un-nerving for the drivers, as there is no way they can stop the high momentum of the train in time to save the life.


After passing Kurunagela, the countryside is slowly getting drier and not so green. This is more obvious when you are coming in the other direction from the dry northern province into the South. People are busy with breakfast which they may have bought along from home wrapped in either banana or lotus leaf or purchased from vendors on board the train. Others are saving themselves for a treat at Maho.


The train slows for the stop at Maho which is a Junction for trains to head to the East of the country. It is a station with multiple platforms. As soon as the train halts it is invaded by a welcome army of vendors, the most sought after item is a Sinhalese preparation of delicious cool yoghurt sold in the earthen bowls in which they are prepared. A blissful treat in the morning heat. (Hey, that rhymes!) Apart from the ticket checkers there are railway police on board with their kakhi uniforms. The vendors try to avoid them if possible.


Single line running.

From Maho, the train proceeds northwards. Galgamuwa is a typical Sri Lankan town with ribbon development, buildings stretched along either side of the main road. We pass the occasional freight train on a siding at stations.


At stations with a siding the tablet is exchanged with the train moving. The tablet which is a round metal disc key, is used in the Tyer tablet machines to control the signalling and ensure that only one train is allowed by the station master on the stretch of single track. The tablet is placed in a leather pouch with a steel hoop so that it can be hooked on the arm. It is carried in the locomotive between stations and has to be surrendered in exchange for another one as authority to proceed. The assistant driver leans out of the cab as the loco approaches the platform and a station staff will be ready to hook the hoop with the tablet onto his hand. Then the assistant driver hooks up another hoop and tablet from the hand of the stationmaster.


Very exciting to watch especially when the train is running express through the station at speed. Looks easy but requires timing and trust. Consider these points. If the assistant driver does not let go in time the staff on platform will be dragged by the train to death. Similarly, the station master must release the hoop just as the assistant driver hooks it on to his arm to prevent the station master from being dragged with the loco or the assistant driver being pulled out of the cab. In any case the station staff receiving the tablet from the moving train has to dissipate its momentum by turning with it so as to bring it to a halt. To remain still would be to receive a painful thwack on the back of the head as the moving hoop will swing on his arm and the heavy metal tablet will carry on the momentum. All this happens in seconds.


At night the driver will dim the headlights on the loco as he enters the platform so as not to blind the station staff, the hoop is usually painted white for greater visibility, and turn the lights back on once the exchange is made. If the tablet from the stationmaster is dropped or missed, the train has to halt and the driver has to retrieve the tablet as that is the only authority allowing him to proceed. I had a friend who, as a trainee driver, once missed picking up the tablet at Navatkuli station near Jaffna because he was distracted by a pretty girl on the platform. The stationmaster was not amused and once word got back to the running shed at Dematagoda, he was ribbed mercilessly by his colleagues for many months! He is now a driver with many years service on CGR so shall remain nameless.


When the stationmaster is ready to release the train after it has halted, a bell is rung, whistle blown and green flag (lamp at night) shown to the guard. The guard blows his own whistle and shows his green flag. The driver acknowledges the first light by giving a blast on the air horn and sets the train in motion slowly. This gives any straggling well-wishers a chance to get off the train before it moves too fast. The stationmaster too keeps his eyes peels for any unforeseen events. If none occur, he waves his flag, the guard acknowledges with his flag. The assistant driver who is watching this from the cab, takes the second light and gives another blast on the horn and the driver begins notching out the throttle, accelerating until transition occurs and speed is attained.  I listen to the throb of the loco engine and exhaust and the clatter of the wheels on the rails and points as this is played out at each station. This is the sort of railroading that appeals to me and is missing in the modern day rapid mass transit rail systems.


