Railway building in the British colonial period was one of imperial Britain’s great achievements (not entirely altruistic of course). From the time it was inaugurated on 1st August 1905 the railway from Jaffna to Colombo brought Jaffna Tamils to the epicentre of commercial, educational activity and penned doors to individual and familial advancement. As Wikipedia notes, the single track single line between Kankesanthurai and Vavuniya had 16 stations and 12 sub-stations .
Oral story-telling in Tamil circles among older generations must surely highlight the importance of the railway. For Sinhalese and Burghers and others of course the tales will be more wistful ones retailing their occasional sojourns among Tamil friends in the distant terrain of the Jaffna Peninsula. For the railwaymen, of course, whether Burgher, Eurasian, Tamil or Sinhala, the memories were deeper – “etched into their being” in the The Rhythm of the Wheels as Victor Melder called his cyclostyled magazine from the depths of Melbourne during the 1970s.
The Sri Lankan Tamil independence struggle changed all that. The militant Tamils were fighting for separation. The bonds forged and embodied by the railway were immaterial and even perhaps symbolic anathema. Thus, it is recorded that “the Yarl Devi service was attacked by Tamil militants on several occasions. It was blown up by Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization cadres near Murikandy, Mullaitivu District on the night of 19 January 1985, killing 34 people including 22 soldiers and destroying the tracks. The service was attacked again on 25 March 1986 between Puliyankulam and Vavuniya. So on and so on…..including bombings of key junctions by the Sri Lankan Airforce later on in the 1990s.
To the LTTE, moreover, the railway sleepers and other hardware were military material: supports for the building of bunkers and other engineering tasks geared to defence and/or war. A missing theme in the considerable success of the LTTE from the 1980s to, say, 2007 has been the story of their engineering feats in building underground hospitals and complexes as well as fortifications and defences. This was made possible by the availability of skilled engineers and technicians in the civilian population — from Dr Thurairajah of Peradeniya and Jaffna University (who is said to have designed the underground hospital in Jaffna locality) and Jegatheeswaran of Australia who moved across to the island in the height of the wars to aid the defensive works in Eelam War IV.
Supported further by the ravages of war and the inexorable force of what is known as the “Jungle Tide,” namely, the ‘rapid’ regrowth of weeds, creepers and natural vegetation in terrain left bare of human habitation, the railway from Colombo to Jaffna and further (viz. Kankesanturai) became A Path to Nowhere.
Some resourceful camerawork by some imaginative person in 2009 captured the depressing results.
Victor Melder provided me with this list of Railway stations in order south to north: Vavuniya;Omantai; Puliyankulam; Mankulam; Murikandy; Killinochchi; Elephant Pass; Paranthan; Pallai; Eluthumattuval; Mirusuvil; Kodikamam;;Meesalai;Sankaththanal;;Chavakachcheri;Navatkuli;Jaffna;Kokuvi; Kondavil;Inuvil;Chunnakam; Mallakam;Tellipallai;Kankesanturai
NB: at the moment I have not got the geographical order correct but hope to do so eventually with help from pals.