Team behind safe train trips | Daily News

Team behind safe train trips

Travelling by train is a beautiful experience, no matter where your destination may be. Whether we move upward on the main line to Badulla passing through tunnels and tea plantations or ride the train on the coastal line with the sea spray on our face the trains take us safely. Often we see railway guards, engine drivers and ticket-checkers. But in today’s narrative, I wish to appreciate a silent workforce of railwaymen we do not see. They work with dedication in two vital branches of the railway – the Signals and Telecommunication Branch and the Way & Works Branch. Both of these branches play a significant role in the safety and efficiency of train operations in Sri Lanka.

A primary concern in train operations is the prevention of train accidents. Rail safety is a complex operation in comparison to road safety. There are approximately 390 trains that travel across Sri Lanka. It is vital that train drivers and guards receive the correct signals to operate the trains. Likewise, it is imperative for motorists and pedestrians to know when a train would be passing a level crossing. This is where the Signaling and Telecommunications sub-division makes a significant contribution. Their head office is located within the Dematagoda railway yard.

Chief of Railway Signaling J.I.D. Jayasundara explained, “Railway history shows us that in the infant stages of locomotive operation in England, horses were sent galloping well in advance of the train to update passengers that the train was due. Similarly, in America, signalmen were posted as lookouts on tall trees adjacent to the rail tracks to observe the approaching train and inform the train stations. The Signals branch was established in the 1970s. Initially, we started with the semaphore mechanical signals and have today graduated to sending signals via colour lights and fibre optics.”

The Signals and Telecommunications branch has two other regional divisions - one in Nawalapitiya and the other in Anuradhapura. The Colombo division remains the heart of the operating network. The branch of almost 500 staff is made up of the Deputy Chief Engineer - Signal and Telecom, Deputy Chief Engineer - Planning and Construction, supervisory managers, railway signal inspectors, engineers, electricians, signal fitters and signal linesmen.

Chief signal engineer Jayasundara explained, “The Tablet is a robust and foolproof railway safety operating system. It has served us well for decades. It ensures that both, the engine driver and the station master have to concur for the train to approach the next station.”

The Tyer’s Tablet machine has three levels of indicator slides – line closed, train approaching and train on line. Once the engine driver collects the tablet it is deposited at the forthcoming station and the drill continues through the rail journey. It is impossible for a train to enter a station without the corresponding tablet. The semaphore is a network of large mechanical arms that act as guiding colour lights to an approaching train. Today, these semaphore signals are made at the base workshop in Dematagoda. Over the past few years, the signals sub-division has worked hard to upgrade some sections of train lines with electric colour light systems. These can be spotted from Colombo to Rambukkana, Beliatta to Colombo, Ragama to Negombo, Anuradhapura to Kankasanthurai and Medawachchiya to Talaimannar. The mechanical semaphore signal is in operation from Rambukkana to Badulla and Matale, from Mahawa to Trincomalee and Batticaloa also extending from Polgahawela to Anuradhapura.

This large network of wires, circuits and signal points requires routine maintenance. The systems rely on electricity. In the event of a power failure, the railway circuits have enough standby battery for two days. Signal work crews are deployed in every operating region to cover five stations a week. They travel on special railway trolley cars (on the tracks) to inspect and repair. At any given time trains travelling across the island can pass by 1 of 175 control stations. Another safety element is the Interlocking System. The chief of signals elaborated, “The primary aim of interlocking is to prevent train accidents at common diverging points. The signals and point mechanisms are locked together.”

One of the first branches associated with train operations in Ceylon was the Way & Works division. The first steam locomotive journeyed to Ambepussa in 1864. This railway branch had to be in operation well ahead to prepare the route. One of the primary tasks of Way & Works is the laying and maintenance of tracks. In the pioneer era of the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR), the men of this division were the trailblazers who cut through forestlands. It was these crews who surveyed hills and blasted them to create tunnels. The robust men used pick hammers and spades to dig soil and created stabilized track beds. Among the train lines, the upcountry line with its challenging steep gradient and inclement weather conditions bear testament to these railwaymen.

In 1864, the first phase of the main line was ready from Colombo–Ambepussa. Subsequently, under the visionary initiative of Sir Lindsay Molesworth, the first Director General of the CGR, the tracks were extended. The track reached Kandy in 1867, Nawalapitiya in 1874, Nanu Oya by 1885 and Bandarawela by 1894. The Way & Works teams finally reached Badulla in 1924. The Chief of Way & Works is Engineer W.P.M. Fernando. He explained, “We are one of the busiest divisions in the railway. Apart from laying and maintaining tracks, we have a specialized bridge building and maintenance branch. We also construct and maintain our railway buildings.”

In addition, the backbone of operations is formed by spannermen, trolleymen, platelayers, electricians, patrolmen and gangers. A ganger is a member of a railway working gang. The patrolmen walk miles on foot inspecting the rail lines for any form of danger. They check for loose stones and earth slips after heavy rains. Any sign of hazard is made known to the inspector in charge of that line.

Way & Works has been engaged in laying railway lines from day one. In the early days, wooden sleepers were treated with chemicals and placed on the line. Most of these were purchased from the Timber Corporation. Today the division has begun using concrete sleepers. Laying new tracks is a challenge, depending on the terrain and the desired route. The queen of this fleet is the tamping engine, a large and powerful mechanical beast. The tamping engine is used to pack the ballast (stones) into the tracks to stabilize the track and ensure a smooth train trip. The railway network has 45 tunnels of various lengths. At present, the longest tunnel (615 metres) is encountered on the Matara–Beliatta line near Kekanadura.

One of the sub-branches associated with Way & Works is the Bridge Unit located in Dematagoda. With a staff of 170, this is a highly-skilled branch that builds new railway bridges and repairs existing ones. In the recent past, they have successfully installed bridges in Wellawatte, Dehiwala, Angulana and Unawatuna. They can fabricate and install bridges up to 60 feet. This branch also operates a heavy crane brought down from London in 1950. It is operated by a staff of six men.

Another task of the Way & Works involves fixing safety gates at level crossings, which are commonly known as boom gates. At main stations, the station staff operate the boom gate. Many of the permanent gates are operated by men of the Way & Works, outside the jurisdiction of the main stations. In the case of train derailments, the crews of Way & Works are the first responders. The men of the Motive Power Department can tow the engine and compartments. Chief Engineer W.P.M. Fernando added, “Much progress has been done in terms of new track laying. IRCON (from India) laid new tracks from Omanthai to Kankesanthurai; also from Medawachchiya to the Talaimannar pier. At present, we are upgrading the track from Mahawa to Omanthai. In the olden days, there were narrow gauge lines to Avissawella. Today, all rail lines are 5 feet, 6 inches - broad gauge.

The old tracks had 88 pounds to a yard. Today we have 45 kilogrammes to 60 kilogrammes per metre. The height of the track is 172 mm. This is our steady progress over the decades.” Both of these branches engage with dedication to keep our trains safe.