The Development of Transportation in Ceylon, 1800-1947

L. A. Wickremeratne aka Ananda Wickremeratne**

The history of transportation in Ceylon forms an interesting backdrop to the economic developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the beginning of the nineteenth century however, military exigencies rather than economic considerations were the determining factors in the construction of roads by the colonial government. Understandably, much attention was centered on the recently acquired Kandyan territories over which the British were determined to strengthen their hold.

The Satinwood Bridge at Peradeniya (a description questioned by /Gerald Peiris)

The principal mode of access from Colombo to Kandy lay along a line of military forts and fortresses. This route which in later times came to be known as the old road to Kandy,[1] ran through Hanvalla, Avissavalla, Ruvanvalla, Hettimulla, Attapitiya, where fort king had been constructed, and across the Balana pass to Kandy. From time to time the route had been widened by clearing the jungle on either side to facilitate the movement of troops. This necessity as well as the burden of maintaining the military forts and fortresses along the route were however a considerable expense and inconvenience.

 The Bridge of Boats at Kelaniya

Governor Sirr Edward Barnes sought to meet these difficulties by constructing for military purposes, a less circuitous road to Kandy. Making full use-although not always a judicious use from a strictly humanitarian point of view – of rajakariya as well as the technical skill of British military engineers the new road to Kandy was rapidly completed in the 1820’s and was at the time regarded as a notable technical achievement. Indeed, during this decade, a network of military roads – Ambepussa to Kurunegala, and thence to Kandy over the Galagedara Pass. From Kurunegala to Matale and from Kandy to Matale – enabled the British to take a firmer hold on the Kandyan provinces.

But apart from the military roads, roads in Ceylon – using the term very broadly – were few and far between. The roads from Colombo t Galle, Matara and thence to Batticaloa, as well as the roads from Mannar to Colombo, “the carriage roads” to which early writers like Percival make reference – were in truth no more than “mere clearings through forests… practicable for rough cart traffic during the dry season but impassage during the rains”.[2] Indeed Governor Frederick North who made a tour round the island in 1800 had to do so with 160 palanquin bearers and numerous elephants as part of his entourage.[3]

Gradually, however, with the success of coffee culture commercial rather than military considerations became more important in the development of transportation. Indeed the opening up of a large number of coffee estates threw into sharp focus the limitations of the existing system of transportation in the island. Coffee was not strictly speaking a perishable commodity. But individual proprietors – the mainstay of the coffee industry – who had raised capital by mortgaging their land or potential crops were anxious to make quick sales and the expeditious dispatch of coffee to the port was therefore a much sought after goal. The dispatch of coffee from the interior had to coincide with both the shipping season on the western coast of Ceylon as well as with the season for selling coffee in the London market.

To the majority of the coffee estates the principle means of dispatching coffee was the Kandy-Colombo road. Theoretically at any rate the estates in the Nuvara Eliya and Badulla districts had a shorter outlet to the coast and sometimes coffee was sent from Badulla to Hambantota or to Batticaloa for shipment. Although transport coasts per se on this route seemed lower this was more than offset by the greater length of time taken. Above all neither route was practicable for carts. Thomas skinner who had a knowledge of roads and roadbuilding in Ceylon which was unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries, described the road from Badulla to Batticaloa as being “nothing more at present than a very bad trace”. Consequently tavalams rather than carts was the mode of transportation resorted to on this route. Besides , vessels seldom visited the small  and comparatively difficult ports of Hambantota and Batticaloa. In these circumstances notwithstanding the longer haulage, coffee planters in the districts of Nuvara Eliya and Badulla had their coffee transported to Colombo primarily via Kandy.[4]

In 1848 Skinner in a detailed report on the condition of the principal roads in Ceylon pointed out that several portions of the existing roads had not been either gravelled or traffic. He was referring mainly to the road from Nuvara Eliya to Gampola. The road from Nuvara Eliya to Badulla on which so many estates depended, he added was no more bridle path. His strictures were equally applicable to the road which had been built from Ambepussa to Kandy through Kurunegala and which served the coffee estates in the Kurunagala district.[5]

Predictably the cry of more roads and emanated from the coffee planters who were a formidable group in mid nineteenth century Ceylon. More specifically because their estates were scattered throughout the central highlands the coffee planters urged the construction of a branch or minor roads to connect the estate areas with the main road that ran from Badulla to Colombo. They also wanted greater access to individual estates and undertook to build “estate roads” at their own expense provided the government took in hand the technical task of tracing these roads.

