Ceylon Government Railway

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Ceylon Government Railway

Ceylon Government Railway Map 1909
from the “Imperial Gazetteer of India”, 1909

The main reason for building a railway system in the British colony of Ceylon, (today the state of Sri Lanka), was to transport tea and coffee from the hill country to Colombo. The railway was totally independent of the Indian Railway system [1].

Rail was introduced to transport coffee from plantations in the hill country district of Kandy to the port city of Colombo on its way to Europe and the world market. The coffee blight of 1871 destroyed many a fine plantation and tea replaced coffee. With the development of tea plantations in the 1880s, the joint stock companies swallowed up the former individual proprietorship of the coffee era. Under corporate ownership and management control by companies, the process of production of tea became more sophisticated and needed more and more railways built to the Kandyan highlands. To send tea to Colombo and to transport labour, machinery, manure, rice and foodstuff, etc to Kandy, another 100 miles of railways were constructed in the tea planting districts to serve the expanding tea domain. To serve the coconut plantations flourishing in the west, south west and north west coastal areas of the country, and the wet inland rubber plantations below the tea belt, railway lines were built in the wake of these agricultural developments. Thereafter, the need for cheap and safe travel in order to open up the hinterland of the country led to the expansion of the railway [1].

Ceylon Railway Company

The ‘Ceylon Railway Company’(CRC) was formed as a joint stock company in 1847 to establish and operate a railway line from Colombo to Kandy.

In Dec 1856 Captain W S Moorsom, Chief Engineer of the Corps of Royal Engineers was instructed by the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Henry George Ward, to undertake a survey and produce a Report on the provision of a rail link from Colombo to Kandy. This Report dated May 1857 examined six possible routes and recommended the adoption of Route No.3 via the Parnepettia Pass, with a total length of Railway line of 79 miles(126km), and a ruling gradient of one in 60, with a short Tunnel. The summit at this pass is 1,780 feet(540 mtr) above sea level. This became the route of the first railway in Ceylon.
See separate page ‘Ceylon Government Railway Survey, 1856-57’

Construction started in Oct 1857 of the broad gauge (BG) from Colombo to Kandy under the supervision of the [[William Thomas Doyne]), Chief Resident Engineer [2]. In 1859, Guilford Lindsey Molesworth was appointed as Engineer and Locomotive Superintendent [3]. However it was found that the costs involved were far higher than Capt. Moorsom’s estimateand finally the CRC contract was terminated in 1862 with the Government taking over the assets and liabilities of the Company
See separate page ‘Ceylon Railway Company’ for more detailed information

Once the government had taken over the company’s assets it set about fulfilling construction of a railway system for the island by inviting tenders from interested building contractors and taking over three existing contracts, one with Robert Stephenson & Co., locomotive engineers [4].

Ceylon Government Railway

At the close of 1862 the Crown Agents for the Colonies accepted, on behalf of the Government of Ceylon, a tender from William Frederick Faviell for the construction of about 73 miles(117km) of railway between Colombo and Kandy and in February, 1863, he left England with a large staff to carry out that important work. The railway, the first constructed in Ceylon, was “full of rank vegetation, and malaria so infested the district that many lives were sacrificed, and the progress of the works constantly interrupted before this portion of the railway could be completed”. The heavy works and tunnels on the Kadugannawa Incline, of 1 in 45 for 12 miles, “also involved much anxiety and responsibility to the contractor”. The whole broad gauge(BG) line was completed to Kandy and opened through for traffic in August 1867 [5].

It is recorded that “The line was opened up to Polgahawela for both passenger and goods traffic on November 1, 1866. The first tunnel on the Main Line is at Mirigama, and is 274 ft. long. Thereafter, up to Kandy, there are 9 tunnels, the longest being 1,095 ft. Tunnelling is a masterpiece of railway engineering, and their construction with antediluvian tools and equipment strikes wonder.The railway line was pushed to the top of the incline in December 1866, and the first material train steeped up the incline, puffing and coughing, and reached Kadugannawa on March 20, 1867. The bridge over the Mahaweli ganga and the girder bridge over the Maha Oya, were soon completed, and the final section to link Kandy was laid on April 25, 1867. The first train to Kandy from Colombo, ran on April 26, 1867.” [6].

Railway Network

An extension of the ‘Main Line’ to Kandy was made the ‘Northern Line’ to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, going further north to Kankesanturai and west to Talaimannar to connect the island with South India by ferry, to bring Indian labour for the tea and rubber plantations, and also import rice and other food stuffs not indigenously produced in sufficient quantities. Towards the east, there was little economic justification to lay a line to the dry zone in that direction, but it became strategically worthwhile to lay a line to the natural harbour of Trincomalee and also connect it to the provincial capital of Batticaloa. These lines were laid with light (21 kg) section rails, as was the narrow gauge section to serve the rubber plantations east of Colombo, known as the ‘Kelani Valley Line’. Up country, a similar branch line was laid from Nanu Oya on the Main Line through very difficult terrain to serve the tea plantations around Nuwara Eliya. Track alignment was defined in this section about 140 years ago, when economic considerations were vastly different. The railways achieved modal superiority with speeds of 25 to 40 kmph in the hill country and 65 to 80 in the low country and civil engineering criteria was influenced by the economic need to minimize cuts and fills, permitting gradients to 2 to 3 % and minimizing bridge lengths. As a result, the alignment here is winding with very sharp curves. [1].

