Queen of the Southern Railway line | Daily News

Queen of the Southern Railway line

The older version of the engine.
The older version of the engine.

Travelling by train is a fun experience. The Ceylon Government Railway did a great job in connecting all our provinces via train services. Among our famous trains is the Ruhunu Kumari, one of the three railway ‘sisters’ – launched alongside the Udarata Menike and Yal Devi, by the late General Manager of Ceylon Railways B.D. Rampala. Since 1956, she has connected the citizens of Southern Sri Lanka to Colombo. She remains the supreme star of the coastal line.

The coastal line begins at Maradana and moves down to Colombo Fort, Slave Island, Kollupitiya, Bambalapitiya, Wellawatte, Dehiwela, Mount Lavinia, Angulana, Lunawa, Moratuwa, Panadura, Wadduwa, Kalutara North and South, Katukurunda, Paiyagala North and South, Maggona, Beruwela, Aluthgama, Induruwa, Kosgoda, Balapitiya, Ambalangoda, Hikkaduwa, Dodanduwa, Gintota, Galle, Talpe, Ahangama, Weligama, Kamburugamuwa and Matara.

Passengers taking this long route are gifted with picturesque views of rivers, estuaries and pristine beaches. In the vintage era of Ceylon most of the Europeans boarded the train at the Slave Island Station, as they stayed at the opulent Galle Face Hotel. Others stayed at Bristol Hotel, Fort. It was the time when Chatham Street had trees that blossomed with flowers. Railway records indicate that the rail track between Wellawatte and Mount Lavinia was at risk from sea erosion, and to control this, the Government had opened a quarry at Ragama. From here rocks were transported by bullock carts and placed in a systematic manner by the CGR crews. In that era the town of Galkissa (Mount Lavinia) was remote and not the happening tourist destination it is today.

The residents of Galkissa provided horse-drawn carts for commuters travelling from Matara. The hire cost 50 cents per mile for the Europeans and 25 cents for the natives. Passengers were allowed to keep their luggage in the Cloak Room on the payment of 10 cents per article, per day.

The quaint town of Angulana was famous for its cottage industry, making buttons and wooden walking sticks. The village of Moratuwa thrived in the manufacture of good furniture, which is sustained to date. The town folk also made wooden tea chests. These boxes were taken by train to the hill country stations, which reminds us of the importance of railways in terms of cargo transportation.

Little did the carpenters of Moratuwa realize their silent contribution towards the country’s tea industry and the value of Ceylon Tea to the global arena. Reliance Hotel, located near the Moratuwa Station was a popular venue for rail commuters. Distilling coconut arrack was another key industry of this town and 250 tons of arrack was dispatched by rail annually. It is interesting to note that the weight was recorded in tons and not litres.

The train moved along to Panadura where people boarded the Ruhunu Kumari. Panadura was remembered by the Europeans for the standoff between the Dutch and the Portuguese, where 3,000 Dutch soldiers had crossed the river and met stiff resistance from 700 Portuguese troops. The defiant Dutch massacred 500 Portuguese men. Some foreigners got off at the Panadura Station to enjoy a boat trip to Ratnapura, sailing smoothly along the Kalu Ganga. The large iron bridge signals that the train is crossing over towards Kalutara, where young girls attired in colorful dresses sold the famous ‘Kalutara baskets’. Made from palm fronds, they were dyed in red, yellow and black. Europeans used these little baskets to store their cigars, which they smoked along the way, whenever the train came to a halt.

Passengers were also able to witness toddy tappers climbing up and down the slender coconut trees. Today, we seldom see these men in action. The Paiyagala North Station served the villagers of Induruwegoda, Paleyangoda, Gabadagoda, Mahagamedda and Veragala. Passing Beruwela one could see the 122-foot-high Imperial Light House. The Europeans referred to this town as Barberyn, which had a predominant Muslim population. The Dodanduwa Station was busy as men loaded coir rope onto the goods wagon, and 300 tons were sent annually by train. The wealthy passengers adopted the hobby of spending a few days here to shoot snipes (a bird). Galle was the chief town of the Southern Province, and has a large station with a Signal Cabin full of levers, operated manually.

The Dutch Fort had dazzled the passengers then and still captivates first-time visitors. The New Oriental Hotel was the desired place of accommodation for those terminating the rail journey at Galle. The Hotel built by the Dutch dates back to 1684, and was later used by the British as barracks for their soldiers. The next station on the coastal line is Talpe, originally set up as a ‘goods station’ where thousands of coconuts were piled into the rail wagons.

The town of Weligama was sought for the fragrant cinnamon and immaculate lace, woven by skilled hands. Cinnamon was a sought-after export. Today, the art of weaving lace on the ‘beeralu’ is almost extinct.

Kamburugamuwa was the loading dock for citronella. At the mouth of the Nilwala Ganga the train reached her terminus in Matara. The passengers visited the Star Fort built by Governor Van Eck in 1763, and those returning to Colombo bought bags of sweets from the South.

I spoke to the Chief Station Master at Matara who said, “The Ruhunu Kumari is the iconic train on the coastal line. She leaves Matara every morning at 6.05 am. The train has 12 compartments, with four for second class and eight for third class travel. The distance to Colombo is 158 kilometres and the train is always full.”

The Matara Station was opened to the public on December 17, 1895. The coastal line remains an important rail route for thousands of commuters as they ride the glorious iron princess, the Ruhunu Kumari.