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Northern Railway Service

The Northern Railway Line of Ceylon was built by the British to serve several purposes. While they wanted to end the isolation of the Jaffna peninsular and link it with the rest of the country, they also wanted to minimise the high death toll among the immigrant Indian labourers, because of the arduous journey from Mannar to the Kandyan province. Another reason was that the Indian labourers were responsible for spreading diseases like cholera and small pox to adjoining villages in the North and North-Central province of Ceylon.

The British appointed a Commission in 1877 to look into the feasibility of the Jaffna railway line. The Commission proposed extending the rail track from Polgahawela to Jaffna. Work began to extend the track to Kurunegala, in 1891. The track was opened on February 14, 1893. In 1903 work began on the extension of the track to Anuradhapura. A rail track between Kankesanthurai and Chavakachcheri was laid on March 10, 1902 and it was extended to Palaly by September of that year. Work then commenced to link the track to Anuradhapura.

The Talaimannar line extended towards the North West from Madawachchiya. By 1912 the bridge that linked Mannar to the main land was completed. On February 24, 1914 the Indo- Lanka Railway Service commenced.

The transport facilities provided by the Northern railway not only enabled the majority of Indian labourers to migrate en masse with their families, but also saved the lives of both labourers and villagers in the North Central Province, since the spread of infectious diseases could be prevented as the immigrants no longer had contact with the population in the North Central Province.

The creation of the Northern line acted as a catalyst for social change. It linked communities, ended the isolation of Jaffna, broke down social tradition, caste prejudices, and also spread new ideas and customs. For the first time newspapers from Colombo were available to all, which helped to increase the reading habits of the people and broaden their outlook.. This also led to the growth of education since people in Jaffna could send their children to Colombo or vice versa.

Yal Devi commences her journey

Yal Devi made her maiden journey on April 23, 1956, with two other trains, Udarata Menike and Ruhunu Kumari as an initiative under, B. D. Rampala, the General Manager of Ceylon Government Railways (CGR) at the time. And because of this many, Ceylonese considered them as three sisters.

Many factors led to the launch of these three express trains. Not only did the government want to expand the passenger transport network of the CGR but also show the public of their detachment from the colonial past and their ability to outdo the British. The timetables of the three trains were arranged so that a commuter who boards the Ruhunu Kumari from Matara after breakfast would reach Jaffna by Yal Devi for dinner.

Although all three trains were called express trains, compared with the Yal Devi, the other two were insignificant. Yal Devi was easily identified by its white and blue colour scheme, with its name boldly painted across the length of the carriages, in all three languages, the Yal Devi was the queen of express trains. That’s why they always gave her platform number 1. It always left Fort railway station, precisely, at 5:45 each evening, packed.

Travelling a distance of 409 kms (256 miles) it only stopped at the “big” stations such as Ragama junction, Polgahawela Junction, Kurunegala, Maho Junction, Anuradhapura, Medawachchiya Junction, Vavuniya, Elephant Pass, Jaffna and Kankesanthurai. It made this long journey in express time, often passing regular trains that started long before she did.

End of a journey

The decades-old civil strife put an end to Yal Devi’s journey to Jaffna in the early 1990s. Even though the Yal Devi stopped going to Jaffna in 1990, the beginning of the end started much earlier. Because of the insurgency, people stopped commuting by train. In the mid 1980s, the track was removed at several points, but the Indian army laid it back. But only a few people travelled by train, when the Indian army left and the LTTE captured several sections of the northern line. That was the end of the Yal Devi’s journey to Jaffna.

Locomotive M2 Number 570 “Alberta” hauled the last Yal Devi train to Kankasanthurei in June 1989. When the war began in the north it was trapped there, but in 1997 Alberta was dismantled and shipped south to Colombo where it was reassembled. Alberta was seriously damaged in an accident at Pothuhera, but has been repaired.

The Northern railway line together with stations, bridges, signal systems were totally damaged and sabotaged by the terrorist LTTE cadres – posing as the sole representatives, freedom fighters of the Sri Lankan Tamil community.

The rebirth

After the war ended in 2009, work started to rebuild the track and restore the Yal Devi service to Kankesanturai, under the Uthuru Mithuru Project. Initially, the service was extended to Thandikulam, With effect from 13 October 2014 it has been begun services up to newly rebuilt Jaffna railway station after twenty-four years. The restoration of northern railway tracks project has been funded by a line of credit provided by the Government of India.

On October 19, 2014 the train service from Colombo to Jaffna, vice versa was re-established after almost 24 years.

Events of the Northern Railway service


The first train from Colombo arrived in Jaffna.


The express train began operations. 1985, the mail train to KKS, was blown up by TEL6 cadres it Murukandy. 34 passengers in that attack.


The mail train to KKS was blown up by TELO cadres at Murukandy. 34 passengers died.


The second attack near Vavuniya that destroyed the entire track.


Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) restored the line and train service was restarted.


The track was rebuilt from Vavuniya to Mankulam. That took place when the civil war was put to an end by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009. In the same year in June, the Thandikulam railway station was set up.


Omanthai railway station was re-opened.


The railway from Omanthai to Kilinochchi commenced.


The line between Kilinochchi to Palai was established in March and Yal Devi re-established.

Credit – The Nation (Eye), Wikipedia, Sunday Observer, Duran Nanayakkara

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Sandhya Kumari

Professor Anton Jayasuriya