South Asia

Train to Jaffna: resuming a journey after 25 years

The abandoned Jaffna station in 2011. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The abandoned Jaffna station in 2011. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As an engineer testing the newly-laid tracks in northern Sri Lanka, Ravindra Yadav is extra careful.

“People tend to cross the tracks any time,” he says, driving a posh-looking yellow-coloured engine over tracks shimmering in the sun. Honking several times along the way, he adds: “You can’t blame the people. They are not used to a train coming this way.” It may not be easy for someone to anticipate a train if he has not seen one in this part of the country in the last 25 years, says Mr. Yadav, one of the 400 people from India that IRCON brought to Sri Lanka to work on restoring Sri Lanka’s Northern Rail line.

Flagging off Yal Devi

On Monday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will flag off the iconic Yal Devi Express’s journey up to Jaffna, extending its run further into the island’s former war zone, from Pallai to Jaffna.

Indian Railways subsidiary IRCON has restored the section from Omanthai to Pallai in the Northern Province, which was damaged during the three decade-long civil war. The project, being executed with a $800 million line of credit from the Indian government, covers two key rail routes in the Tamil-majority Northern Province.

While the Jaffna line will go all the way up to Kankesanthurai, the northern most tip of the island with a naval base and a port that India is helping rebuild, work on the line from Medawachchiya — in the historic city of Anuradhapura — to Talaimannar is also nearly complete and is likely to be opened in December, according to V.K. Jayasankar, IRCON’s Assistant General Manager.

Among those delighted hearing about trains running to Jaffna once again is 103 year old Louisa Arulamma Thambyrajah. Her memory of her days in Jaffna is hazy but one thing she remembers well is hearing the train horn in her town.

“People in our village would say Kari Coachi varudu, mani onnu ! (steam coach has arrived, it’s one o’ clock!) and we would plan our day based on that,” she says, recalling the 1920s when a distant train whistle was a common marker of time.

A ‘useful train’

The Yal Devi was a “useful train” that stopped at many stations along the way, she says. Running right through the country, virtually the spine of its railway network, the train was as a crucial link that brought together people from different parts of the country and ethnic backgrounds on a shared journey.

The first train to Jaffna is said to have arrived in 1905 but the Yal Devi was introduced much later in 1956, running full for many years till the brutal war halted its journey in 1990.

In its heyday, the Yal Devi was a favoured option for many frequent passengers, especially those from Jaffna working in Colombo who went home for the weekend. Ms. Thambyrajah recalls: “They would take the train from Colombo Friday night, and then the train back from Jaffna Sunday night,” often packing for the journey a quintessentially Jaffna meal of puttu , egg poriyal and drumstick leaves curry.

Ms. Thambyrajah was never too far from a railway station, be it in Jaffna where she spent her childhood or in the Vanni where she moved with her family to start a boys’ home with her husband in 1959.

“Our place was close to the Paranthan station then,” she said, referring to the town in Kilinochchi that was her home for five decades, before her family was displaced multiple times during the final phase of the war.

“Those days were very hard,” she says, recalling the difficulty her family faced moving from one place to another before finally making it to Colombo safely in 2009.

“It is a good thing the train will run once again,” she says, enquiring: “The newspapers say October 13, isn’t it?”

Post-war restoration

Post war, work on restoring the rail link progressed gradually taking train first up to Omanthai, then further north to Kilinochchi, and then to Pallai, 40 km from Jaffna.

Many people will take the train now, Ms. Thambyrajah assures, going by the patronage trains on that stretch once enjoyed.

Of the several thousand passengers who have boarded a train in Colombo to reach Jaffna was Mahatma Gandhi, who was in Ceylon in 1927 to raise money for India’s poor. According to a report published in The Hindu dated December 2, 1927, Gandhi — accompanied by C. Rajagopalachari — addressed students in various educational institutions in Jaffna.

Gandhi was there on an invitation from the Jaffna Youth Congress, says senior historian Silan Kadirgamar. “It was a radical era in Jaffna and Gandhi’s visit drew huge crowds.”

On completion of his tour, Gandhi took the train to Talaimannar and is said to have reached India by a ferry service, something that the Indian government has been speaking of reviving after completing the line to Talaimannar.

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2022 3:55:26 pm |