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Northern Railway service, some historical aspects

President Mahinda Rajapaksa in keeping with his wisdom and sagacity, fully aware of the aspirations and sensing the ethos of the Jaffna Tamil community re-established the train service from Colombo to Jaffna, vice versa on October 19.


The Yal Devi hauled by a Canadian engine, at the Kondavil station in 1985

That historical event took place after 24 years when the Northern railway line together with stations, bridges, signal systems were totally damaged and sabotaged by the terrorist LTTE cadres - posing as the sole representatives, freedom fighters of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. The longest railway line in our country was the most-popular, safe, cheap mode of transport for the Northerners who found employment down South in Sinhalese- speaking areas. They were gainfully employed in the public service, private sector and were also engaged in professions and varied business enterprises. So much so, several Jaffna Tamils were employed in the Railway Department. It is to their credit that the first Sri Lankan General Manager of Railways (C.G.R.) appointed in 1947, M. Kangasabai. He joined the C.G.R. (Ceylon Government Railway) as a junior clerk at the age of 17 and by dint of hard work honesty and integrity rose up to be the head of that department.

Economically, for, the Northern Railway from Colombo to Kankesanthurai was the common mode of transport of agricultural produce, such as tobacco, plantains onions, chillies, fish and cement - a manufactured product from the Kankesanthurai Cement Factory.

The day the Yal Devi reached Omantha
The Yal Devi service was re-launched by President Mahinda Rajapaksa this year

It is also pertinent to make mention of the colonisation of Yalpanam, Jaffna-Patnam.

Yalpanam was established as a kingdom in the Jaffna peninsula and was ruled by Tamil kings. It was conquered by the Portuguese and Jaffnapatnam later came under the Dutch and later the British.

The peninsula was tremendously developed educationally by the American Christian missionaries. They established a good number pf English medium high schools or colleges and vernacular Tamil schools. Their centre of English learning was Batticotta or Vaddukoddai.

The American missioneries established their leading college or collegiate school Jaffna College at Vadukoddai. It is to their credit that they set up the first western medical school at Manipay.

The Catholic missioneries too, arrived in Jaffna and established the leading Catholic College, St.Patrick's in the Jaffna town. The Methodist missionaries opened up Jaffna Central College in the Town.

The Church of England (now the Church of Sri Lanka) also entered the educational field. At Chundikuli they established St.John's College and Vembadi Girls' High school. The impetus for Hindu schools and revival of Hindu culture was set in motion by Arumuga Sri Navalar. Jaffna Hindu Collegiate became the leading English medium college school in the peninsula. Later English medium find a colleges were begun in Manipay, Kokuvil, Chavakachcheri etc.

English education came into existence paving the way for Jaffna youth to obtain white collar jobs particularly in Colombo and other towns in the Sinhala speaking areas - down South.The Jaffna Tamils came to be known also the Scotsmen of the Northern Sri Lanka.

In the meantime, the British administration commenced to build railway lines, first to Kandy from Colombo. With the beginning of coffee and later tea production, railway train facilities rapidly expanded to plantation areas in the hill country and the Kelani Valley, mainly to transport cash crops to Colombo for shipment abroad.

The rapid progress regarding the advancement in the Jaffna peninsula made it imperative to espouse the cause for the construction of a railway line to the Northern Province. The clamour for same was made in 1887 by the educated Jaffna Tamils and business-minded people.

There is ample evidence in support of same at the National Archives and the Railway Department record room. In response to this request the Colonial Secretary approved that railway project in 1898. The sanction was given publicity by the Governor of that time, West Ridgeway.

The Railway Department construction section undertook the railway extension to the North, with the permission of the Colonial Secretary in 1899. The massive work the longest railway track from Colombo to Kankesanthurai via Jaffna, the provincial capital was begun under the supervision of the Chief Resident Engineer, an Englishman. The work was to be completed in stages, the first stage of the rail road of 205 miles was completed from Kurunegala to Anuradhapura 1.11.1904.

The second phase, from Anuradhapura to Chavakachcheri was completed 1.8.1905. The laying of the track from Kankesanthurai to Chavakachcheri was over on 15.9.1905.

The final stage came to an end on 15.9.1902 with completion of the construction from Chavakachcheri to Palali.

It may be of historical importance to mention about the mode of transport of people and commercial products to and from Jaffna to Southern parts before the advent of the railway to the Northern Province.

The common vehicle of transport was the bullock cart. There were a large number of carts in the Jaffna peninsula that were make use of to convey cash crops such as tobacco, chillies, onions and palmyrah products to Anuradhapura for distribution and marketing in the Sinhala-speaking areas in the wet-zone, down south.

From Kurunegala goods such as coconut, rice, grains, yams etc were taken by bullock carts to Anuradhapura. So, that town emerged as the hub of commercial activities in the North. Coming of carts to Anuradhapura became a grave problem in that city according to a report by the Government Agent (G.A.), North Central Province. The convergence of bullock carts that were parked in the town attained such proportions as to be a public nuisance. That resulted in such an annoyance to the general public that the Anuradhapura G.A. was compelled to impose a fine of Rs. 50 to errant carters, specially for reckless riding of bullock carts.

However, travelling from Jaffna by that mode of conveyance also became perilous mainly during the North - East monsoon rainy season. Moreover, the hazardous cart road from the Jaffna peninsula had to be traversed through wild elephants and poisonous snakes infested thick forests and jungles.Under these circumstances a few Jaffna entrepreneurs adopted operating a sailing vessel service from Jaffna to Colombo. Transport by a sea functioned occasionally. People travelling from Kandy to Jaffna too, used bullock carts as a means of transport.

Bullock carts were used for transport services from Puttalam to Anuradhapura and Trincomalee. The train service to the Northern Province facilitated civil administration functions in that province. The railway link Northwards resulted in demolition of isolation of the worth with rest of our country.

1905 - the first train from Colombo arrived in Jaffna.

1956 - the express train began operations. 1985, the mail train to KKS, was blown up by TEL6 cadres it Murukandy. 34 passengers in that attack.

1985 - The mail train to KKS was blown up by TELO cadres at Murukandy. 34 passengers died.

1986 - the second attack near Vavuniya that destroyed the entire track.

1990 - the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) restored the line and train service was restarted.

2009 - The track was rebuilt from Vavuniya to Mankulam. That took place when the civil war was put to an end by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009. In the same year in June, the Thandikulam railway station was set up.

2011 - Omanthai railway station was re-opened.

2013 - The railway from Omanthai to Kilinochchi commenced.

2014 - The line between Kilinochchi to Palai was established in March.

It is to the great credit and unwavering devotion, the Colombo to Jaffna service was re-established at a grand ceremony and a warm welcome was accorded to the Head of State.

Bravo, President Mahinda Rajapaksa!

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