I'll share a secret with you on how to enjoy a long train journey. I learnt this from observing train crews and seasoned travellers. Never take the journey as a whole, just look forward to the  next station, which will arrive in minutes. Breaking the anticipation into small portions helps, rather than looking at your watch and thinking, bloody hell, another 4 hours to go! Having arrived at the next stop gives you a sense of achievement, now for the next leg. And so on. Also, keep fresh and well fed. In some stations, some passengers quickly disembark to wash their faces and re-fill water bottles before re-boarding. They always seem to be in a good mood through out the journey- because they keep fresh. Have snacks and tit-bits to keep from getting hungry. This is especially important when travelling with children. Striking up a conversation also helps in big way to pass the time. Once I learnt and adopted these tricks, my journeys became even more pleasurable.


Rajarata- the Land of Kings.

Tambuttegama, Talawa, express through the neatly planted island platform of Anuradhapura New Town and brakes on into Anuradhapura. This city, 127 miles from Colombo is the one time capital, seat of the ancient Sinhala Kings and a crucial spot for major Buddhist shrines. It is also a major road junction and seat of government for the North Central Province. Home to a large populace of people and monkeys who seem to have free run of the roofs of all the buildings.


As Anuradhapura is midway along our journey, this is where we will meet our counterpart, train number 38 Down, the Colombo bound Yal Devi. It is around 10 a.m. now as our train pulls into one of the 3 platforms at Anuradhapura Station. This one and Jaffna have used the same design in terms of platform layout and the handsome architecture of the main building with "Sri Lankan" motifs. Spacious and airy, with waiting rooms, restrooms and even a small hotel I believe. There are offices for Chief Station Master and assistant stationmasters. Of course the canteen is well patronised. As we pull in we may find 38 Down waiting for us usually with a matching type of loco as ours.


The train halts here for about 10 minutes. If we have to wait for 38 Down, then longer. The driver gets down to stretch his leg, maybe buy a packet lunch and have a snack. (On the night mail, train crews change shift here.) A lot of passengers disembark here. Western tourist drop off to see the ancient Buddhist ruins around here and others who have finished their sight-seeing board the train to see the sights of Jaffna.. These are usually youngsters with backpacks who don't mind rubbing shoulders in 3rd class as all the sleeperettes are full.

Until this point, kakhi clad railway policemen were on board the train but I never see them beyond Anuradhapura. Once the stationmaster has released the  train, the driver gives a long blast on the horn. This brings those passengers who were in the canteen or stretching their legs, running back onto the train. We are off again.


Once in 1982, I was returning from Colombo to Jaffna on the night mail. It was just before Poya, the monthly Buddhist holiday on full moon days, so the train was packed, no sleeperette booking so I was not getting much sleep in the 3rd class compartment. Around Anuradhapura, I was looking out of the window enjoying the cool breeze. The full moon had cast it's light on the paddy fields and I could easily see the dark tree line beyond. Suddenly rising out of the trees was the massive Dagoba (Buddhist stupi shaped like a bell) glowing in the moonlight- a truly awesome and magical sight that will live with me to the ends of my days.


Velocity in the Vanni.

We are definitely in the drier part of the Island now. There is still plenty of vegetation but it is sparser and browner compared to south of Kurunegala. Our next stop is sleepy Medawachchi. This station comes alive at night when the night mails connecting Colombo to Mannar run. These trains branch off here at Medawachchi and head to Talaimannar where there is a ferry to take passengers onwards across the Palk Straits to Rameswaram in South India. A lot of Indians used to use this route but this too has fallen victim to the war and this service is suspended.


We leave this junction and travel onwards ever northwards. In 1990 along this stretch, I  purchased a carbonated soft drink from a young boy who attracted much attention and quiet respect on board the train and will always remain in my mind. This boy (aged between 12 to 15?) was selling soft drinks- nothing unusual about that on Sri Lankan trains.

Except that he had his right hand amputated just above elbow.