Before the Colombo–Kandy road became a reality, goods from the interior to Colombo were dispatched by means of coolies who travelled on the old Hanvalla – Ruvanvalla road. A cooly who carried a load of 40 pounds was paid about 8 sh.9d.for the journey down alone.[6] Subsequently the introduction of bullock driven cart traffic on the Colombo–Kandy road brought down the cost of transport. At first , the cart rate for a two way journey-involving both the carriage of coffee to Colombo as well as the transport of rice and stores on the journey back-was ₤3. 1sh.3d. With the increase in the number of bullock carts available for these purposes, transport costs fell, until by 1830, the official rate was ₤ 1.3sh.11/2 d. By 1832 the rate had fallen to 16sh. 6d.[7] From the viewpoint of the coffee planters the situation of falling costs was entirely satisfactory as a cart was capable of carrying a load of ten to fifteen hundredweights.

Problems, however, became evident. On the basis of tolls which the government levied on carts and from which source the government in the early 1830s was able to collect annually a sum ranging between ₤18,000 and ₤21,000, Sir Henry ward surmised that at least 30,000 carts were playing annually on the Colombo–road.[8] By the 1840’s the available carts could hardly cope with the enormous increases in the amount of coffee that was being produced for export. Competition among planters for cart facilities pushed transport costs to ₤ 3 per load and the rates tended to rise even higher when the demand was greatest. For coffee had to be transported to Colombo between January which saw the end of the picking season and the commencement of the south west monsoon roughly in May. It was well known that coffee held in stock indefinitely not only physically deteriorated but also fell in value by as much as 5sh.per hundredweight. Consequently, when the demand for carts was greatest, It was not unusual for cart rates to increase to ₤4.5sh.per load.

For its part the government had however given considerable thought to the problem of transportation. Large sums of money had been spent on improving the roads especially by providing culverts as well as by gravelling or metaling, By 1863, on the eve of the railway era, about half the island’s road mileage of 2,096 had been metaled and gravelled.[9] In particular the Nuvara Eliya-Kandy road which Skinner had described as being “execrable” in parts, had been vastly improved.

No doubt such technical improvements had to some extent been made possible by the institutional changes which the government had made during this period the tradition of building roads by means of “Royal Engineers” and military officers was superseded by the creation of a small civil department under a Civil Engineer and Commissioner of Roads. Under Thomas Skinner, who was the first incumbent of this post, the Civil Engineer’s Department – the precursor  to the Public Works Department — soon acquired a well deserved reputation for technical skill in road building .

Carts drawn by ‘Soysa bullocks’ (imported breed) on a typical road way

carts at Colombo harbour

The government had also addressed itself to the difficult problem of finding the financial resources for roadbuilding. A Committee of the Legislative Council appointed in 1842 urged the imposition of a curious miscellany of novel taxes – a land tax, a fish tax, and levies on dogs and firearms — as a means of finding additional financial resources. But these measures were not adopted. More practicably, the government introduced the Road Ordinance of 1848 whereby each male between 18 and 55 years had to perform six days labour each year on roads, or alternatively, commute the obligation by a payment of 3 shillings.

This latter measure undoubtedly helped to improve the condition of the roads, but it did not significantly reduce the costs of transport. Ward addressing the Legislative Council in July 1855 succinctly summed up the situation with the remark that the “communications between the interior and the coast” were uncertain, costly and inadequate”.[10] In point of fact an effective reduction of transport costs depended on changes and technical innovations in the mode of transportation as well, but the bullock carts, the principal mode of transport, were not susceptible to changer or improvement. The carters and cart contractors generally lacked the means to increase the numbers of carts or add to the number of cattle for the carts. The occurrence of cattle disease, especially rinderpest, and the unscientific manner in which cattle were reared usually kept the death rate among these animals unusually high.[11]

