India puts Jaffna train back on rails

JAFFNA_TRAINThe iconic Yal Devi Express from Colombo to Jaffna will resume its run on October 13, some 25 years after the link was suspended during the height of the Sri Lankan civil war.

IRCON, an Indian Railways subsidiary, restored a section of the line from Omanthai to Pallai in the Northern Province, damaged during the war, with a $800-million line of credit from India. Nearly 4,000 people, 400 of them skilled labourers from India, have been working on the project for over four years. Connecting the south to the north, the 339-km line, inaugurated in 1894, is the longest on the island.

After the war ended in 2009, the line was gradually restored section by section, first to Omanthai, then further north to Kilinochchi, and then to Pallai, 40 km short of Jaffna. Now, IRCON plans to extend the line to Kankesanthurai, the northernmost tip of the island.

A track through a former war zone

The first train from Colombo to Jaffna on the northern railway line of Sri Lanka ran over a century ago in 1905, with the journey taking 13 hours.

The iconic Yal Devi Express, introduced in 1956 and now being restored, reduced travel time by almost half to six hours.

Passing through many important stations, the train ran full for many years until different militant groups attacked the service through the 1980s, raising fear among passengers.

As the civil war intensified in 1990, the train ran only up to Vavuniya, as areas north of the town came under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The LTTE dismantled some of the tracks to build bunkers.

The Jaffna station, which is now getting final touches, was bombed to a shell in 1990 by the Sri Lankan Air Force.

The aerial attack killed eight people and damaged six carriages, even as 40 families that took refuge there had a narrow escape.

Challenges

“There were many challenges in rebuilding the line,” said S.L. Gupta, project director, pointing to the de-mining efforts that preceded the actual reconstruction, when IRCON recently took journalists along the restored section to Jaffna.

Those involved in the construction found at least 10 unexploded bombs in the former war zone as they began work, he said.

Gravel shortage

Gravel shortage and encroachments were other challenges along the way before the much-awaited stretch was completed. Some of the required land in this segment is currently part of the Sri Lankan Army’s high-security zone.

“We will get that soon and finish the entire line by the end of this year,” Mr. Gupta said. (The Hindu)

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