By Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajapai
Colombo, April 3 (newsin.asia): It was the French classic adventure novelist Jules Verne, who in his acclaimed novel Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days) proposed the idea of technology connecting vast stretches of the world in the 19th century.
He said through a discussion with the main protagonist, Phileas Fogg: “The world has grown smaller, since a man can now go round it ten times more quickly than a hundred years ago.”
Fogg said that travels are not dependent on waterways alone, but on railways as well. London, San Francisco and New York, Bombay and Calcutta had become railway junctions by the time he wrote his novel.
Published in 1873- Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days came at a time when the railway system of the British Empire was thought to have reached its zenith following the thrust given to railway development in the 1840s. Thus, Fogg and his French valet Passepartout are shown using the railways across the world on several occasions before they reached their destination, the City of London.
The railway boom in England helped boost the economy in more ways than one. Shares and investments grew. Travels increased with investors and commuters beginning to use the railways in preference to other modes of transport. Demands to include more cities mounted.
The story of the beginning of the railways in Sri Lanka after the railway boom in England is also a story of social mobility and economic prosperity. The railway network, connected the most important parts of the island and helped connect with the economies of other countries through trade by the last quarter of the 19th century.
The reason for the introduction of the railways in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was solely commercial, though over time, passengers’ needs were also catered to. Known as Ceylon Government Railways (CGR), the first track was laid by the British Governor Sir Henry Ward in 1858. By Christmas in 1864, the track had been opened for business.
The first journey was from Colombo to Ambepussa, a small town on the way to Kandy, 54 km east of the capital. It was finally extended to Kandy in 1867. By 1926, work was completed on the line to the eastern port of Trincomalee. As the lines and tracks kept increasing,there were 1530 kms of track in operation by 1927.
“Ceylon along the Rail Track’ of Henry W. Cave gives a vivid picture of the island at that time. Cave was a writer, photographer and an officer. Arnold Wright in his (ed) Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (first published in 1907) wrote: “The history of Ceylon railways dates back some sixty years, following the railway mania in England, when promoters were turning their minds to the great possibilities of profitable railway development offered by India and the colonies. A project for the construction of a line from Colombo to Kandy was the first proposal framed. This scheme for connecting the modern with the ancient capital of the island had much to recommend it on the score of commercial advantage as well as of administrative utility.”
The need of the hour was a better system of connectivity to the port of Colombo. Many produces from the hilly regions- e.g. coffee beans, had to be transported to Colombo for export by sea.
But laying the tracks was by no means an easy one because of the hilly terrain and Kandy was at a height of 1727 ft above sea level. “The route which had to be traversed by the line was through a mountainous region covered for the most part with jungle,” as one of the works on the railway said.
Personal accounts of many contemporary army men who assisted the transportation of goods and who later on helped in the process of laying the tracks between Colombo and the hilly regions, also described the tediousness of the work.
British armyman Thomas Skinner who was in-charge of road and later on the railway construction between Kandy and Colombo had written about it in his autobiography (edited by his daughter Annie Skinner)- Fifty Years in Ceylon- 1818-1868.
In this Skinner said: “About this time (1856) the necessity for a railway between Colombo and Kandy came under discussion. There was not a man in the colony who did not earnestly desire the railway, and as long as the estimates of the cost were kept within £1,200,000 nobody demurred; but at the opening of the Session of the Legislative Council on the 18th July 1859, it was stated that “the results of the survey just completed proved that it was impossible to construct a line between Colombo and Kandy for anything like the amount indicated by the two previous surveys. The cost, as estimated by the Company’s engineers being £2,214,000, in lieu of £856,556 as estimated by Captain Moorson.”
However, after much debating, deliberation and the final estimation, the tracks were laid and the first railway line between Colombo to Kandy was built. And with that came the Colombo rail terminus.
(The feature image at the top shows workers engaged in the arduous task of laying the Colombo-Kandy reil track in 1860. Author Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai is a culture special specialist)