Saturday, 17 March 2012

Great Railway Journeys and other articles


Colombo to Badulla on the Udarata Menike Express
Why do you need to buy a newspaper before travelling on this train?

Gyan C. A. Fernando

This article is about train travel in Sri Lanka in the 1970s and was first published in in 2001. As such, it needs to be considered a historical article.
Revised slightly and re-formatted 2012

he railway line from Colombo to Badulla is a spectacular railway line which, over a distance of 180 miles, ascends from sea level to 6500 feet and then descends in to the Uva valley (or Uva Basin as it is usually called) to terminate at Badulla at 2000 feet.
The railway was built by the British in the latter part of the 19th century primarily for freight. (Guage: 5ft6in, 1676mm) Since then very little has been changed.
 The gradients are steep and the tight curves prevent the use of modern rolling stock. Because of the rugged terrain earthslips are common. There are 43 tunnels on this line and one complete spiral (at Demodera).

 There are only two trains in any one direction each day which run the whole distance. One is the Night Mail Train the other is the "Udarata Menike" (Hill Country Lass). The Udarata Menike takes at least 9 hours to do the journey (on a good day!) and the Night Mail takes near 12 hours!
Class M2 General Motors EMD locomotive No 626 "Montreal" at Peradeniya
Fifty years old and still running strong! Class M2c No 626 "Montreal" at Peradeniya Junction

n the sixties and seventies the trains on this route were hauled by EMD G12 locos, the so called "Canadian Engines". Rear "helper" locos were needed for the Night Mail on certain sections, notably at Watawela and Rozella and after Nanu-Oya. Later the Henschel locos were introduced but they proved to be unreliable and certainly appeared to lack the kick of the EMD G12s.
Before the advent of the G12s, Garratt articulated (steam) locos built by Beyer Peacock were used on this line.
Number plate of Class M2 General Motors EMD locomotive No 626 "Montreal"

The Journey Begins
he only way to travel on the Udarata Menike in relative comfort is to get a seat in the only first class carriage, the Observation Car, which is the last carriage of the train. As Government Servants we were entitled to three journeys a year in the observation coach or the Sleeper of the night mail. The rest of the time we travelled third class.
The train starts off from the Colombo Fort Railway Station at approx. 9 o'clock in the morning.

By the time the train arrives at the platform, the platform is usually heaving with passengers. A mad scramble ensues and often passengers climb in through the windows!
If you are unlucky and do not find a seat you can lay down your newspaper on the dirty floor and sit down (Remember the journey lasts for at least 9 hours!) There is a buffet car at the rear of the train (close to the observation car) but if you are in third class you may not be able to get there if your carriage doesn't have a connecting vestibule.

In any case the food consists of stale sandwiches and rolls which seem to have done the journey from Colombo to Badulla and back many times and it is probably best to bring your own food. By the way toilets are pretty filthy and lack loo paper and that's where the newspaper comes handy again.

After the usual distorted announcements over the public address system (in three languages by the same bloke!) and considerable flag waving and whistle blowing by the Station Master (followed by a similar performance by the guard), a rousing fanfare is let off from the triple air horns of the loco. Vacuum brakes hiss. The loco thunders and struggles a bit, wheels slip and thick black smoke emerges from the exhaust.

Late passengers rush down the platform and jump on the moving train. Guard blows whistle and gesticulates at the idiots who try to scramble aboard. Passengers who just miss the train hurl insults at the guard.

The train moves slowly through Maradana Railway Station and the Dematagoda Railway Yard through what used to be called Loco Junction.....Rusting relics of old steam locos, some sprouting vegetation from smoke stacks, pass by...... This is the Dematagoda Yard. Very soon you are rattling merrily on the non-welded track, clackity clacking to the words of "Udarata Meniketa Pata Kuda Dheka Dheka" (Sorry, not easy to translate!). Frequent Country 'n' Western style blasts emerge from the loco horns to warn cattle and humans walking on the track.

