Matara-Kataragama railway line – a new chapter in Sri Lanka’s railway history!
COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s rail network is widely hailed as one of the more positive parts of the country’s colonial legacy. Annually, millions of passengers and tourists use these tracks snaking through a long coastline and tall mountains, once constructed for the primary purpose of transporting different goods to Colombo.
In the 70 years since the colonisers left, no Sri Lankan Government has been able to extend the rail network built by the British Government when it ruled Ceylon. This poor record will soon be broken, with the construction of the Matara-Kataragama railway track, well underway. Soon, the track between Matara to Beliatta will be complete.
The project is getting underway in three stages:
Matara to Beliatta – 27 Kms
Beliatta to Hambantota – 48 Kms
Hambantota to Kataragama – 39.5 Kms
The 27km track from Matara to Beliatta once came under grave scrutiny, with political parties like the JVP criticising a decision by the former Mahinda Rajapaksa administration for spending USD 278 million on the rail track that will run directly into the former President’s home electorate. In 2013, JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told Parliament that this expenditure meant that every kilometer of rail track from Matara to Beliatta would cost USD 10 million.
The massive project has been contracted to China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CMC), funded through the China Exim Bank. The first tranche provided by China Exim Bank was USD 278.2 million for the first phase of the project.
“This project started way back in 1990. A feasibility study was done and even two bridges built across the Nilwala River. But due to the lack of funds, the Government had to abandon the project” said Senior Engineering Consultant Nandasiri Hallovita, who is working at the Matara- Kataragama railway project. A media team including the Sunday Observer recently visited the construction site to observe the progress of the project.
“In fact, we must be thankful to China for extending their support towards the project as this would be a great convenience to the public. Once phase one is completed within another six months, a passenger from Colombo can get down at Beliatta comfortably. When the entire project is completed, the Kataragama pilgrims will be the main beneficiary” said Hallovita.
There are unique features attached to this railway line. The track from Matara to Beliatta will feature both, the longest railway tunnel and longest railway bridge in Sri Lanka. The 615-metre long railway tunnel has already been constructed in Nakutiya near the future Kekanadura railway station. The longest bridge will be located near the Wattegama area.
At the proposed Wattegama bridge, workers, most of them Chinese, were laying sleepers and the railway lines. Sometimes, shouting in a loud voice and commanding the others to do their jobs accordingly, a Chinese supervisor would run hither and dither. A giant machine was running between the newly laid tracks, a kind of welding machine for railway tracks..
In the total track of 115 kms, there will be six stations: Kekanadura, Bambarenda, Wewurukannala and Beliatta, and the two substations Piladuwa and Weharahena.
Another key factor is, this being constructed as the fastest possible railway line of the country. At the moment, the Northern rail line from Colombo to Kankesanthurai on which the famous Yaal-Devi runs, is the fastest, with 100 Kmph; the Matara- Kataragama railway line will beat this speed with a flashing 120 Kmph. “Therefore, we have to buy new trains for the new track” said Nandasiri Hallovita. At the Kekanadura Railway Station, all the workers seemed busy. A Chinese worker offered the visitors safety helmets.
“This is my first job in a construction site. We are all having a good time. Work is not too tight compared to my previous job as a driver. We are getting a good exposure out of this. This project will end in a few months. But, I am confident of getting another job because of the skills I have mastered working here” said K.W.W. Abeygunawardena, a construction worker in the project.
Around 1,700 workers are attached to this mega project, and of these 1,500 are Sri Lankans and 200 Chinese.
“Initially, it was a little difficult, working with Chinese labourers, because most of them could only speak Chinese. But, now I manage the communication, thanks to Google translations” said Abeygunawardene with a smile. W. Dissanayake is another construction labourer who has been working on the project for more than four years. “I am 56 years old now. In all my years as a labourer, in my previous jobs, I didn’t gain such knowledge as I have gathered now. So, I have personally gained a lot. Even economically, we are paid well. Sometimes, small issues would arise, as is common in any other field, but those are easily solved by the management” he said.
The Kekanadura Railway Station is being built as a model Railway Station that will include a two story rail house to accommodate the railway staff. Also, for the first time in Sri Lanka, passenger underpasses will be used in this railway station with no flyovers. A supermarket building is also being built next to the Railway Station which will be very useful to the train commuters.
Undoubtedly, with its scenic routes and innovations, the Matara – Kataragama railway line will surely mark a new chapter in the country’s railway history.