Figure 1: Approximate Number of carts which operated on the Colombo–Kandy road before and after the competition of the railway, as indicated in tolls returns

Months                             1866            1868

January        …      …      15000           6000

February      …      …      14000           4000

March                     …      …          14000           5000

April            …      …      14000           4500

May             …      …      12000           4000

June             …      …      10000           4000

July              …      …        9000           4000

August         …          …    8000             4000

September    …      …        6000           4000

October        …      …        7000           4000

November    …      …        6000           4000

December    …      …        6000           3000

The real breakthrough in transportation came with the railway. Although there were numerous economic reason which made the construction of railways in Ceylon a particularly attractive proposition, Indian experience and example were clearly very powerful stimulants. Two factors in particular had impressed the coffee planters and the European commercial community who began to agitate for railways: more than one company which had been formed for the purpose of financing railways construction in India had been able to successfully raise capital in London, despite the competing attractions of domestic investment in railways in Britain in the years of the ‘railway mania’; secondly, the British Government had stepped in to guarantee a percentage of the capital which the companies proposed to raise, thereby practically assuring the success of the proposed ventures.

A Ceylon Railway Company which had been formed in 1845 with a view to building a railway link between Colombo and Kandy claimed rather optimistically that the railways in Ceylon would lead to the exploitation of “vast mineral resources” and would also be the means of attracting British capital. It also contended that labour was cheap and that therefore railways in Ceylon could be constructed well below estimated costs.[12]

A train traversing “Sensation Pass’ on the way to Kandy

On the other hand, the planters as well as enthusiastic administrators were much more realistic and their arguments in support of a railway were clearly calculated to impress not only the run of the mill British investor, but the Colonial Office as well. To begin with there was no doubt that the coffee industry in Ceylon had demonstrated remarkable resilience after the depression of 1847-8. By 1855 it was evident that coffee exports had markedly increased over the years and that the upward trend could be reasonably expected to continue. Nevertheless, there was now the threat of effective competition from Brazilian coffee. Ward for his part made no secret of his fears that Ceylon was likely to lose her paramountcy to Brazil where coffee production was expanding rapidly and railway construction was being taken in hand with the backing of British capitalists. In the absence of special market advantages such a tariff concession of the sort which the West Indian coffee producing industry had enjoyed in an earlier period, Ceylon could retain her position only by effective reduction of the costs of production.

Transport was, more than any other factor, germane to this aim, because costs on this score were not only high but tended to fluctuate. This was particularly evident with regard to the cost of rice which the planters were obliged to make available to their immigrant workers. At the best of times the price of a bushel of rice which varied between 3sh.6d. and 4sh.6d in Colombo increased considerably in the first instance when it was transported to Kandy and later when it had been transported from Kandy to the estates. Whenever there was a comparative scarcity of rice, as happened in 1854 on account of a drought in India, the situation was made considerably worse. On this occasion the price of rice in the Colombo bazaars had increased to 7sh.6d.per bushel. The same bushel cost 12 shillings when it had been taken to Kandy and cost as much as 14 shilling in Gampola or Nawalapitiya. The coffee planters argued that a railway and the comparative stable freight charges in transport by rail could reduce the price differential between Colombo and the plantation districts to as little as a shilling per bushel.

With regard to capital for railway construction it was confidently asserted that Ceylon could repay loans raised in London, by means of the income from freight which the railway could be reasonably expected to earn. If one took into account what the planters were already paying for cart hire, these sanguinary expectations could well have been realized annually from the transport of coffee and rice not to mention the value of the passenger traffic handled by the Royal Mail Coach which netted about ₤ 7,000 annually. These was also the belief that the traffic in coffee and a host of native products which was dispatched from the Ratnapura District to Kalutara along the Kalu-ganga would be attracted to the railway.