Broad Gauge 5 feet 6 Inches (BG)

Ceylon Government Railway Map 1910
from “The Ceylon Government Railway: A Descriptive and Illustrated Guide”, 1910, by Henry W Cave M.A., FRGS

Following the opening in 1867 of the line from Colombo via Peradeniya to Kandy the BG network developed as follows:- [7].

  • ‘Main Line’: Colombo to Ragama (Junction for Negombo Line) , 9 miles; to Polgahawala (Junction for Northern Line), 45 miles; to Peradeniya, (Junction for Kandy and Matale Line), 70½ miles opened 1867; extended 1894 to Bandaeawala. All mileages from Colombo - Total 160¾ miles (210km). In 1865 the extension to Gampola was authorised and opened for traffic in 1873. The section from Gampola to Nawalapitiya had immense engineering problems and it was completed in 1884. The trace to Nanu Oya from Nawalapitiya was completed in three stages, i.e., from Nawalapitiya to Hatton in 1884, then to Talawakelle in the same year and to Nanu Oya in 1885, and then to Bandarawela in 1894. Bandarawela was the terminus on the Main Line until the extention to Badulla was completed in 1924. [8][9]
  • ‘Negombo Line’: Ragama Junction to Nebombo. Total mileage from Ragama Junction - 14 miles(23km) [10]
  • ‘Matele Line’: extension from Peradeniya to Kandy, 4 miles opened 1867; extended 1880 to Matele. Total mileage from Peradeniya - 21 miles (34km). [11]
  • ‘Northern Line’: Polgahawala Junction to Anuradhapula, 81 miles; to Madawachchi (Junction for Mannar Line), 97 miles; to Jaffna 200 miles; to Kankesanturai. Total mileage from Polgahawala Junction – 211 miles(340km), opened 1905. [12]
  • ‘Mannar Line’: Madawachchi Junction to Mannar, 56 miles; to Taliimannar, for India) Total mileage from Madawachchi Junction - 66 miles(106km) – ‘under construction 1910’, opened 1914.
  • ‘Coast Line’: from Colombo to Galle, 72 miles and extended to Matara, the extreme end of the Island. Total mileage from Colombo 98½ miles(158km), opened 1895. [13]
  • ‘Puttalam Line’ opened in 1926 [14].
  • ‘Batticaloa and Trincomalee’ in 1928 [14].

Narrow Gauge 2 feet 6 Inches (NG)

Herbert Septimus Harington, Chief Engineer Railway Branch India was deployed in about 1906 to “report on light railways in Ceylon” [15].

  • ‘Udapussellawa Line’: from Nanuoya (128 miles from Columbo) to Ragala, 19 miles(31km), serving the saniarium of Ceylon at Nuwara Eliya, 6200 feet above sea level, opened 1903-04.[16]
  • ‘Kalani Valley Line’ , eastward fom Columbo, serving the tea planting district, 48 miles(77km), opened 1919. [17]
  • ‘Ratnapura Line’, from Avissawella via Ratnapura to Opanayaka, 26 miles (42km), opened 1912, closed 1976 [18].

Colombo Port

The 'Colombo Port' was established in 1875 and connected to the CGR mainline
see separate page for information


No personnel records have been identified

External Reading

Further Information

See Ceylon Railway Company up to 1862


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Sri Lanka Government "Railways/History"; Retrieved on 20 May 2018
  2. ‘Grace’s Guide’ – “William Thomas Doyne” ; Retrieved on 20 May 2018
  3. ‘Grace’s Guide’ – “Guilford Lindsey Molesworth” ; Retrieved on 14 May 2018
  4. H.M. Government “Statute Law Repeals: Nineteenth Report : Draft Statute Law (Repeals) Bill; April 2012"; pdf 128-129; paragraphs 3.29-3.31;. Retrieved on 20 May 2018
  5. Grace’s Guide ‘William Frederick Faviell’; Retrieved on 14 May 2018
  6. “Cutting the First Sod of Earth for the Railway in 1858” by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe; Retrieved on 20 May 2018
  7. “The Ceylon Government Railway: A Descriptive and Illustrated Guide”, 1910, by Henry W Cave M.A., FRGS Table of stations, mileages pages 29-30; Retrieved on 20 May 2018
  8. ‘Henry Cave’ pages 69-115, pdf84-130
  9. ‘Henry Cave’ pages 125-154, pdf140-169
  10. ‘Henry Cave’ pages 231-234, pdf246-249
  11. ‘Henry Cave’ pages 116-124, pdf131-139
  12. ‘Henry Cave’ pages 168-214, pdf 183-229
  13. ‘Henry Cave’ pages 32-68, pdf47-83
  14. 14.0 14.1 Wikipedia "Sri Lanka Railways"; Retrieved 20 May 2018
  15. ‘Grace’s Guide/Inst of Mechanical Engineers Obituary 1914’ “'Herbert Septimus Harington” Retrieved on 21 Nov 2018
  16. ‘Henry Cave page 23, pdf37 and pages 155-168, pdf170-183
  17. ‘Henry Cave’ page 26, pdf37 and pages 215-230, pdf230-245
  18. Wikipedia ‘Ratnapura’; Retrieved 20 May 2018