You will see many such amputees of all ages and both genders on board trains and buses begging for alms and money. Not this kid, quite cheerfully, he was selling his drinks and collecting his money and giving out change- all with one hand. He had developed a technique for opening the bottles of drink. Once your request was made, he would quickly shake the bottle to generate "fizz" and carbon dioxide build up. Then he would crouch down and smartly tap the bottom of the bottle on the vinyl finished floor of the compartment. This tap was sufficient to make the pressure in the shaken bottle force off the lid. He had got it to an art were he could remove the cap without spilling a drop. And he was doing all this single-handedly (no pun intended) in a rolling and jerking train. People were buying drinks just to watch him do it again. He knew this and would happily dispense drinks and change before moving on. His spirit and never- say -die attitude changed the mood in the train tangibly. Where there is a will, there is a way.


We arrive at Vavuniya, 157 miles from Colombo, a town in the jungle which has grown due to the fact that this is now the "border" between government held areas and the Tamil Tiger held areas. At present, all train services heading north terminate here. There is no turntable here, so on the journey back to Colombo, the loco must run long hood forward.


Even before the war, it was a kind of watershed. Here the names of the stations on the platform signs change order. All this while it was Sinhala on top, Tamil in the middle and English at the bottom. From Vavuniya to KKS it is Tamil  on top, Sinhala in the middle and English on the bottom. Vavuniya is an administrative and business town so there is a small flurry of activity as passengers board and leave the train. It's a short halt and we are off again through the scrub jungle of this region called the Vanni.


From now on until Chavakachcheri the tracks run parallel  to the A9 highway, the Jaffna -Kandy road- a two lane blacktop with no divider. From Vavuniya to Killinochchi there is only a gap of a few hundred meters separating the train from the highway, but due to the scrub jungle, we cannot see the road and it seems as we are travelling through the middle of a no mans land.


Most of the passengers are tired by the heat as it is late morning and the sun is streaming into the coaches as the trees are not very high and way from the track. Some doze off. The Sinhalese balia boys have long left the train and the remaining Tamils are too self-conscious to break out into song. So it is very quite inside the train. Outside the train there is a hell of a racket but music to the ears of railfans such as me. A look at the map would show that this is the straightest stretch of track for the longest distance. Gradients are also minimal. This allows the drivers to open the throttle out full to run 8 and we are belting along at the highest speed possible. The poor ballasting on the track adds to the speed sensation as the train rocks and rolls. In the first and last coaches this can be quite disconcerting. The dry climate means there is not much grass which means the sand and dust along the track is thrown up by the vortex as the loco passes (especially the M4), dumping sand and dust in through the windows of the coaches. Great clouds of dust accompany the train. Although this is jungle, the noise of the train scares away any animals. Apart from a few jungle fowl and once a peacock, I have never seen any large animals such as wild boar, leopard or elephant.


Puliyankulam, Mankulam. These names reflect the large water reservoir bodies known as "tanks" or in Tamil- kulam. Mankulam is a small station, a brief stop. The town is a junction for roads leading in four directions and can be seen from the train. Just a few straggly buildings. On to Murikandy from where the stretch to Killinochchi is the straightest track and speeds are high. On this stretch, some drivers use the straight track and distance between stations to have their lunch, probably a packet of rice and curry purchased at Anuradhapura. On some locos like the M2, M4 and M6, the drivers can be seen in the cab if you stick your head out of the window. These locos have the North American type control stand next to the driver. So by standing up, placing his rice packet opened out on his seat, the driver can have his lunch while making a few adjustments to throttle settings for gradients. I suppose here some drivers may let their assistants drive to learn the road. My trainee driver friend told me that the hardest part of driving a train is bringing it to a halt because of the momentum. They have to memorise landmarks at each station so that ,for example, if he is driving a nine coach train he will have to bring the loco to a halt in line with the temple opposite the track. If it is a longer night mail, he will have to stop near the house with the swan grille-work on the windows. This ensures that most of the coaches are on platform.


We blast in to the halt for Killinochchi a fairly large town by Sri Lankan standards. Apart from numerous sidings, there is a large gowdown warehouse for the agricultural produce that comes out of this area. Now we can see the A9 Jaffna- Kandy road to our left. This town is familiar to me, as another uncle of mine was based here for a few years and even ran a small shop.We depart and a few minutes later arrive in Paranthan which is the road junction for Mullaitivu in the east. Many tractors on the road. We are off again, soon to pass the giant Paranthan Chemical Works rising out of what is now sandy flat land, hardly any trees.


