Sunday, June 10, 2012

Those Engineering Marvels on the Sri Lankan Railway to Badulla

Trains and train journeys have fascinated both children and adults ever since they were invented. Likewise railway lines on which they run have posed challenges to engineers and surveyors when laying them on difficult terrain. Railways are far more different to highways; they cannot negotiate sharp bends and inclines, and the specified gradients for railway lines have not changed much even in the modern times. These limitations have posed challenges to railway line designers in hilly terrain that require innovative civil engineering structures to bridge waterways, gorges, and valleys and the need to tunnel through hills in order to maintain specified gradients. As a result much of the world’s railways in the elevated terrain have opened up fabulous vistas and landscapes to be enjoyed while journeying through. 


Blasted  rock resemble a lion's mouth - Kadugannawa pass
Sri Lanka's railways  began in 1864 during the British colonial era and are nine lines radiating from Colombo. The mainline to Badulla which travels via Kandy is a run of 181 miles that takes a circuitous route in the hills through tea estates, pine forests and misty peaks passing picturesque waterfalls and hair-raising precipices. It is recorded that it was no ordinary task building the upcountry line in keeping to the specified limiting gradient of 1 on 44 - [2.27%]. Many were the challenges that took 60 years to lay the 181 miles of broad gauge rails [5’ 6”] to Badulla. The line traverses through 46 tunnels and over towering dressed-stone piers which hold steel bridges that were formed in distant Glasgow and Liverpool.
Steel Bridges spanned on tall dressed stone piers
This line which commences in Colombo at an elevation of 14 ft. MSL reaches Pattipola its summit at an elevation of 6226 ft. MSL after traversing a distance of 139 miles. The descend from Pattipola to Badulla is said to have run into major engineering challenges due to topographical conditions that did not suite the general specifications and the required gradients. Reaching Badulla located at an elevation of 2200 ft. MSL became  almost impossible beyond Demodara as the topography was far too steep for the track to negotiate. 

Looping the loop Paint copy
Looping the loop at Demodara to reach Badulla

Legend has it that a Kangani [colloquial for Foreman /charge hand] having finished his days’ work and was tying his turban; wrapping the long cloth round his head crossing the strands over the other and tucking the loose end in the strands. The engineer seeing the way he set the turban firm on his head crossing the strands over the other, is said to have been triggered off with an idea to break the dead lock at Demodara.

Finally it was Sri Lanka’s eminent engineering maestro of that time D J Wimalasurendra who with other engineers managed to create the 'Looping the Loop" line which traverses under the Demodara station through a tunnel gaining the extra mileage needed to keep to the required gradient to reach Badulla in 1924. As a result of these topographical challenges, Demodara and its vicinity is world renowned in the history of railways; while these structures in the Demodara and the Ella region are unique engineering masterpieces that serve the Sri Lankan Railway to this day. 

Nine Arch Bridge copy
Winding its way from Demodara to Bandarawela over the Nine Arch Bridge

The Nine Arched Bridge. 

The nine arched bridge at 169.75 miles between Ella and Demodara is a massive dressed stone structure that was needed to maintain the contour. It is  the only one of its kind in the island. The structure is earth filled within and the track laid on ballast giving the impression that the train is traversing on an oversized culvert. 

Much of these scenic legendary cannot be enjoyed while traveling on rail. One needs to cut in through the difficult terrain off the Bandarawela - Badulla motor way and trek on to the railway line to visualize these unique and gigantic engineering marvels.

The Nine Arch Bridge emerging from Tunnel No 40
Nine Arches at 169 .75 miles from Colombo
Earth filled within and track laid on ballast depicting a oversized culvert

The two Sandaruwans'  who showed me the way to the Nine Arches - [They both have the same name]


  1. Great post! i've been this way and the scenery is marvelous.

  2. Great Add More Pictures & Info Afterwards

  3. Dear Forest Bird, thanks for the information, my wife and I have just returned to Sydney, Australia after two months in Sri Lanka. I came across your blog while researching some facts to put on my video of the Hill Country trains.
    We hope to be back to see more of your lovely country and its people. Murray Cox

    1. Enjoyed your video in the tube. The narration was great.

  4. Very Informative.Please guide me for my first train trip to Badulla.
    Can you email me,