The railway from Colombo to Badulla, approximately 300km or 180 miles in length, ranks among the great train journeys in the world. Starting from Colombo a few metres above sea level, it goes through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, racing across the western plain replete with smiling paddy fields and joyous palm trees swaying gracefully in the whispering wind and entering the hill country at Rambukkana some 85km away. From that point onwards it is a continuous struggle up the mountains, except for a brief respite along the Mahaweli valley between Peradeniya and Gampola—forging its way through 45 tunnels, hugging precipitous slopes, leaping across rivers and streams, breathing the aroma of tea in our verdant tea country, until it reaches the summit at Pattipola 6226 feet above sea level. A foreigner once remarked that from the summit point on some day one could almost touch the clouds. From the summit the line descends into the Uva valley hastening through marvels of engineering ingenuity to Badulla at an altitude of 2140 feet above sea level.
The main line took 66 years to be completed, but that was no fault of the enthusiastic and dedicated engineers who were rearing to go. Traces had to be worked out, alternatives had to be considered, estimates had to be evaluated, controversies, sometimes acrimonious as in the case of the battle of the gauges—whether the line beyond Peradeniya should be broad gauge or narrow gauge—had to be resolved. The delays caused by World War Iand then of course the bureaucratic mandarins and the doubting Thomases of the Colonial Office in London had to be convinced of the feasibility of the extensions contemplated. Despite all this, successive governors, the Legislative Council and pioneering planters never gave up keeping the pressure on until the green light was given.
The line to Nanu Oya (5291 feet above sea level) was completed in 1885, some 31 years after the first sod was cut in Colombo by Governor Sir Henry Ward in 1854.
Situated at the head of the Kotmale valley, it is flanked on one side by the majestic Great Western range and on the other by the north western slopes of the Hakgala Mountain. Nanu Oya is an important railway junction not only because of its proximity to Nuwara Eliya, but also because some years ago, a narrow guage railway took off from this point to Nuwara Elya, Kandapola and Ragala. Nanuoya can be a very inhospitable place especially when the south western monsoon brings in the wind, chill and rain.
Before the construction of the railway, the Nanu Oya, Ambewela and Pattipola areas were teeming with wildlife. It was the haunt of elk, wild boar, wild buffalo, leopards, deer and elephants. This precious wildlife was ruthlessly decimated by so-called British sportsmen like Harry Storey, Samuel Baker, Tommy Farr and Gordon Reeves. Some of them like Harry Storey and Samuel Baker recorded their very unsportsmanlike exploits in their books Hunting and shooting in Ceylon (Storey) and the Rifle and Hound in Ceylon (Baker). Our colonial rulers turned a blind eye to all this.
Onward to the summit
Even before Nanu Oya was opened for traffic in 1885, plans had been drawn up for the extension of the railway to Uva. The first stage was to get to the summit point at Pattipola and then tunnel through the formidable ridge that barred the way to the Uva downs. I can do no better than quote from David Wyatts Railways in Sri Lanka:
“From Nanuoya the line climbs via Abbottsford estate passing through forests flanked by the Conical hill and the great mountain of Hakgala in the north east and then runs parallel to and eventually joins the wooded railway Gorge near its top. Running along the edge of the Elk plains, it passes Ambewela and continues to the summit 3/4 mile beyond the Pattipola station. This is the highest point reached by a 5’ 6’ broad guage main lime, anywhere in the world.”
In a footnote Wyatt states that the only competing line known to him is the little used one between Quetta and Chamma in Pakistan which has an altitude of 6398 feet at the Khojak tunnel.
I might add that the Dambagastalawa Oya and the Elgin Falls and also the low hills of Ambewela, reminiscent of the Sussex Downs in England, enhance the scenic beauty of this section of the track.
Pattipola is a moody place. This is particularly so during the period May to October. Often train travellers keep their windows open to experience the thrill of having the thick mist creeping into the compartment. From the summit point on a clear day, there is a fine view of Totapolakanda, behind which are the famous Horton Plains.
The line had to be taken across a stubborn ridge that barred its way. A tunnel was the answer. It is an extraordinary tunnel. Travellers entering the tunnel from Pattipola often experienced cold, gloom, mist and rain but coming out of the tunnel at the other end they emerge into a different land of warmth and brilliant sunshine of the Uva downs, stretching right up to Namunukula far away.
A section of the tunnel at the Pattipola end had collapsed some years ago and had to be repaired using pre-cast concrete forms.
Leaving the tunnel behind, the train runs playfully down the hill sides like a school boy on holiday after a hard term’s work. Several short tunnels with which the train plays hide and seek is a feature of this section.
Between Ohiya and Idalgashinna stations, there are as many as fourteen tunnels within a distance of 5 1/2 miles. The traveller himself experiences a feeling of exhilaration after the long hard struggle to the summit when he sees the vast vistas flanked by Hakgala, the Piduruthalagala range, the sleeping warrior and Namanukula.
Many years ago I used to sit on the slopes of Fox Hill in Diyatalawa, and watch the morning train to Colombo leaving Bandarawela around 8am, and snaking its way through flourishing tea estates and over ravines up to Diyatalawa and Haputale. The train hugs the Idalgashinna ridge and ascends to Idagashinna, providing memorable and fascinating views of the sprawling Uva Basin. Passing Idalgashinna it disappeared into the mountain fastnesses of Ohiya. After a while it reappeared briefly for a lasting and lingering look at the Uva valley before disappearing into the darkness of the summit tunnel and a world of mist and rain. The journey from Bandarawela to the summit tunnel had taken about 1 1/2 hours, and I could watch the progress of the train. I often used to wonder in which country of the world one could watch a train struggling up the mountains and scampering down the hill sides in joyous abandonment for such a long period of time. To me, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) traversing the Rocky mountains was a wonderful experience but even it did not provide a sight like this.
It is a great pity that the young people of today cannot experience the thrill of this great railway journey in comfort, because years of indifference and neglect have taken a heavy toll and made train travel somewhat of a nightmare. Our railway, particularly what we describe as the main line, is truly a national asset and a lasting tribute to those great and dedicated British engineers who left behind this legacy for us. Some day, I sincerely hope that this national asset will be restored to the glory of those by gone days.
Often when I think of my delightful and enriching experiences travelling on the upcountry railway on holiday, I am reminded of the words of Tennyson:
Tears idle tears I know not what
Tears from the depths of some divine despair
Swell in my heart and welter to the skies
In thinking of the days that are no more.
By Walter Rupesinghe
Source: The Island / 08APR2006
Tags: beautiful landscapes, british raj, broad gauge, great train journeys, hillcountry, legislative council, mahaweli, mandarins, narrow gauge, paddy fields, palm trees, peradeniya, precipitous slopes, rivers and streams, summit point, tea country, whispering wind