Elephant Pass and Jaffna.

The sandy wastes get broader and then we see the small gauge tracks of the railways of the Elephant Pass Salterns. The salterns consists of a few rusting sheds and piles of white salt, some covered by cadjan, the dry coconut leaf.


Then we are on the Elephant Pass itself, a narrow strip of sand carrying the railway, the A9 highway and not much else, linking the Jaffna Pennisula to the rest of Sri Lanka. The geographic change is sudden. Open , blue skies, a few snow white egrets flying across the blue waters of the lagoon. If you look down, you will see signs of gleaming white salt washed up against the land. The run over the pass lasts a few minutes, we race pass the Army/Police road checkpoint and we are on the penninsula now with thousands of palmyrah palms as far as the eye can see. Then a sharp and long curve to the left brings us heading north westerly.


The passengers in the train really come to life now, they feel as if they are already home. JAFFNA! The first stop is Pallai, a small town. Now as we move on we see that Jaffna is densely populated although we are now travelling through one of the least populated parts! Houses abound, either out of brick with tiled roof or out of mud with cadjan roofs. These houses are always surrounded by a boundary fence or wall. Jaffna people are very property minded and this is a major cause of disputes in families and between neighbours. The fences are sometimes described in survey plans as "live fences". And they are alive! Usually made by planting a row of thorny trees along the boundary line and linking up with barbed wire. Or the base of the palmyrah palm frond is stacked vertically. Walking along the roads and lanes it is not possible to see over these fences- but on the train you can easily look across and see into the compounds and houses. The bicycle is king here. The flatness of the terrain encourages the use of these vehicles, so not only will you see many bikes, along the roads you will see numerous cycle repair shops. For a few cents, you can pump air into your tyres- if you are a  young lady, the gents will kindly oblige.


Eluthumadduval, Mirusuvil, are passed at express speed, stirring up the dust and sand on the deserted platform. Suddenly half the train is all elbows, as people comb their hair and retrieve their bags from the overhead racks in preparation for Kodikamam. This station is in a small town but is  road junction to the north of the penninsula and Point Pedro. A large population lives there and it is closer by road than going into Jaffna town. So once we pull into Kodikamam, quite a few passengers de-train to board the waiting hiring cars and minibuses. It is past one o'clock in the afternoon so it's home to a good lunch. A word of warning, the pickpockets are not just confined to Colombo Fort so keep your eye out and your hands inside the train. One trick is to run along a departing train and slip off watches , bangles and hand chains. This is less common in smaller towns as the culprits are more likely to be apprehended by a civic- minded public.


We may be meeting the Colombo bound Utara Devi, No. 8 down which left KKS at noon. In such a case, the stationmaster will let the first train to arrive onto the platform for it to take on passengers. Then, it reverses and comes back onto the siding to await the other train. Once that is cleared, the train on the siding is released. Today we meet 8 down waiting for us on the siding. The passengers on that train are relaxed as they have had their lunch and are still fresh.


We leave Kodikamam running due west now straight to Jaffna. The track follows the road and is fairly straight with a few curves. Numerous un-gated level crossings. The horn is sounded more often. Express through the halts at Meesalai and Sankathanai, past the Chavakachcheri Hindu College with it's sandy grounds and walls plastered with posters for cinemas and private tuition centres. This is a big industry with some tuition masters as famous as film stars in education hungry Jaffna. Just his name, the subject taught and the tuition centre's name hand- painted onto the posters. Later these were printed in garish colours. So you would see things like "Naganathan, Chemistry, Bond" (tutor, subject, centre) next to "Charles Bronson, Death Wish III, Regal" (actor, movie, cinema). Horn blasting as the train veers away from the road , passes behind the market and into the stop at Chavakachcheri station. My father was born and grew up in station lane here! To our left we see the open paddy lands and this will be the scenery as we continue west to Navatkuli. Brahminy kites lazily circling the skies.