The Colonial Office was however wary and, made known its reluctance to permit the government in Ceylon to guarantee the interest on loans which the promoters of the railway enterprise were taking steps to raise. Instead, it insisted, that the guarantee which investors would insist on, must be met not from possible income from railway freight or from the general revenue, but from a special fund which Ceylon would have to create by additional taxation.[13]

Inspire of their impatience with delays, the coffee planters as well as the government had finally to act on the formula proposed by the Colonial Office. In consequence in 1856, two important ordinances were enacted which in the firstinstance gave sanction to a provisional agreement between the Ceylon government and a newly constituted Ceylon Railway Company. More significantly, the second of the two ordinances enabled the government to levy export duties to meet the obligations of railway construction.

In terms of generating confidence and demonstrating the financial viability of the venture the construction of a railway to Kandy which was completed in 1867, literally paved the way for subsequent extensions. In sum the extensions to the railway which Ceylon witnessed in the second half of the nineteenth century manifested themselves in four significant directions. Firstly, the railway was extended from Kandy in the direction of Uva and had by 1894 penetrated as far as Bandarawela. Secondly, the railway was built from Kandy to Matale and thirdly from Kandy to Kurunagala. By these means the central plantation districts, with the exception of the important Sabaragamuwa sector had been opened to railway traffic. Finally, there was the gradual extension of the railway from Colombo along the coast to Moratuwa, Kalutara and further on to Galle.

Nevertheless, the impact of railway building in the nineteenth century was not as widespread as it may seem at first sight. There was first the question of investment in railway construction.  From the start the capital necessary for railway construction in Ceylon was raised almost wholly in London and came to be viewed as an exclusively British preserve. The Ceylon Railway Company for example provided for capital of ₤1,000,000 in shares of ₤ 50 to build a railway to Kandy at a cost of ₤ 6,000 a mile.[14]

When the Ceylon Herald protested that Ceylonese investors had been ignored, rather belatedly a handful of shares were allocated to Ceylon principally for the benefit of the Burghers. However, procedural difficulties made this concession meaningless. It was stipulated that applications for shares had to be made in London and that Ceylonese applicants should appoint agents in London to act on their behalf.

In 1872 for the first-time debentures for railway construction were issued locally. From this point onwards local loans appear as a feature in the account of the Ceylon Railway. But as one might expect, local loans were negligible vis-à-vis, either the sterling loans which continued to account for the bulk of the capital raised for railway extensions or the contributions which the Ceylon government made available out of the general revenue.[15]

On the purely credit side however it must be added that the advent of the railways created significant employment opportunities for Ceylonese, both as wage earning labourer’s as well as in the higher grades. Gradually a number of Ceylonese, particularly Burghers, who were employed as minor officials such as station masters, clerks and guardsmen, were able to quality for higher semi-managerial posts as well.

Reverting to the debit side, it becomes evident that a singularly interesting feature about railways was their slow impact on the patterns of traditional transportation. Although it was as yet too early to assess the situation clearly, in 1869 Governor Sir Hercules Robinson pointed out that approximately two thirds of the island’s exports were dispatched from the interior to Colombo by means of the railways. He made the significant point that the natives could “never derive any direct advantage unlike the European commercial class from the railway.”[16]

Interestingly Robinson’s shrewd prognosis of native inclinations was echoed by the management of the Ceylon Railway in 1880. In particular the Traffic Manager in his administration report pointed out that although the coastal line had been extended from Colombo to Kalutara in the belief that the railway would provide an effective outlet for the commerce of Sabaragamuwa, native producers continued to relay on the traditional modes of transportation. About 24,000 tons of goods came down from Ratnapura to Kalutara along the Kalu-ganga annually. Two thirds of these goods were dispatched from Kalutara to Colombo along the canals and the remainder by means of carts, in spite of the fact that transport by rail would have meant an undeniable gain in time. The Traffic Manager also contended that there was no effective substitute for the dispatch of goods from Ratnapura along the Kalu-ganga, and that in realistically accepting this situation, the Ceylon Railway should urge the government to make the Kalu-ganga more navigable — especially for flat bottomed steam barges which could be maintained as ancillaries to the railways.[17]

Indeed, the piecemeal process of railway expansion and the peculiar physical features of the plantation areas made it possible for the more traditional transport media to survive side by side with the railway both as genuinely independent systems or as feeders to the railway. This was true particularly of carts. Although superseded by the railway in haulage between Colombo and Kandy. nevertheless, elsewhere the carts held almost undisputed sway especially in the Sabaragamuwa and south eastern portions of the island. Clearly the Public wWorks Department in constructing a number of “cart roads,” such as the road between Naboda and Warakagoda in the Kalutara District, had taken ample cognizance of the fact.