Inside the crowded carriages sweaty bodies are in abundance. It is hot. Usually it is above 30 degrees celsius. Passengers manoeuvre for position. There is gentle and polite pushing followed by apologies.

Feet smell. Strong body odour emanates from the men. The faint smell of sandlewood from the young women. People fart silently. Some chew Betel leaf and spit out of the windows. Others smoke. Some clear their nasal passages and sinuses or decide that it is a good time to clear their bronchi. Violent bouts of coughing follow. Both processes involve spitting. Some decide to have their breakfast. Body odour and the smell of curry blend.
Some discuss politics. Others play cards.

The Climb
he first part of the journey is on good double track with color light signals and on the level. The train does a good 60 miles or so per hour. The train passes through Gampaha, Mirigama, Alawwa and Polgahawela. Eventually the double track ends and and the first climb begins from about Rambukkana.

The train slows down and the loco struggles a bit. Wheels slip. The passing scenery becomes interesting. Men working in paddy fields, women bathing in rivers, muddy fast flowing rivers....The train passes through the spectacular Balane Pass and Kadugannawa and eventually arrives at Peradeniya Junction. Passengers open lunch packets. Local hawkers sell stale food. Beggars appear and beg for food.

The train has climbed to 1500 ft. From here on it is the plateau again but single track. The train clacks on at a reasonable 30mph to Nawalapitiya, a railway town. It is noticeably cooler...Bodies don't sweat anymore....Body odour seems to be more tolerable...

he climb then begins in earnest over 1 in 44 gradients through Watawela, Rozella and Hatton through to Talawakele. It takes a long, long time. The train travels at 10 miles per hour.....couplings creak......
Barking, excited dogs run after the train and overtake the train... occasionally stopping to scratch themselves or investigate interesting trackside features ....resume chase.....catch up with train...stop... pant...tongues hang out...decide too long away from home...stop.....wait for down train?

Passengers are now more relaxed! Tea plantations all around...soothing effect on the senses...Tamil plantation women toiling away...

Soon after leaving Talawakele two spectacular waterfalls come into view: The high and narrow St Clair Falls and the short and wide Devon Falls.
An almost complete spiral/zig zag follows as the train struggles to ascend to Nanu-Oya. There is the usual stop at Nanu-Oya (and there is now probably a mandatory check of the train brakes following a very minor disaster in 1977). There was once a narrow gauge railway from Nanu-Oya to Nuwara Eliya and beyond to Uda Pussellawa..on very severe gradients.

On our way again...The countryside is now rugged but green and the train is at over 5000 ft. Elgin Falls appears on the right side in a near inaccessible gorge.
 By the time the train arrives at Pattipola, the highest railway station in Srilanka, it is over 6000ft and the station is usually surrounded in mist (low clouds actually). By Srilankan standards it is quite cold. The crowded carriages are no longer a bother. It doesn’t seem to smell anymore although the carriage windows are now closed. The train is less crowded now.
By this stage you have spoken to a few fellow passengers and become friends.
Platform staff and locals wear coats and turbans. It usually rains. The vegetation is different. Not a coconut tree in site. No paddy fields. Mostly Cypress and Eucalyptus forests (Gum) forests.

The Summit
 short distance from Pattipola station the train enters the Summit Tunnel and a little further on, at 6226ft the highest point on the railway. In passing through the tunnel the train has passed from the "wet zone" of the country into the "dry zone". This is quite obvious when you emerge from the tunnel. No rain!

The loco suddenly goes quiet and the brakes come into action for the steep descent which follows. The train now descends with a spectacular screeching of brakes and sparks from the wheels. An acrid smell comes from the train wheels and probably from the dynamic brake of the loco.
Tall pine and gum forests on all signs of human habitation apart from the lone track man (wearing heavy clothes) blowing his whistle and waving the green flag.....No earth slips!......Thank you!....
More blasts from the loco airhorn.....sound reverbs around the mountains...We move on....

