The name of the Ceylon Government Railways (CGR) and the name of former General Manager Railways (GMR) Engineer B. D. Rampala are interwoven and the people who talk about the glorious days of the CGR still remember him as an unmatched personality.
The single day journey from Matara to Badulla, the many expresses and signalling system were among the few that stand to B. D. Rampala’s credit. It is he who came up with the nomenclature of express services as Ruhunu Kumari, Udarata Menike, Yal Devi, Uttara Devi, Udaya Devi, Mutu Kumari, Samudra Devi, and Podi Menike.
Bamunuarachchigae Don Rampala (B. D. Rampala) was born on 14 November 1910 and grew up at his ancestral home in Moraketiya, Pannipitiya. He received his education initially at the English Mixed School in Kottawa. Then he went to Nalanda College Colombo and completed his Senior Cambridge Examination at Ananda College.
Ceylon Government Railways – Golden Era of B. D. Rampala and the Way Forward by Ranjith L. Dissanayake states that Mr. Rampala entered the Colombo University College and completed his examinations in Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Physics. After a few months training in the Police Department he joined the Ratmalana Railway Mechanical Engineering Department of the then Ceylon Government Railways (CGR) as a Special Apprentice in 1931.
He sat and passed the Bachelor of Science Degree of the University of London as an External Candidate in 1933. He then got qualified as an engineer on private study by obtaining the Associate Membership of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in October 1935.
Eng. B. D. Rampala was appointed Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of CGR in 1949, the first Ceylonese for the post. In 1955, he became General Manager of Railways (GMR) at the age of 45, a position he was to hold for 14 years up until his retirement in the late 1960s. He was the GMR having the second longest term of office.
The striking fact that comes into light is that Eng. Rampala was not interested in becoming an engineer because of higher social esteem but because he understood it is the best area where he can perform to the full. That is, he chose the profession not due to just inner passion but it would suit to him.
Eng. Rampala was elected the President of The Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka (IESL) in 1958. In fact, this was the year the bus industry was nationalized and the centenary of Ceylon Government Railways. He was also instrumental in establishing the Ceylon Transport Board along with Vera de Mel. Every year, IESL celebrates Eng. Ramapla’s service to the nation with a Memorial lecture conducted at its premises, open to the public.
B. D. Rampala’s Role at CGR
Like any other leading character Eng. Rampala was also a product of his time and era. But his ability to grasp new trends in the rail industry and commitment to apply them superseded the conservative ways of approaching and looking at new technology, which still holds its sway in general.
By the time Eng. Rampala was given the task of fulfilling responsibilities of CME at CGR, the British Railway had already been in existence for more than two hundred years. Historical records state that Britain is the first nation to use steam locomotives in rail transport, while the idea of wooden-railed wagon-ways originated in Germany as far back as in the 16th century.
By the late 1940s, the steam locomotives were though still in operation had started to show difficulties in their ability to cater to modern day needs because railway itself was becoming a popular mode of traveling. So, in one way or other a breakthrough was a need of the day at the time. Railway professionals internationally were able to give a solution to the issue with the introduction of diesel locomotives.
Here comes the role of Eng. Rampala in CGR, which most of people including the engineering professionals in Sri Lanka would like to consider as if it was a result of pure individual talent.
B. D. Rampala had no boundaries in keeping updated with the latest developments in technology and that made him an icon in the field. He had the courage to introduce the latest advances in railway to this tiny island which speaks a great deal of his acquaintance with the enormous knowledge in the subject. In fact, the all-sided knowledge of the field gave him the gift of courage to apply the same practically.
He made his proposal to dieselise the Sri Lanka Railways, and in 1953, the first batch of diesel locomotives arrived from Brush Bagnall of the United Kingdom. When the locomotives started faulting, Rampala made modifications to them. When inspected by the British builders, his modifications were approved and not challenged against their original design. He submitted a paper on his observations to the Institution of Locomotive Engineers in London, which gave him full praise.
Then comes the role of the individual. Most of the railway nomenclature, Rampala was, in 1955, appointed as the general manager of the CGR.
Rampala sought to upgrade the Railways. In the mid-1950s, he launched express trains to shorten journey times to major destinations. Named trains, like the Yal Devi and the Udarata Menike, were launched under his leadership. When he launched the Colombo-Matara Ruhunu Kumari train service, in October 1955, it was Rampala himself who drove the train from Colombo to Matara.
Until, the 1950s, CGR operated entirely with a lock and block signalling system. Rampala introduced electronic colour signalling for the busiest portions of the railways in 1959. Train movements could then be controlled by a Centralized Traffic Control panel at Maradana, greatly improving safety.
In 1956, the Institution of Locomotive Engineers in London recognised Rampala as the Best Diesel Engineer in Asia.
He died on 20 June 1994 at the age of 84. In addition to improving safety on the CGR, Rampala has been remembered for his mark on culture. He created the Yal Devi train connecting Colombo, the capital, and Jaffna. In doing so, he created a cultural icon that transcended any divides between north and south.