By the same token the administration reports of the Government Agents show that tavalams continued to be in use till the end of the nineteenth century especially in the more inaccessible parts of Uva and in the Laggala-Pallegama area of the Matale District in the Central Province for the transport of commercial goods. Indeed, in 1875 the P.W.D. spent over Rs. 4,000 in improving the Laggala tavalama road and had moreover constructed a tavalama road in the Kukulu Korale in Sabaragamuwa.[18]

Thirdly, in spite of Tennent’s prediction[19] that canals (which the Dutch had built in the south-western seaboard) would pass into obsolescence with the emergence of the “metalled highways,” they were of no small importance in the overall pattern of transportation particularly from the point of view of the indigenous producers. Indeed, in the second half of the nineteenth century, despite the rapid extensions of railways and road facilities, the Public Works Department was annually spending considerable sums of money on inland navigation. By 1880 as much as 167 miles of canal were in use especially in the Western and North Western Provinces.[20]

Meanwhile road construction had made considerable headway since Skinner’s time. In analysing its progress in the period 1865-1900, it is clear that roads had been conceived partly with a view to effect links with the railway and partly as a means of providing an outlet for goods in the more isolated areas.

The Public Works Department had broadly concentrated on three fairly distinguishable spheres of activity. To begin with special emphasis had been laid on road facilities in the region between Sabaragamuwa on the one hand and the south western sea coast on the other. The key feature in this sphere were the construction of the Nambapana road which connected Ratnapura with Panadura and the construction of roads to connect Galle with Rakvana through Akuressa, Moravaka, Deniyaya and the Bulutota pass.

In the more central portions of the plantation districts, apart from numerous roads built on the grants-in-aid principle, the more notable developments were the completion of the road from Nuvara-Eliya to the site of the Nanu Oya railway extension, the linking of Dimbula and Nuvara-Eliya, the road from Kandapola gap to Uda Pussellawa and the construction of roads to link Ruvanalla with Veyangoda and Kegalle with Polgahawela.[21]

Thirdly, the Public Works Department had also been concerned with the south eastern regions of the island. In this context the construction of roads from Badulla to Batticaloa, Vallavaya to Hambantota and from Badulla to Ratnapura were particularly notable.

In the years after 1900 the patterns of development in transportation were rather more complex. On the one hand there were extensions to roads and railways — the continuation, it would seem, of the old theme. Nevertheless, not only was the growth of the railway in terms of mileage particularly striking — an addition of 450 miles in the period from 1895 to 1924 in contrast to 263 miles constructed in the earlier period — the directions of growth too were especially significant.[22] To begin with, there was the construction of the Kelani Valley narrow gauge railway line to Rantnapura which for the first time provided a direct outlet to a district rendered more important than ever during this period on account of the expansion of the rubber industry. Secondly, in the heart of the tea district there was the narrow gauge railway link — “the toy railway”– between Nanu Oya and Nuvara Eliya extending through Uda Pussellawa to the terminal point in Ragala.

An interesting variation of underlying economic motives was evident with regard to the other extensions to the railways during this period. The extension of the coastal line to the north of Colombo in the direction of Chilaw and Puttalam provided a convenient outlet to a region which was an important centre of coconut cultivation. Meanwhile, the northern line from Kurunegala cut through the economic isolation of the North Central Province. At Madawachchiya the line bifurcated, on the one hand, in the direction of Talaimannar to tap the traffic in goods and passengers — largely estate labourers and south Indian traders — from India and on the other hand in the direction of Jaffna and Kankesanturai.[23] The need to encourage settlement of comparatively isolated areas, to faster peasant agriculture as well as the encouragement of food production within the country were among the main motives in these extensions of the railway.

