Ceylon Government Railway Survey, 1856-57

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Ceylon Government Railway Survey, 1856-57


The ‘Ceylon Railway Company’ had been formed as a joint stock company in 1847. Construction of the railway from Colombo to Kandy commenced in 1856 but, after not a great deal of progress, the Company was wound up and was dissolved in 1862.
See separate page ‘Ceylon Railway Company

1856-57 Survey

The following is taken from the “Report on the Ceylon Government Railway Survey” Captain W S Moorsom, Chief Engineer R.E. and “Notes on the mode of executing the Survey” by Lieut. Festing, R.E. dated 12 May 1857[1]:-

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.

Six routes were surveyed and place names were as given in “General Fraser's Map of the Island, revised by Major Skinner, the present Civil Engineer and Commissioner of Roads in the Island” [2]:-

  • No.1 Route: “Approaching the hill country from Colombo by the most southerly Pass of Ambegommowa, a Line may be laid down for a Railway, making the distance between Colombo and Kandy about 79 miles, and the ruling gradient one in 60, with the addition of a Tunnel, and an inclined plane of about one in 20, to ascend from the basin Of the Kalany river to the basin of the Mahavilla near Genegatheina Pass, which is more than 2,100 feet above sea-level. “
  • No.2 Route: “Starting from Ambepusse towards the: Amboolwawa Pass which is the next most southerly from Ambegommowa, the total length of line for a Railway from Colombo to Kandy by this route would be about 82 miles. and the ruling gradient one in 50, obtained only by incurring an expensive Tunnel through the Pass, is about 2400 feet above the sea-level.”
  • No.3 Route: “ Again, starting from Ambepusse towards the next most southerly Pass, we may ascend the Vales of the Maha, the Hingoola, and the Gadadesse Oyas (rivers) to the Parnepettia Pass, with a total length of Railway line from Colombo to Kandy of 79 miles, and a ruling gradient of one in 60, with a short Tunnel. The summit level of the ground at this pass is 1,780 feet above the level.”
  • No.4 Route: “Again, starting from Ambepusse up the Vale of the Maha Oyai and diverging thence under the base of the Mountain called Allagalle, and circling round its northern ranges, a Line may be obtained, the total length of which, from Colombo to Kandy would be about 79 miles, and the ruling gradient one in 50, with a summit level of 1,770 feet above the sea-level.”

“The Passes of Kadooganawa and Ballany, which come next in order from the south, are too steep to be ascended by locomotive grades ordinarily so called.”
“We now come to the Northern lines, and of these:-” [3]

  • No.5 Route: “Starting from near Ambepusse, and running within two miles of Kornegalle, the next most southerly Pass of Gallegedera (the Turnpike road near the spot is only marked by the name Madewellatenne on General Fraser's Map) may be surmounted by a Line, the total length of which from Colombo to Kandy would be about 83 miles and the ruling gradient one in 45, with a summit level of the ground about 1,800 feet above sea-level.”
  • No.6 Route: “Taking the same route as far as Kornegalle, and thence by the Vale of the Ibbagamma tp the Yattewatte Pass, near Ambokka, and up the Vale of the Yatlewera Oya to the Pittiagedra Pass, a Line may be obtained, the total length of which, from Colombo to Kandy, would be 95 miles, and the ruling gradients, repeated frequently, but only for moderate lengths, one in 60. There would be two summits on this Line, at Yattewatte, and at Pittiagedra, the former upwards of 1,600, the latter rather more than 1,500 feet above sea-level.”

The Report goes on to examine in great detail the estimated cost and the likely traffic volume and revenues of each route The Report rejects Routes Nos 1,2,4 and 5 and narrows the recommendation of the route by Pittiagedra, No. 6, and by Parnepettia, No. 3 [4].

Captain W S Moorsom, the Chief Engineer and Surveyor, concludes in favour of a line from Colombo to Kandy via Matella and Pittiagedra:--

“the extremely productive character of the Coffee Estates in the Districts through which such Line would pass, and the connections which would be thereby advanced with the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the Island” [5]

“ I recommend the route No. 3 from Colombo to Kandy, via Parnepettia, as being that which combines the greatest amount of public accommodation with that which affords the most remunerative prospect; and to the details of this route I now address myself. Commencing at Colombo, at the Canal or head of lake water near the back of the Kutcherry, a Goods Depot should here be formed, for the receipt and delivery of all goods connected with the numerous Mills and Stores on the borders of the Lake, as well as the general goods for Colombo city. And from the Custom House Quay, a line of rails carried along the new road, and through the arch of the Leyden Bastion, (which by the timely foresight of Col. Hope, R. E., has been constructed in a manner suitable for this purpose,) may be further laid along the Bankshall Street, to join the before-mentioned line of rails from the Canal On the sea-shore road; and when thus united, the line will lead to the open space in front of the native Church called St. Thomas's, at the very outlet of the business carried on in the Pettah (suburb) of Colombo. On this space should be placed the terminal Passenger station, the site is partly Government property. The line commencing at this station, will run at the back of the Mutwall Road, behind the Bishop's residence, and will cross the Kalany River a ¼ mile below the Bridge of Boats at an elevation sufficient to admit the highest loaded boats at all times of navigation. A station should be placed at the crossing of the Negombo Road, 2¼ miles from the terminus in Colombo. From this point, the Railway Line proceeds in an easterly direction, nearly parallel to the Kandy Road.”
Captain W S Moorsom goes on to describe every detail of the proposed route to Kandy [6]

Later Developments

This Report was presented to the Governor of Ceylon in 1857 and construction started immediately using the No.3 Route recommended by Capt. Moorsom but it was found that his estimate was far below the expenditure needed. With the shortage of finance the project progressed slowly and in 1862 the private ‘Ceylon Railway Company’ was wound up see separate page.

The Ceylon Government Railway(CGR) was established by the British Colonial Government in 1864 [7] and construction rapidly progressed. The service began with a 34½ mile(54km) main line connecting Colombo and Ambepussa which opened in 1865 [8] and finally reached Kandy in 1867 following Moorsom’s No.3 Route.

Further Information

See Ceylon Government Railway(CGR)