In 1928 the Ceylon Government Railways were supplied with three V2 class narrow-gauge steam railcars, their traction equipment manufactured by the Sentinel Waggon Works of Shrewsbury and the running gear built by Cammell Laird & Co. of Nottingham. The sale was arranged by Sentinel-Cammell agent Bertie More, father of the renowned film actor Kenneth More.
The Ceylon Steam Railcars were amongst the first of the Sentinel-Cammell geared railcars powered by an underframe-mounted horizontal six cylinder single-acting engine with twin camshaft valve gear and cardan-shaft transmission. This was to be very successful when combined with Sentinel’s high-pressure water tube boiler, resulting in astonishingly low coal consumption, improved ride quality and an easing of the maintenance issues that had blighted previous steam railcar designs.
In 1927-28 six 2′ 6″ gauge cars were supplied to the Ceylon Government Railway, the 3 Class V1 with 2 cylinder engines and chain drive, the 3 Class V2 cars, numbered 331-333, were supplied in 1928 with the newly developed 6 cylinder, horizontal, underfloor engine and cardan shaft drive to one axle. The engine and boiler rated at 100hp were as those in the later LNER cars.
The railcars operated services on the Upper Section of the Sabaragamuwa Railway (part of the Kelani Valley network) from Ratnapura to Opanayaka until 1976. This steep and sharply-curved 22-mile long route ran through dense tropical forest and found fame when it was used in the highly successful 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Incidentally a Ceylon Hunslet 4-4-0T steam locomotive (Class K1-104) used in the film is also understood to be threatened with scrapping. The steam railcars were then transferred to the Kelani Valley line between Colombo and Avissawella where railcar No. 331 remained in operation until the early 1980s.
In 1990 Sri Lankan Railways restored No. 331 to working order and ran tourist services. The Kelani Valley line had been converted to broad gauge but sections were laid to dual gauge to allow the two types of vehicle to work the route. Unfortunately following a derailment of the railcar in 1998 the narrow gauge rails were removed, apart from an area outside Dematogada Running Shed where No. 331 was occasionally steamed until 2008. The railcar was then partially dismantled in a restoration attempt by local railwaymen that subsequently stalled when the three vehicles were evicted from the workshops.
Railcars No. 332 and No. 333, believed to have last steamed in 1976 and 1974 respectively, are also stored in the yard at Dematogada in derelict condition. No. 332 has a good body and underframe but has been gradually stripped to provide mechanical parts for No. 331. No. 333 in comparison is still mechanically complete but with a very poor body.
Sri Lanka Railways is planning to restore one of the Class V2 Steam Railcars to be displayed at the Colombo Museum. However, the current progress of the restoration is unknown.
The Narrow Gauge Sentinel Railcar Preservation Trust has been in discussions both in the UK and Sri Lanka. Its primary objective is to purchase at least one of the three 2ft 6 inch gauge steam railcars, currently stored in the open at Dematogada Running Shed on the island, and to transport it to the United Kingdom for restoration.
The Trust is pursuing various options of preserving one or two of the railcars depending on the response it receives from its appeals and any likelihood of the local preservation initiative restarting.