‘Anguru Kaka Wathura Bibi Kolamba Duwana Yakada Yaka’ is a famous line from a popular poem that we sang when we were schoolchildren because the trains of that time were mainly steam powered by coal and water, before that diesel train engines not be introduced to Ceylon Government Railway (CGR) then, and now, the Sri Lanka Railway. As proof of the above poem, to this day there is an iconic landmark of an ancient black rounded water reservoir belonging to the Kelani Valley Railway, standing majestically at Avissawella Station.
I had the cherished ambition to explore these crumbling stations along the abandoned Kelani Valley railway lines of Yatiyantota and Opanayaka. First, I traveled along Avissavella to Opanayaka and discovered the incredible lost glory of the KV railroad. The old stations located in the cities are Getahetta, Eheliyagoda, Parakaduwa, Kuruwita, Ratnapura, Tiriwanaketiya, Dela, Watapota, Kahawatta and Opanayaka.
The Kelani Valley Railway, popularly known as the KV Line, occupies a unique position in the 145-year history of the Sri Lankan Railway, which was originally built as a line to 2ft 6in narrow gauge track for transporting goods, between Avissawella and Yatiyantota. In the days of the narrow gauge, the line had its own fleet of narrow gauge locomotives, where K-class steam locomotives were used.
European planters from Kelani Valley and Sabaragamuwa have been campaigning for a railway line since the successful completion of the railway to Kandy in 1867. This resulted in the construction of the KV line, first from Colombo to Yatiyantota via Avissawella in 1900-1902.
Avissawella is only 37 meters above sea level, but it feels like you are deep in the hills of Sri Lanka. Its station is the terminus of the KV line, although the train once served Opanayaka via Ratnapura, the city of gems. Now we have to get there by road.
Avissavella is also a major KV line town and an important junction station for the railway where the Colombo line branched off to Yatiyantota and Opanayaka, which was extended to Ratnapura, completed in 1912, and eventually extended to Opanayaka in 1919.
The KV line is Sri Lanka’s only narrow gauge railway, barely 76 cm wide. Surviving a quieter era, it was opened in 1912 as far as Ratnapura, mainly to transport agricultural produce from the valley to Colombo by British planters. Since transporting coffee, tea, rubber, cinnamon and coconut, then major crops on the island, from plantations around Ratnapura and Kegalla districts to Colombo, for shipment to Britain took time, thus negatively affecting the plantation industry, colonization British planters wanted the railroad.
During the reign of British Governor Sir Henry McCallum (1907-1913), the KV railway line extended to Ratnapura after branching off from Avissawella as a narrow gauge line to transport agricultural crops. Again, in 1912, the railway line was connected from the town of Ratnapura to Opanayaka, about 20 kilometers from Ratnapura, which was the terminus of the line.
However, the main stretch from Fort to Opanayaka via Avissawella was shortened to Ratnapura during WWII by British rulers due to lack of income in 1947. Eventually the Ratnapura trail to Avissawella was closed in 1976. Subsequently, the line was extended to Avissawella and finally to Homagama.
The main reason for the extinction of the narrow gauge railway was the lack of rapid operations due to the smooth and sharp curves along the line. Once again, the Colombo wide gauge line was introduced to the KV line to Avissawella in 1993. The
the railway line beyond was completely abandoned, and now the line from Avissawella to Yatiyantota and along the way to Opanayaka can only be traced by the remaining ruined stations, huge iron bridges, old telephone sets and arched stone culverts.
At present, the Opanayaka Terminal Station has been housed at the Opanayaka Police Station of the Sri Lanka Police Department and the old building is considered to be the most exquisite ruined architectural monument in Sabaragamuwa Province. .
The old train station in the city of Ratnapura was transformed into the current bus stop in 1976.
Although the old station buildings are still in use with some modifications, the old grandeur of the station is still visible from the old iron roof with rounded iron beams.
I walked a few miles further along the old railway line (today the villagers called it ‘Railpaara’) from Ratnapura towards Opanayaka and came across an amazing construction by the British builders at the height of the line a railway. At Warakathota off the town of Ratnapura, on the KV railway line, I discovered a fascinating monument of an iron bridge crossing the still intact Kalu Ganga, standing majestically like a monument, without any damage even. so mother nature has caused many disasters in the region.
In Ratnapura, I met an elderly citizen, ID Wijeratna, (90), a former telecommunications technician attached to the telecommunications office in Ratnapura, who vividly recalled his past experience of his KV train ride. âThose days we had a train pass and whenever there was a breakdown on the phone lines (the phone lines are always parallel to the railway line) we had to travel by train. Ratnapura to the nearest station and urgently consider the matter. It was a most pleasant working environment at the time, in 1950, ârecalls Wijeratna.
The railway line then ran towards Opanayaka passing Dela station and reached Hunuwala town by crossing Kahawatta where the Hunuwala iron railway bridge was still used for road transport. What a wonderful sight, how this historical monument from the bygone era of the Kelani Valley Railroad is still used for road transport.
When the railway line was abandoned from Avissawella to Opanayaka, there was a huge grab of property along the railway line to dig gems and build houses and even commercial establishments. Many houses are now illegally built on this stretch. It is tragic how people uprooted all the iron bars from the KV narrow gauge railway line and sold them to dealers.
Although people live in these houses, it seems that they live with eternal worry all the time. For example, when we photographed an old station in Getahatta which is one of the most important stations after Avissawella, now in a dilapidated state, an elderly woman living near the station approached us and asked ” Mahatthela CGR ekenda? (Are you from the IRGC?) We said no, we were taking pictures of these old buildings for posterity. Then she left us in peace.
We feel a lot of emotion when we see these monuments of ancient arch culverts, iron bridges and old stations in this way and we strongly feel that they should be protected without delay as archaeological monuments for future generations in order to observe the hard work of the Sinhalese. workers with British engineers to build this wonderful railway line. Probably, the KV line is also the second constructed narrow gauge railway connecting the hill country, and the first ever lost railway line to the country.
To see more monuments from a bygone era of the KV line, we then entered the Railway Museum at the Sri Lanka Railway Headquarters in Maradana, which was the first station built in the country, before that it is transferred to Colombo Fort station. It exhibits many railway objects used in the past, especially since the establishment of the railway in the country in 1865. At the museum, our attention was drawn to objects used in the KV line such as steam locomotives, graders, sockets and old signaling systems. It is a must see place for those wishing to research the old rail system in Sri Lanka.