Soon after we depart Navatkuli, we pass over a steel bridge over a lagoon inlet, we pick up speed. Now we are entering the suburbs of Jaffna town. A few shacks under palmyrah groves, give way to brick houses, and masonry walls with more posters- names fly past- Bala, Ursula Andress, Vickneswaran, Clint Eastwood. More people seen. More level crossings, more blasts of the horn. The train seems to be running faster but it is an illusion of speed created by the buildings closing in on both sides and of the growl of the locomotive bouncing off these walls. Looking over the fences, into compounds, people bathing again. Stray dogs chase the trains for a short distance give up after exhausting their quota of bravery for the day, goats and cows scamper away from the tracks. Sand is thrown up as the train passes, grown -ups shield their faces, children gleefully waving at the train- some infants perched on their mother's hips, bawling, frightened by the train. School is out, hoards of children in starched white uniforms with their bicycles, rushing home for lunch. Youths on the trains waving to the teenage school-girls passing who pretend that they have'nt seen anything. (This has been going on even before trains were invented.) Rolling past the gated Kacheri (Government Office) crossing, past Temple Road, throttle to idle, turbocharger winding down with that whistling sound on the M4 and air dumped for the halt at Jaffna Town which has 3 platforms and a nice large airy station building with hotel above.


We pull into the platform and people are off the train before you can say "Jaffna". Most of the sleeperette crowd get off here. Taxis, buses, hiring cars (Austin A40, A50s in mint running condition), auto-rickshaws and even young boys on bicycles willing to take you to your final destination. The driver gets off to stretch is legs, talk to the Chief station Master buys a newspaper maybe before climbing back into the cab. A handful of people board the train, mainly school children.


The home stretch.

The Jaffna stop is not that long. The green signal is given, a long blast of the horn and we are off on the final stretch. As the driver notches up the throttle we pass over the gated crossing at Point Pedro Road and enter the sharp curve at Manohara Cinema. The throb of the diesel exhaust echoes off the cinema walls (and can be heard inside the cinema too!) We swing 90 degrees and now we are heading north again.


This is the most densely part of Jaffna Peninnsula. More level crossings, open the throttle up for the climb up the gradient, past the University of Jaffna campus buildings behind the science faculty. The girls hostel is on the left hand side of the track so that always attracts a lot of attention from train crews. Waves are sometime exchanged. A tricky stop for Kokuvil station which is on a gradient summit. University students get down here. Moving on down the gradient, blast horn for crossing at Adiyapatham Road. Over that mini bridge (see appendix for story), around the curve, throttle to idle, brakes on past the home signal next to the Nandavil Amman Temple on the left and into the platform of Kondavil station. My house is less than half a mile away, so this is home sweet railway home for me! Kondavil has a few sidings, a warehouse with a platform and the Food Department has large warehouses next to the station for dry foodstuffs.


So we pass these sheds as we continue north over the gated crossing, into tobacco fields, past Inuvil station, a palmyrah grove to Chunnakam station. This is a market town and roads lead to the west of the penninsula. The sidings are usually occupied by tankers carrying heavy diesel for the generators of the nearby power station as a back up in case of national grid failure. We move on through densely populated areas, fences and walls abound, Mallakam and Tellipallai home to many academics, more palmyrah now, the clay soil red and fertile for chillies and more and more banana plantations. The train is lighter without it's passengers, the driver impatient to reach journey's end so it seems we are rolling much faster. Past Maviddapuram with it's old temple, a branch line spur off to the KKS Cement Factory and we are slowing for our final stop, around the curve into the station and yard at Kankesanthurai (KKS) 256 miles from Fort. The time is just after 2pm.


As the train comes to a halt at the single platform, the assistant driver is already uncoupling the locomotive as the last passengers get down, and the guards walk to the stationmaster's office to sign off. The driver moves the loco slowly to the turntable and stops there, while it is turned (by one man, by hand!), moves back down the yard, manouvers the points and backs the engine into the brick loco shed. The loco is shut down, signed off. It will be serviced to take the night mail back to Colombo this evening.