As in the earlier period, the extension of the railway did not reduce the functional value of roads as a medium of transportation. Roads and railways were clearly complementary. This was evident with regard to more than one district. Both to the north as well as to the south of Colombo, the coastal railway literally ran skirting the coast. Important plantation centres in the Kalutara District like Matugama, Naboda and Anguruvatota were connected to the railway by road. Further south the district of Elpitiya was linked to the railway at Ambalangoda just as much as the important tea and rubber districts of Udugama and Moravak korale were connected with Galle. In the Kandy District proper — by way of a further illustration — the functional value of roads eastwards of Kandy a direction untouched by the railway was particularly evident. The rubber and cocoa areas of Dumbara, the tea districts of Rangala, Hanguranketa and Maturata as well as Galaha and Deltota were connected with the railway. By the same token mention should also be made of Wattegama which was the railhead for the tea districts of Hunnasgiriya and Kalabokka.

In short, by the 1920’s it was evident that there was in Ceylon a reasonably well integrated system of road and railway transportation whose growth had been determined by the exigencies of economic needs.

But with the 1920’s, almost imperceptibly, there was ushered in a period which may be designed as the time of troubles in the history of transportation in the island. The fact was that the broad  equilibrium between different forms of transportation which had hitherto been its principal feature was strikingly affected by the intrusion of a new element — motor transportation.

At first however the effects of the advent of lorry transportation were not evident. An analysis of the routes for which lorries were registered in 1992 shows that in the main the use of lorries for transportation was confined to the districts of Hatton, Kandy, Nuvara Eliya and, to a lesser extent, to Badulla. In those areas lorries were being used principally in three ways: between railway stations and individual estates; secondly for short hauls which could not be substituted for by the railway, as for example the routes between Kandy and Galagedara or from Kandy to Teldeniya; and thirdly, on longer hauls such as the routes between Haputale and Moneragala, Bandarawela and Batticaloa or from Panadura to Nambapana from railheads to regions not served by the railway.[24]

The situation however underwent change. Increases in the number of lorries was matched by the proliferation of lorry routes. By 1930 there were over 2960 lorries in addition to 2603 omnibuses, clearly constituting a challenge both to the passenger traffic which the railway carried as well as –more significantly — the traffic in goods from which the railway had derived considerable income.[25]

In competing with motor transport, the railway found itself at a disadvantage, For one thing, distances between the principal plantation Centre’s and Colombo was shorter by road rather than by railway.[26] Secondly, the railway authorities discovered that wherever lorries were able to provide an alternative or parallel service, lorry owners quoted lower freight rates with a view to undercutting the railway-rates to which the railway could not possibly adjust. To make matters even more to the disadvantage of the railways, competition between several lorry companies vying for freight tended to push down freight rates even further. Thus, the freight rates of lorries plying on routes which competed with the railway were about 8 to 10 cents per ton mile and this contrasted sharply with the rate of 16 cents per ton mile which the railway charged on goods beyond Rambukkana which marked the point of commencement of the upcountry railway service. On the other hand where there was no parallel railway service lorry owners exploited the situation by charging rates which varied between 45 and 60 cents per ton mile.

In 1930 in order to meet the challenge of road transportation, the railway made significant revisions in its schedule of freight charges. Rates in rice and foodstuffs were reduced, while those on certain significant items such as packing materials, liquid fuel and manure, salt and even vegetables, were increased. In fact, the railway could safely dictate the freight rates of items like liquid fuel and manure.[27] The freighting of manure in particular was generally avoided by lorries because manure was liable to contaminate other goods. In 1930 the freight rates for manure were increased from Rs. 5.76 per ton mile to Rs. 7.72.

In two other spheres too, the railway was able to hold its own. The first was with regard to the transport of rice from India to the tea and rubber estates as well as with regard to the transport of locally produced rice over long distances. Secondly and more intriguingly, it became evident that tea planters as a rule preferred to rely on the railway rather than on road transport when dispatching tea in spite of the lower rates quoted by lorry owners. Indeed, a Commission of Inquiry on transportation[28] which was appointed in 1936 found that the preference was based largely on sentiment. Tea planters felt obliged to patronize the railway which had after all been extended and improved over the years to meet their needs. The planters also feared that if the railway ran at a loss, they themselves would be burdened with greater income tax obligations which the government would in the circumstances have to impose.[29]

