Yal Devi: Queen of the Northern Line | Daily News

Yal Devi: Queen of the Northern Line

Yal Devi
Yal Devi

Travelling by train is a blissful adventure. For me going to Jaffna by train has been a beautiful experience- first as a schoolboy on holiday and later as an adult on media assignments. All the comfort of the AC buses, cannot match the grandeur and traditions associated with this amazing train. As the Northern Line takes a ‘pause’ to facilitate a five month long repair, I thought of reminiscing about the glorious Yal Devi, who has captured the hearts of millions of Sri Lankans and tourists.  

Decades ago the prudent railway engineer and General Manager of the Railways B.D. Rampala came up with the brilliant idea to launch three trains to three popular Sri Lankan destinations. This pragmatic decision would forever change train travel in vintage Ceylon. These three trains were affectionately branded and advertised as the Railway Sisters of Ceylon. The dazzling views of the villages, rivers, green fields, meandering cattle and colonial railway yards will leave you with splendid memories. The beautiful old railway stations are an iconic reminder of the golden days of train travel in Ceylon and the decorum and grit of the men who worked on steam locomotives.  

By 1845 the Ceylon Railway Company (CRC) was formed. The new railway projects were full of challenges: there were rocks to be blasted, water clogged lands had to be filled and tunnels to be bored. Sturdy Railway bridges would spring up in rural areas amidst the serene villages. In 1861, the Ceylon Railway Company was terminated and the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) formed.  

Let us now fast forward to 1956 when plans were made to enhance train journeys and reduce travel time. Travel time was a big influence when considering long journeys, decades ago. The three trains of the CGR were lovingly known as the Railway Sisters of Ceylon. These ‘iron maidens’ were the Udarata Menike (Main Line from Colombo to Badulla), Yal Devi (Northern Line from Colombo to Jaffna) and Ruhunu Kumari (Coastal Line from Colombo to Matara). All of these trains were launched in April 1956, on the same day. They operate to this day sustaining their rail history, with modern changes made to both trains and tracks- for enhanced comfort and safety.  

Seeing clusters of palmyrah trees rising into the skyline is a stellar view of the long journey from Colombo to Jaffna (later extended to KKS). For decades, the Yal Devi has been a cultural bridge, fostering ties between North and South. There was a need to extend the railway line to Jaffna from Polgahawela. After years of surveying and intense labour, the track was laid. The Jaffna Railway Station was built in 1902. The first train reached Jaffna in 1905.  

During these early stages of the Northern Line, the entire journey covering 256 miles took 13 hours. There were 83 stations on this line. Almost 50 years after the inception of the Northern Line, the Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) thankfully introduced the concept of express trains in Ceylon. On April 23, 1956 the Yal Devi, painted in blue and white, completed her maiden run to Jaffna clocking exactly seven hours. The previous 13-hour journey was now reduced to the delight of passengers.  

The launch of the Yal Devi express train would change the social and cultural fabric of Jaffna forever. CGR records indicate that during the 1970s, there were almost 6,000 people who travelled to Colombo and Jaffna daily on the Yal Devi, netting the highest revenue to the railways. The Jaffna youth got down bicycles from Colombo transported on the goods wagon. The Raleigh bicycle was the desired brand. The Yal Devi also brought patients to Colombo seeking the advice of medical experts at the Colombo General Hospital. This happens even today.  

In the pioneer stages of this long journey the trains stopped at Anuradhapura and Vavuniya where passengers could get off and have their meals at ‘refreshment rooms’. Unlike today, tobacco was a crop much in demand and the Northern peninsula yielded almost 10,000 acres of tobacco. The dried leaves were sent by train. Very old citizens in Jaffna have told me that in the bygone years Mankulam Station permeated with the odour of dried fish. The fish was brought in bullock carts from Mullaitivu, and transported on the goods wagon all the way to Colombo. Mannar also became famous for its dried fish and has since retained this demand among the people of Colombo. Chavakachcheri Station was once a loading hub for thousands of eggs from local poultry farms, and dispatched to Colombo.  

During the 1950s Jaffna was the second largest town in Ceylon, with Colombo retaining first place. Yet, due to the long distance, the Northern folk were somewhat isolated from the vibrant changes and happenings of Colombo. But, the launch of the Yal Devi express train would change the social and cultural fabric forever. CGR records indicate that during the 1970s there were almost 6,000 people who travelled to Colombo and Jaffna daily on the Yal Devi, netting highest revenue to the railways.  

Colombo residents were now able to visit their Tamil friends. The typical rail journey on the ‘night mail’ from Colombo was filled with a spirit of adventure. The train reached Jaffna early in the morning. Passengers were able to witness the sunrise in its celestial splendour as the beams of sunlight penetrated the paddy fields and other cultivations. At the Jaffna Station, Morris Minor cars stood ready at the taxi stand, and porters clad in khaki shorts would carry the baggage to the waiting taxis. From here the train reached Kankesanthurai (KKS), its terminus station. Today there are no vintage cars for hire at the station.  

As we know, the Yal Devi suffered her own moment of grief when she was ambushed and bombed by terrorists on the morning of January 19, 1985. This tragic incident would again isolate the Northern people for another 28 years. It was a severe blow to all Sri Lankan citizens who depended on the magnificent Yal Devi. Healing and restoration takes time. We are thankful to the CGR and the Indian Government who worked together to rebuild the Northern Line, with various Sri Lankan Government authorities.  

Thousands of men worked day and night to install the tracks and the entire signal systems. The Jaffna station was beautifully restored, with modern facilities. The project was completed in October 2014. When the Yal Devi reached Jaffna station, jubilant citizens gathered in their thousands to witness her arrival. A new chapter of reconciliation has begun, and must sincerely continue. The Chief Station Master of Jaffna Station takes great pride in supervising the operations of this station, and his staff work hard behind the scenes to facilitate a safe journey. From Colombo Fort Station there are numerous railway branches associated with the operations of the Yal Devi. A vital branch is the Railway Protection Force (RPF is the railways own police branch) who secure the platforms and protect the train on its long Northbound journey. The RPF operates under a Superintendent grade officer.  

Since 1956 the Yal Devi has faithfully carried Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers, enriching our Sri Lankan identity. She is the gateway to the Northern Province for hundreds of foreign tourists. She is now powered by a modern class M-11 engine. We are thankful to the Indian Government for coming forward to assist us a second time to enhance the railway line on this route. The Yal Devi will continue to dominate the Northern Line for decades more. Once the repairs are complete and the train begins operations, I kindly urge all tourists to take this train ride to Jaffna. There is so much history, culture and succulent cuisine to be enjoyed in Jaffna. The magnificent Palmyrah trees stand proudly, reaching into the skies in this awesome region of Sri Lanka. One of the delights for Colombo travellers is to discover a part of Sri Lanka, and to rediscover their fellowmen living in the Northern Province.    

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