Grand Iron Queens of Ceylon | Daily News

Grand Iron Queens of Ceylon

Sri Lanka has a long and beautiful history of railways. This amazing journey has been embellished with robust steam locomotives which once ruled the tracks across our island. These early locomotives not only improved trade but also connected our citizens from every province. Importantly the advent of Government-operated railways created many jobs and transformed the lives of an entire generation.

The Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) recruited engine drivers, technicians, engineers, station masters, signalmen, guards, ticket checkers, cooks and a host of other technical and logistics staff. Railway communities mushroomed in areas such as Mount Mary (Colombo-9), Ratmalana and Maradana (Colombo-10). Most of these families speak with respect and affection about the steam locomotives. Over the past two decades, the residents of Colombo and towns such as Kandy and Galle may have caught a glimpse of these grand iron queens undertaking special journeys. I have been blessed to visit the massive railway yards in Dematagoda and Ratmalana where a few of these locomotives have been faithfully restored. Some are being restored.

One of the important units in Dematagoda is the Hydraulic Locomotive Shed (HLS). This is a large shed where locomotives are serviced. According to Chief Supervisory Manager Thennakoon, the HLS is a busy area. He kindly showed me an assortment of train engines. The black Hunslet Class engine came from England in 1969. Of a fleet of 28, there are about 15 engines in active duty. The yard crews call them shunting locomotives. Shunting refers to the assembling of a train - the engine and the carriages, which include goods wagons. They are used for internal running within the massive yards. We climbed into an engine and I felt as though I had walked into a time machine, taking me into colonial Ceylon. The Class Y-690 still used in Dematagoda weighs about 45 tonnes and is powered by a Rolls Royce V8 engine.

We walked along the inspection platforms. Once the massive train engines are parked, the work crews ascend into the pits to check the wheels and bogie. The iron wheels of the train are fixed to a bogie. The scent of oils and lubricants dominates the inspection pits. These men work hard behind the scenes.

The locomotive bearing the name Viceroy Special (Engine Class B1) was parked on our left. The massive iron locomotive referred to as ‘Yakada Yaka” (Iron Devil) in her glory days of operation is a splendid locomotive. The Class B1 was the venerated workhorse of Ceylon Railways. She was inducted into the iron fleet in 1927. The B1 engines were made by Beyer Peacock of Manchester, United Kingdom. Class B1 engines were selected because of their power, and used in the upcountry railway line with its demanding 1/44 gradient. Initially, these locomotives were known as Nanu Oya Class Super Heaters. The black locomotives weighed 98 tonnes. The Belpaire firebox gave the engine the desired power. It had a capacity to carry five tonnes of coal and 3,300 gallons of water. By 1929, the Armstrong Whitworth Company supplied 11 new locomotives to increase operations of the Ceylon Government Railway. At one stage, we had 49 such locomotives in the country.

I used to wonder if any of these vintage railwaymen were alive. After two weeks of intense searching, I was happy to find one of them. Mohammad Laffir is one of the last CGR staff who served on the belching locomotives.

He recalled his days working as a fireman apprentice and said “I joined the CGR when I was 20 years. The task of the fireman was to manually fill the firebox with sufficient charcoal, as per the routes of trains. My father Abdul Latheef worked on locomotives for 30 years. Those days we wore khaki shorts and a shirt. It was a demanding job to keep shovelling coal into the engine. At the start, I got a daily wage of five rupees. The engine drivers were mostly Burghers along with a few British men. We all got along well. I was living in Nanu Oya and we did the run to Nawalapitiya. At times we responded to urgent track repairs travelling to Ambewella and Badulla taking railway work gangs. On the cold upcountry line, we actually enjoyed the heat that came from the engine. I enjoyed working for the CGR.”

In Dematagoda, I observed the beautiful steam engine named ‘Fredrick North’ bearing engine number 340. This locomotive was named after the British Governor of that era. This magnificent locomotive was described by children who sang anguru kaka, watura bibee - kolamba duvana yakada yaka meaning the iron demon that consumes charcoal and boiling water as it steams towards Colombo.

Today these glorious iron queens are not seen. They were replaced by diesel engines such as W1, W3 and M2, M6. I was fortunate to see these steam locomotives undergo their routine maintenance at the CME Yard in Ratmalana (CME denotes Chief Mechanical Engineer). Covering a staggering area of 68 acres with 34 mechanical and electrical workshops this railway yard was once the largest in South East Asia and the pride of Ceylon.

I have made two visits to this yard. The number 11 workshop, venerated by all railway staff, is where locomotives are serviced. It is a workshop that preserves history in the context of locomotives. I saw the Viceroy Special, first seen in Dematagoda. Pigeons hovered about. The sides of engines were open and her firebox tender was half filled with charcoal. I was made to understand that this locomotive had to be fired (the process of burning the charcoal) two and a half hours before the train can leave the station. These locomotives had one driver and two firemen. The engine driver had to operate in a standing position.

The front ‘running view’ of the track demanded an alert eye. Looking from this point of the loco, one had to first see past the 10 foot long boiler section and then through clouds of smoke along the unwinding tracks, especially at night. Once the loco was heated and the setting pressure reached a PSI of 150, the spring-fixed safety valve would open automatically, giving the locomotive its hissing release of steam. A spark arrester made sure the burning hot cinders did not spill onto the rest of the moving train.

We walked outside the shed and saw the CJ-1 narrow gauge locomotive, which once ran on the Kelani Valley or KV line. The line was later converted to broad gauge. A few yards away was the best of these locos, the B1-A Thomas Maitland. This is a massive 98-tonne locomotive engine. This grand locomotive once pulled the carriages to Jaffna and Matara. On the Jaffna run, the tired crews were duly replaced in Anuradhapura. In that era, the train took 13 hours and 20 minutes to cover the distance of 256 miles from Colombo to Jaffna. On the Matara journey, the train’s crew was replaced in Galle.

The first loco to be acquired for the CGR was named Leopold in 1864. By 1953, the CGR had used locomotives of various boiler capacities. They were purchased from Hawthorn & Leslie Ltd, John Fowler & Co, Kittson & Co, Vulcan Foundry (Lancashire) and Hunslet Engine Company. The oldest restored loco built in 1898, the E1 (train number 93), can be seen at the Railway Museum. In 1951, the last steam locomotive was delivered by W.G. Bagnall Company from Stafford, England.

I saw another grand old iron queen, the C1-A Garratt engine bearing number 340. Her interior was in need of repair. The Garratt locomotives were first made in 1907 by Beyer and Peacock Ltd, Manchester. The design articulated the locomotive into three sections – with the boiler in the middle and two separate steam engines. This prudent design helped the Garratt to navigate her way on mountain tracks in comparison to a rigid body locomotive. Records indicate that Ceylon got her first Garratt engine in 1924 (H- Class). These powerful steam locomotives transformed this nation and her people.