Finally, the railway could also to some extent rely on transporting coconut and copra — a sphere in which it was more successful in holding its own than with regard to rubber which did not bring in a notable income to the railway. In fact, in the period 1920-1930 the railway transported only about 45 tons of rubber annually in contrast to coconuts and copra which averaged well over 110 tons annually.[30]

But despite adjustment in freight rates, the railway was unable to complete with motor transport. Clear evidence of a fall in railway earnings prompted the government in 1936 to appoint the Hammond Commission, a special Commission on transport, armed with wide terms of reference. Significantly, the Commission was asked to probe the feasibility of closing down uneconomic railway lines as well as of allowing the railway to run road services of its own. It was also made evident that the government was concerned about the uncontrolled proliferation of lorry and omnibus transportation.

As events were to show, the Hammond Commission was unduly harsh in its attitude to the railway. Indeed, the Commission made it clear that it did not share the widely held belief that the railway had always made very large profits, and that it was an indispensable feature in the economy of Ceylon. The Commission also pointed out that if in some countries the railways had received special protection from the state via-a-vis road transportation, circumstances such as long haulage, the nature of the goods involved –wheat, coal and iron ore — justified discriminatory treatment. The same did not hold true for Ceylon where short distances rather than long haulage was a striking feature. In short, the railway in Ceylon had to survive entirely on its own merits or perish. The Hammond Commission estimated that for the financial year 1936-37 the railway would have a deficit of Rs. 5,000,000 and strongly recommended the closure of the Kelani Valley, Negombo–Puttalam, Nanu Oya-Ragala and Kandy-Matale lines.

In a more positive sense, the Hammond Commission was as convinced that the government should put an end to the “unbridled competition” which had gone on between the railway and road transportation on the one hand and between various lorry and omnibus companies themselves on the other. It urged the rationalization of transportation in Ceylon and the creation of a central transport authority, “irrespective of the plight of the railway.”[31]











The recommendation was however not acted upon. In a sense its implementation implied a radical reorganization of a transportation system or, more precisely, systems which over years had grown piecemeal and with which several widely divergent groups were identified. Secondly, reorganization would also have meant a necessary regulation of the activities of a powerful entrepreneurial class-the omnibus and lorry companies. The outbreak of the Second World War too contributed its share to the shelving of the question. The war gave a fresh lease of life to the railway which was able to recover financially. War needs also demonstrated the usefulness of the railway as a transportation medium.

To the Rutnam Commission on transport which the government appointed in 1948 — the terminal date of our survey — the railways appeared in an altogether different light. The Commission recommended that the government should encourage both the railways as well as road transportation so that neither would be able to dominate the sphere of transportation in Ceylon. It reiterated both the need for rationalization of transportation as well as creation of a central transport authority.[32] The recommendation was a recognition of the fact that the system of transportation in Ceylon had evolved from a stage of piecemeal development to one of state regulation.


** Originally chap 3 in KM de Silva (ed.) History of Ceylon, Vol III, Colombo, University of Ceylon Press board, 1973, pp 303-16. The retyping of this chapter was organised by Dr. Piyasiri Wickramasekera … another outstanding product of Peradeniya University in the third quarter of the last century. The pictorial illustrations are fresh additions — mostly borrowed from the second edition of Roberts, Facets of Modern Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris, Colombo, Bay Owl Press for Perera-Hussein Publishing House, 2020.



[1] On the old road to Kandy, see Raven-Hart, R. “The Great Road,” Parts I and II, JRAS (CB) n. s. IV (2(m1955, pp. 143-212; n. d. VII (1) 1962 pp. 141-162.

[2] Bingham, P. M. History of the Public Works Department, Ceylon, I. p 1ff.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid p.40 p. 214ff.

[5] Ibid. p.2 14ff.

[6] GF Perera, The Ceylon Railway, Colombo 1925,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ward, Speeches and Minutes, Colombo, 1864, p. 5ff

[9] Bingham, op. cit, I, p. 47.

[10] Ward, Speeches and Minutes, op. cit., p. 5ff

[11] Tennent, Ceylon II, p. 180ff.