The Uva Basin now comes into view, the train emerges from one tunnel and enters another...clouds float below. The main peak of the 6600ft high Namunukula (lit: "Nine Peaks") range is visible in the far distance...Nothing matters anymore.. You are in God's own country. The sun is now low in the sky but there is more to come!

There is hardly a sound from the loco. The train is travelling fast, too fast...brakes come on again...screech.....tunnel...another tunnel and another tunnel..... screech... more tunnels...short, long, medium length......
Spectacular view and drop on the right side now...change seats...plenty of seats available now...not many people travel this far...
Clouds float below in the Uva Valley. The train stops at Ohiya (the starting point for Lady Horton's Plains and World's End) then at Idalgashinna and then on to Haputale.

Haputale is a pass and a real spectacular pass! On a clear day you would be able to see as far as Badulla (and Namunukula) on one side and as far as the Indian Ocean at Dondra Head (the southernmost point of Srilanka) on the other side!
The final descent begins now...through Diyatalawa (lit:"water-logged plains"), Bandarawela, Ella (another pass, this time towards the south-east) and on to Demodera (lit:"two river mouths" or "where two rivers meet").
At Demodera there is the only complete spiral on the Srilankan railway system. Not spectacular but interesting. (The locals refer to it as the Demodera Loop which is incorrect. Technically, it is a spiral.)
More tunnels and British style stone viaducts... brakes screech again....acrid smell...It is almost sunset now.

Finally Home!
The railway line now follows the Badulu-Oya, a tributary of the Mahaweli River.
Tea plantations. Nearly home.
Hali-Ela and the last tunnel....We go through Tunnel No43 with Yelverton Ridge and Elmshurst to the left. Namunukula range on the screech of brakes ....and it is BADULLA!

1.I have travelled on this train and on this line in the seventies many more times than I can remember. The above is a fairly accurate description of third class travel on this line in the seventies...but I don't want to put anybody off travelling on this line or on Srilankan railroads. I certainly enjoyed the experience..! (First Class travel is reasonably comfortable and I would recommend anyone visiting Srilanka to undertake this least to Haputale. Things may have changed...Hopefully for the better)

2.On one memorable occasion when the Night Mail train arrived at Fort Station from the railway yard, to a waiting milling throng of passengers on the platform, I had to lift up and push my wife Ranji, then fortunately just a slip of a girl, into the carriage through the window because the doors of the carriage were locked. This of course was no mean feat as Ranji was wearing the traditional sari! An enduring memory!

She and a fellow would-be passenger (a soldier) then helped me scramble in so we could grab a third class seat for the 12 hour journey ahead... We struck up a conversation with the soldier who helped us scramble on. He left the train at Diyatalawa Station. Diyatalawa is a major army training camp in Srilanka.

3. Our son Sanjeeva's first experience of Srilankan Railroads was in 1977 when, at the age of 6 months, he travelled with us in the Sleeper of the Night Mail Train from Badulla to Colombo (to meet his grandparents) and then back to Badulla, also on the Night Mail.
Class M2 General Motors EMD locomotive No 626 "Montreal" at Rozelle
"Montreal" negotiating the S curve downgrade from Rozelle

Copyright: Text and photographs Gyan C A Fernando
Thalaguli and Atropine Poisoning on the Night Mail Train

Atropine is an alkaloid from the Aththana plant (Atropos belladonna).

Several people have been  robbed on the Badulla Night Mail train by the simple expedient of offering them Thalaguli containing the seeds of the plant which is a common plant in Sri Lanka. 
"Thalaguli" is of course a Srilankan sweet consisting of toasted sesame seeds mixed with crude coconut sugar ("hakuru"). The victims go into a state of confusion to wake up later at the Badulla General Hospital.
I myself have seen one case. The symptoms have been described as "Mad as a hare, hot as a hen, blind as a bat and dry as a bone!"
(First published on the web in 2001)

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