To Yatiyantota, in search of KV railway line | Sunday Observer

To Yatiyantota, in search of KV railway line

A breathtaking view of sunrise at the dawn over Yatiyantota mountain ranges, seen through the valley of Kelani Ganga at Karawanella.
A breathtaking view of sunrise at the dawn over Yatiyantota mountain ranges, seen through the valley of Kelani Ganga at Karawanella.

The age of the steam locomotive may have passed, but Sri Lanka still remembers the days when the first Yakada Yaka huffed and puffed up the railway lines in the interior of the island, especially, a surviving symbol of heritage of the abandoned Kelani Valley railway line.

The idea of building a railway line to Yatiyantota was first mooted by the Ceylon Railway Company in 1900 to fulfil the low country British colonial planters’ plea. The colonial government built the narrow gauge (2ft 6in wide) section to serve the rubber plantations east of Colombo, known as the Kelani Valley Line (KV). It was branched off from Avissawella to Ratnapura in 1912, and expanded to Opanayaka in 1919.

Continuing my exploration of the KV Line, my next destination is the Yatiyantota terminus railway station which nestles in the 20 kilometre stretch through the scenic valley of the Kelani Ganga. Avissawella, being a major junction station in the Kelani Valley railway line from Colombo, branched off to Yatiyantota and Opanayaka via Ratnapura as separate railway lines. My first leg of the journey completed from Opanayaka to Avissawella was featured in the ‘Sunday Observer’ issue of August 27.

Yatiyantota, which is about 60 kilometres from Colombo is a major township situated on the Hatton highway, dotted with undulating mountains of lush green rubber plantations, belonging to the Kelani Valley Plantations Company, bordering the bank of the meandering Kelani Ganga which flows eastwards through Maskeliya, Laxapana, Kitulgala, Yatiyantota, Karawanella, Hanwella, Kaduwela and Kelaniya, until it kisses the mouth of the sea at Hekitta, north-west of Colombo. Beyond Yatiyantota is Kitulgala, another enchanting scenic tourist spot in the Kelani Ganga, famous for water-rafting all over the world.

Although the feasible report was submitted to build the KV railway line by the committee appointed by the governor in the latter part of the 1800s, the colonial government found that a railway en route was not possible due to the jungle and the treacherous terrain. The engineers were instructed to inspect the region between Colombo and Karawanella and suggest a fresh route for the proposed railway extension. After the survey was completed and the estimates ready, the construction of the line was approved by the government in 1898. It was decided that the Nugegoda, Pannipitiya, Padukka, Waga, Kosgama, Avissawella, Talduwa, Dehiowita, Karawanella and the Yatiyantota terminus should be the stations on the line.

The construction of the railway line commenced in 1900 and the first phase up to Avissawella had been completed in 1902. From Avissawella to Yatiyantota, a 20 kilometre stretch was open for traffic the following year, 1903. However, eventually, the railway line between Avissawella and Yatiyantota was terminated in 1942 during the Second World War by the British rulers, due to a lack of revenue. Although the Yatiyantota section of the KV railway line was completely abandoned, many stations on the way are still used as government offices. But, some structures are overgrown with flora and are crumbling fast. You can’t reach them for fear of serpents and animals and the abandoned railway line which goes parallel with the main Avissawella –Yatiyantota road.

The railway line crossed the main Avissawella-Yatiyantota road at the busy town of Talduwa with an overhead iron bridge spanning the Sithawaka Oya. Once a massive iron bridge, today, it has been dismantled and some iron beams of the old railway bridge lie in the river.

Yet another important landmark of the railway line is an old horse dock where horses were unloaded from the train for the use of the British planters in the area. The Kelani Valley club, just a kilometre from the Talduwa town, is one of the oldest Planters’ Clubs in the country which is enclosed in a shaded and serene area. The Club was founded in 1884 by British resident planters in the area to cater to their recreation needs. The KV Club, ideally situated in the heart of the Kelani Valley sub-district, with the plantations all around it, the British planters from near and far used to travel on horseback, or would even opt to walk from their estates to the Club.

We are drawn back to the main road where we next explore the number of remaining ruined old stone masonry, arched-culverts, bridges and stations of the abandoned railway line running almost parallel to the main road. Almost all the lands belonging to the railway line have been encroached by villagers to build houses, commercial establishments and even for cultivation.

Soon we are on our way to Yatiyantota and just passing the Dehiowita town we step into the old railway station at Dehiowita, a two storied building, on the left side of the main road, which is now used as the MOH.

Our next stop, an old railway station at Karawanella is in Magammana, a lush green village with many rubber plantations situated around one kilometre from the main road, on the right bank of the Kelani Ganga. Passing Karawanella, the railway line traverses along the bank of Kelani Ganga.

We visited it and found an interesting monument of a ruined signal tower of the KV line. Today, the two- storied well-maintained old station at Karawanella is still being used as a school principal’s office along with a long goods shed platform, which was used to load sheet rubber to the train.

The next morning we rise early and head for the Karawanella Bridge to watch the sunrise over the mountain ranges of Yatiyantota through the Kelani Valley, which is a most beautiful sight to behold. We could see it through the silhouetted mountains with aesthetic details, and is truly an ode to Yatiyantota’s sense of beauty. We stood on the bridge at Karawanella till late morning and then proceeded to Yatiyantota.

Our final destination was the Yatiyantota railway station which is the terminus of the line, around four kilometres from the Karawanella station. At Yatiyantota, a few yards away from the town on the right, we came across an iron bridge of a railway line over the Kelani Ganga still being used to transport goods and also by pedestrians. The bridge leads to the Yatiyantota railway station, now occupied by the Sri Lanka Police. We learnt that the railway property was officially handed over to the Yatiyantota Police Station, and the adjoining goods shed of the old station is also used as a school building.

Our next visit is the iron bridge of the railway line of Yatiyantota, a few yards from the Police Station across the Kelani Ganga, and here, we come across an iron logo attached to a beam of the century old bridge, that mentioned the name of the British contractor of the bridge and the railway line. It reads thus: ‘E.C.& J. Keay. Ld. 1902, Engineers and Contractors, Darlaston, Birmingham’.

As we wrap up our visit to Yatiyantota and travel back to Ratnapura, we promise ourselves that we would visit again. The Kelani Valley railway line is so special as an age-old architectural monumental treat, so that visiting it once is just not enough. 

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