[12] Perera, op. cit., pp. 5-32.

[13] Perera. op. cit., p. 44ff.

[14] Perera, op. cit., p. 32ff. and Appendix B.

[15] Among the railways that were constructed on this basis the Galle, Kurunegala and Bandarawela extensions may be mentioned. The capital outstanding on railway s loans on 30 June 1912 for the Galle railway was as follows: sterling loans pds 125187; local loans Rs 1,670,554. See AR, General Manager, Ceylon Government Railway (hereafter G.M.R,) 1911/12.

[16] Perera, op. cit., p. 105.

[17] AR, G. M. R. 1880, see report of E. Robinson, Traffic Manager.

[18] Bingham, op. cit., I, p. 137.

[19] Tennent, op. cit., p.140.

[20] AR Director, P.W. D. 1870, p. 183; 1880 p. 78A.

[21] The grants-in-aid roads were roads “leading from main thoroughfares to groups of estates, towards he construction and upkeep of which estate proprietors contribute half the cost and the general revenue half”. White H. The Ceylon Manual, 1904 (Colombo, 1905) p. 104.

[22] Perera, op. cit., p. 20

[23] There was also the Batticaloa-Trincomalee Light Railway which began at Maho on the northern linen and incidentally provided railway facilities in the Polonnaruva District.

[24] The Ceylon Blue Book, 1922 p. EE 1.

[25] The Ceylon Blue Book, 1922 p. EE 1.

[26] Examples: distance from Colombo to

By rail            By road

  1. Badulla                181                137
  2. Nuvara Eliya      135                 105
  3. Hatton                 108                  77

[27] AR, G.M.R. 1930, p. D$.

[28] The Hammond Commission appointed by the Secretary of state for the colonies to report on the Transportation System of Ceylon.

[29] The Hammond Report, pp. 78 and X11 Sessional Paper XII of 1937.

[30] A.R, GMR, 1930, p. D 18ff.

[31] Hammond Report, p. 15.

[32] D.R. Rutnam, Report on Transport Conditions in Ceylon, (Colombo: n. d. circa 1949) 2 vols. Vol I, p. 112ff.


Filed under accountability, architects & architecture, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, commoditification, demography, economic processes, governance, growth pole, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, military strategy, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, population, power politics, security, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, transport and communications, welfare & philanthophy, working class conditions, world events & processes

5 responses to “The Development of Transportation in Ceylon, 1800-1947

  1. MSM Nibars

    helpful article, thanks to the creator

  2. Nagalinga Ethirveerasingam

    Very good article. HoweverI do not see any information in your article on Bus transport in Jaffna and the North in1930s and later. Please include it to give a true picture of Bus transport in Ceylon from 1930s to 1958. There were KVAT bus Co., owned by my father then expanded as Northern Omni Bus Co. ltd. with 13 other shareholders. They operated from Jaffna to A Pura, Trinco, Mannar and Mullaitivu. When it was nationalized in 1958, it had 70 + OPERATING BUSSES. Jaffna also had Point Pedro But Co. Valigamam Bus Co. they operated in the Peninsula. The Registrar of Companies should have info on NOB. The Internal Revenue department should have details on the annual Tax returns.

    • Thank you EDIRI. This article was a spin-off from my work on the history of British Ceylon and the edition of History of Ceylon by KM de Silva in 1973. It does not provide specific data on, say, Hambantota District or even on Galle District (my home town)….. though it does highlight (for good reasons) the increasing — note that the historically INCREASING concentration of facilities in Colombo (which, incidentally, promoted increasing Tamil, Muslim, Bharatha, Parsee, Colombo Chetty and Malayali concentrations in that overpowering metropolis).
      I live in Adelaide and am not well-placed at the moment to pursue the specific lines of inquiry that you kindly suggest.

  3. Rex Olegasegarem

    A feature of the Railway employees during the British period (before independence) was that nearly all Engine Drivers were Burghers (mainly Dutch) and the Staion Masters were Jaffna Tamils. The latter were the Railway Station Masters in Malaysia as well..

  4. Rajah Perera

    Born in 1932 the previous history of transpotation in the early period is most enlightening.

Leave a Reply