Bags collected, the driver and his assistant walk the short distance across the yard, past the turntable to the running bungalow to enjoy a cool bath at the well, a spicy Jaffna prawn curry and, now that he is off duty, maybe some fresh palmyrah toddy. Drivers enjoy these little perks at KKS and also the fact that from the time they sign on at Dematagoda to the time they go off duty at KKS, they have run up about 2 hours of overtime- more if the train is late.


As the running bungalow is just close to the beach, an evening walk is good enough to enjoy the fresh air, before getting an early night so that they are up early tomorrow morning to take the Yal Devi 38 down back to Colombo. The loco would have hauled 7 up, the Utara Devi from Colombo due to arrive later tonight.


As a star-studded night falls, for the train crew, a clean bed in the running bungalow, the sound of palmyrah palm fronds rustling in the breeze, the sound of the waves from the beach and sweet dreams of delightful Menikes, Devis, Kumaris and Nonas no doubt.


The End.




Appendix 1

The bridge at Kondavil.


(This is a true event. Please don't be fool enough to try this yourself.)

When: 1983

Who: Sunthu, my cousin/partner in crime and yours truly with Asahi Pentax Spotmatic camera, 50mm lens.

Why: To try and get a picture of the Yal Devi train from a low angle from beneath the moving train!


In order to get this crazy angle, we found a low bridge culvert between Kondavil and Kokuvil station. This is easily accessed by bikes along the dirt track running parallel to the railway.

The bridge was laid on two girders about four feet off the ground and is to allow water to flow under the railway during monsoons. There is nothing under the sleepers. I can stand under the bridge and poke my head up in between the tracks, which is what I am doing now. If a train were to pass now, I would be decapitated instantly. Get the picture?


My aim is to crouch just below the sleepers and as the loco comes up to shoot a pic with my camera, seen in movies all the time, right? Since I can't risk sticking my head up or my camera, I have positioned my cousin, Sunthu (almost my age) next to the bridge to tell me exactly when the train would pass over the bridge. Simple, no? He will be my eyes.


People pass by giving us curious looks, we pretend to ignore them. We hear the blast of the horn as 8 down leaves Kondavil , the Utara Devi for Colombo. I get ready with my camera and tell Sunthu to give me a count down. He nods.  I can hear the loco accelerating. Minutes pass, I look over at Sunthu, he looks at me and shrugs. I'm getting nervous, where is that bloody train? I dare to sneak a peek over the sleepers just as the train comes into view around the curve at Nandavil. Sunthu, startled by my action asks me to get down. I do immediately.

I am getting sweaty palms. The noise is getting closer and louder and I am getting very nervous. Closer, louder, louder. I look at Sunthu for a sign, he doesn't look at me. I can't dare another peek. My legs are turning to jelly, my stomach is twisting. Louder, vibrations on the bridge. Sunthu? He is moving his mouth but there is no sound, he is paralysed with fear, his voice has given up. I am totally gone too but I want to see this through. I put the viewfinder to my eye, one eye on Sunthu, Hell of a noise, where is that damn thing? Sunthu weakly waves his hand at me, I click a shot quickly and drop down as my legs totally give way as the loco passes directly over my head. As the coaches pass over, I dare to look up and see the undercarriage- a horrible thought, what if someone were to use the toilet now?!?

The train passes. I am too weak with fear to get up, my legs won't listen to me. Sunthu is rooted to the spot his mouth in a grin or grimace of fear I am not sure to this day. We finally, after long minutes, get together and share a nervous laugh, get back on our bikes and wobble our way back home.


Postscript. The picture was no good. I clicked too late, all we got was the underside of an M4 locomotive-black. Today I have regained my sanity and live in Singapore. Sunthu after many such zany adventures with me is now quietly living in Germany with his family. Both consider ourselves very foolish for having tried that stunt and very lucky to have walked away unharmed. Still, what an experience!!!!!!