Colombo- Jaffna- KKS by Train.
An imaginary journey based on fact along the northern railway line in the
island of ( Sri Lanka , to you
tea drinkers). Since the late 1980s, due to the escalation of the war in the
north of Ceylon , train
services were severely affected and following June 1990 no trains have run
beyond Vavuniya. This write up takes the reader by train from Sri Lanka Colombo
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. Jaffna
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
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. Sri Lanka
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,
City of the Lyre/Harp. Devi is a typical Tamil name for a woman. All of Jaffna '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! Sri
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
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
Road, then its past Kollanawa and at control speed
over the , we are technically out of Colombo
Municipal limits at about 6 a.m. Kelani River
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
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. Sri
On a minus point is the number of rail accidents caused by people on the tracks. Village folks everywhere in
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. Sri
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
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. northern province
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
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
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. Jaffna
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.
. Land of Kings
Tambuttegama, Talawa, express through the neatly planted island platform of Anuradhapura New Town and brakes on into
This city, 127 miles from Anuradhapura
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 Colombo .
Home to a large populace of people and monkeys who seem to have free run of the
roofs of all the buildings. North
is midway along our journey, this is where we will meet our counterpart, train
number 38 Down, the
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 Colombo have used the same design in terms of
platform layout and the handsome architecture of the main building with " Jaffna 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
. 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. Anuradhapura
Once in 1982, I was returning from
Colombo to 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 Jaffna ,
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. Anuradhapura
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
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 Colombo 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
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
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. Colombo
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 - 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. Kandy
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
. 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. Anuradhapura
We blast in to the halt for Killinochchi a fairly large town by
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.
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
itself, a narrow strip of sand carrying the railway, the A9 highway and not
much else, linking the Jaffna Pennisula to the rest of . 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. Sri
The passengers in the train really come to life now, they feel as if they are already home.
! 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. Jaffna
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
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. Jaffna
We may be meeting the
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. Colombo
We leave Kodikamam running due west now straight to
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 Jaffna 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 Chavakachcheri Hindu
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. Jaffna
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
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. Jaffna
We pull into the platform and people are off the train before you can say "
". 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. Jaffna
The home stretch.
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 Jaffna 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
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 University
of Jaffna 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
this evening. Colombo
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
The loco would have hauled 7 up, the Utara Devi from Colombo due to arrive later tonight. Colombo
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 bridge at Kondavil.
(This is a true event. Please don't be fool enough to try this yourself.)
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
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. Colombo
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
Sunthu after many such zany adventures with me is now quietly living in Singapore 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!!!!!! Germany