जाफना Jaffna: A railway in Sri Lanka that runs through mine-fields and snake-infested jungle is to reopen on Monday, nearly a quarter of a century after a bloody ethnic conflict shut it down. Trains to the northern peninsula of Jaffna ground to a halt 24 years ago after dozens of passengers were killed in attacks by guerrillas seeking an independent homeland for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils.
The railway was ripped up to make bunkers after a truce between the Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces collapsed and fighting erupted in June 1990.
Five years after the government declared victory in May 2009, the scars of the conflict remain, with bombed-out homes and buildings still visible.
Reopening the railway was a priority to allow reconstruction materials to be brought into the area devastated by years of war and restore a key lifeline to Jaffna which is also the political capital of the northern province.
But it has not been easy.
The work took a full three years, with workers on the 146-kilometre (91-mile) single track having to down tools at night for fear wild animals would attack.
“I first came to inspect the area (in 2009) with military escorts,” said project director Shyam Lal Gupta. “De-mining the area was one of our main challenges.”
Professionals from Sri Lanka and India, which provided an USD 800 million credit line to rebuild railways after the war ended, were deployed to clear mines and unexploded ordnance.
But the team still found 10 landmines during the project.
Snakes were another hazard – at one point Gupta, who works for Indian Railways Construction company IRCON, found a pair mating on what was going to be his construction site.
More than a million Tamils live in Jaffna, which was first connected to the rest of the Sinhalese-majority island through a rail link in 1905 under British colonial rule. The Jaffna railway station, site of many battles between troops and Tamil Tigers, was also a key lifeline for security forces before the guerrilla war for a separate Tamil homeland escalated three decades ago.
History of Jaffna Railway station
Jaffna railway station is situated in the city of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. Owned by Sri Lanka Railways, the state-owned railway operator, the station was once one of the busiest in the country, linking the north with the capital Colombo. The popular Yarl Devi service, which operated on the Northern Line, called at the station. In the late 1980s the station suffered heavy damage due to the civil war. All railway services on the Northern Line north of Vavuniya had been stopped by 1990. The station was abandoned, suffering further damage in the following years. The civil war ended in 2009 and the government has started various projects to rebuild the line and stations.
In the late 19th century residents in northern British Ceylon started campaigning for the construction of a railway line linking the north to the south. The Jaffna Railway Commission report, published in 1891, recommended the construction of a new railway line (now known as the Northern Line) from Polgahawela to Kurunegala and a survey of a line to Jaffna. The line would join the Main Line at Polgahawela Junction, allowing trains to run to the capital Colombo. Approval was given in 1892 and the new line to Kurunegala opened on 14 February 1894. Approval was given in December 1897 for the construction of the Northern Railway and an announcement was made in the Legislative Council in October 1899 that authorisation had been given for the construction of a railway line connecting the north with Colombo. Tenders for the construction of railway line from Kurunegala to Kankesanthurai were called in January 1900 and construction of the new line started at Kurunegala in April 1900. Construction of the 21 miles (34 km) Kankesanthurai-Chavakacheri section, including Jaffna, began in July 1900. This section was officially opened by Governor Sir J.W.Ridgeway on 11 March 1902. The 14 miles (23 Km) Chavakacheri-Pallai section was opened on 5 September 1902. The Northern Railway line up to Anuradhapura was opened on 1 November 1904 and the construction of the line up to Medawachchiya was completed on 11 March 1905.
The construction of the line was completed in the next few months and on 1 August 1905 the first train from Colombo arrived at Jaffna Railway Station.The journey took 13 hours and 20 minutes. The single track line between Kankesanthurai and Vavuniya had 16 stations and 12 sub-stations.
An express train called Yarl Devi was introduced on the Northern Line on 23 April 1956, cutting the journey time between Jaffna and Colombo to 7 hours. The service flourished and Jaffna became the second largest station in the country. The Yarl Devi service was the largest revenue earner for Sri Lanka Railways. Eight passenger trains and six freight trains operated daily between Jaffna and Colombo. By the early 1980s six thousand people travelled daily on the Northern Line.
The station’s fortunes waned when the civil war started in 1983 and the Yarl Devi service was attacked by Tamil militants on several occasions. It was blown up by Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization cadres near Murikandy, Mullaitivu District on the night of 19 January 1985, killing 34 people including 22 soldiers and destroying the tracks. The service was attacked again on 25 March 1986 between Puliyankulam and Vavuniya. The railway tracks were relaid by the Indian Peace Keeping Force and in August 1987 the Jaffna-Colombo rail services resumed. However, the deteriorating security meant that only a few people used the service. After the IPKF withdrew from Sri Lanka in 1990 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam took over most of the territory the IPKF had controlled, including Jaffna. In the middle of 1990 the truce between the LTTE and Sri Lankan government broke down and full scale war erupted. Intense fighting took place in and around Jaffna as the Sri Lankan military tried to regain control of the area. Hundreds of civilians fleeing the fighting took refuge in Jaffna Railway Station. The station was bombed by the Sri Lanka Air Force on 9 August 1990, damaging 6 train carriages and killing eight people nearby. On 13 June 1990 the Yarl Devi service rolled into Jaffna but it could not return to Colombo as the railway track had been destroyed (it would be the last rail service into Jaffna). The station was bombed again on 16 August 1990. In the next few years the entire track between Kankesanthurai and Vavuniya was removed for use in the war.
The Sri Lankan government regained control of most the Jaffna Peninsula, including Jaffna, in 1995 but no effort was made to rebuild the Northern Line or the stations along it. Following the end of the civil war in May 2009, the government initiated various projects to rebuild the Northern Line from Vavuniya to Kankesanthurai. The line between Vavuniya and Omanthai was rebuilt by the Sri Lankan military. Thandikulam Railway Station was re-opened on 6 June 2009 and Omanthai Railway Station was re-opened on 27 May 2011. The contract to reconstruct the 96 kilometres (60 mi) line between Omanthai and Pallai was awarded to IRCON International, the Indian state-owned engineering and construction company. In June 2011 an agreement was signed between Sri Lanka Railways and the Bank of Ceylon for the reconstruction of Jaffna Railway Station. In July 2011 it was announced that IRCON had also been awarded the contract to reconstruct the 56 kilometres (35 mi) line between Pallai and Kankesanthurai and the project cost was financed by a loan from the Export-Import Bank of India.