Narrow bridges

Sri Lanka’s iconic railway bridges

Sri Lanka’s impressive rail network spans over 1,500 kilometers, over which more than 1,180 bridges are spread. Originally created by the British to transport produce from the hills, railways are now a popular way to see the island’s diverse landscapes, with the main line from Colombo to Badulla being considered one of the lines of most scenic railroad in the world.

Intimidating tasks, dangerous ground

It took more than 70 years for the British to complete the “main line” as they called the mountain railway, with each step of the line featuring huge challenges in engineering and construction. Records speak of a few thousand workers brought in from India to form the original workforce, later supplemented by Sri Lankans as the line moved towards the hinterland. Death and illness took a heavy toll on the workers, who had to work extremely difficult landscape, armed only with hand tools and winches. “Every sleeper put to Maha Oya has cost a life,” says David Hyatt’s record Sri Lanka Railways, referring to the diseases that afflict those who work on the railway line along the plains to Polgahawela.

While the ingenious efforts of workers led by innovative British engineering made the mainline a reality more than a century ago, it is the equally difficult continuing efforts of the Sri Lanka Railways that keep the main line safe. line. “Mooring lines” patrol every inch of the line in the mountains, inspecting every detail, especially bridges and tunnels – a crucial task in extremely dangerous terrain.

Iron bridges, safety protocols

The main line is served by different types of bridge architecture, namely iron bridges belonging to open deck, semi-firm and truss categories. The majority of bridges along the Main Line are open deck bridges, according to Dr PB Ranjith Dissanayake, an authority on riveted iron bridges. Truss bridges, which are covered on all sides with steel frames, have been used in bridges spanning the Kelani, Maha Oya and Mahaweli rivers, while “semi-truss bridges are only visible from a few distance. places ”, such as the ’60 footbridge ‘in Kotagala. “The most common type is the open deck bridge, which helps the line curve even on the bridge deck, as well as the task of maintaining a slope,” he explained.

Truss bridge in Weligalla. Photo credit: Adil Reeza

Dr Dissanayake, Senior Professor at the Faculty of Engineering, University of Peradeniya, has conducted extensive research into the aspect of fatigue encountered by old riveted railway bridges in Sri Lanka. Together with other researchers, he developed a structural health monitoring formula to measure fatigue-induced challenges on Sri Lankan railway bridges. His research has contributed immensely to the timely maintenance and modernization of riveted bridges by dedicated work crews who constantly monitor the centuries-old bridges along the mainline. “With proper maintenance, these iconic bridges could continue to function without the need for a complete replacement at a huge cost,” he said. “With proper care, virtually all of these iron bridges can be kept in optimal condition for decades to come.

In addition, Sri Lanka Railways has its own protocols for ensuring the safety of its iron bridges in the mountains; Retired conductor Jayampathi Madigasekera, who has decades of experience on the railroads along the mainline, explained that it is common practice to use two locomotives in front of the train to bring the Night train down. Mail to Badulla from the heights of Pattipola because the steep slope The descent of 1 foot every 45 feet to Badulla requires significant lift and traction at the head of the train, which has 13 cabins – one of the most long circulating in Sri Lanka. Rail regulations prohibit the circulation of more than two locomotives together, attached simultaneously on the same line, in order to avoid excessive loads on the bridges. In addition, each bridge is secured with “control rails” which are attached to the deck to minimize damage in the event of a derailment and trains are expected to maintain a speed of around 20 km / h on the bridges between Nawalapitiya and Badulla. All these measures ensure the safety of iron bridges over the mountains.

Train trips, Mountain bridges

When traveling by train along the main line, the scenic Maha Oya Twin Bridge is a must-see. Set in the beautiful curve of the flowing river and surrounded by the small evergreen rainforest of the Koskale reserve, the twin truss bridge spanning 380 feet of the river is a treat to behold, with the tropical surroundings adding to experience. The Maha Oya Bridge rises about 500 meters beyond Yattalgoda Station, which sits at the end of a long inverted curve of the line amidst the scenic countryside.

Then beyond Nawalapitiya, once the train has passed the small Inguru Oya station towards Hatton, rises a magical little bridge over a steep gorge sandwiched between two tunnels. Unless travelers pay attention to the rapid change in scenery, there are sure to be missed many beautiful sites. The trick is to be on the lookout with your eyes down to the right side as soon as the train reaches the first tunnel. One is entitled to the view of a similar bridge over a gorge just before also reaching the twin tunnels. In the space of a minute and a half, one of the most beautiful experiences of the whole trip simply passes before our eyes. These wrought iron bridges, built in 1885, had been modernized with mild steel in 1950, as records show, possibly due to the heavy haze and water vapor still present in the waters gushing out of the gorges, especially during the months of monsoon.

As the train winds its way up the flanks of the Great Western Mountain Range past Talawakele Station, and before reaching the famous Soda bottle curve, we will witness a beautifully constructed bridge between the vast tea gardens. It is one of the most picturesque bridges in the tea region between Watawala and Hatton.

Moving along the line, just before reaching Nanuoya station, the train passes over the popular ‘Cascading bridges‘- three of them, covering one beautiful fall after another. As the train winds its way over these three bridges, the viewer is confronted with a series of views offering perhaps the best of Sri Lanka’s “waterfall train” experiences. The section of cascading bridges may include three more during the rainy season, when the steel bridges closer to Radella station also have gushing waters under them.

A German-built M6 locomotive atop the Great Western Bridge. Photo credit: Subash Dhanasekera

Forest treasures, elegant designs

Two forest bridges at the bottom of the Horton Plains are hidden treasures. As the train ascends through the mountain forest, about two miles before Ambewela Station, with Elgin Falls visible in the distance to the left, a long dark bridge can be seen, surrounded by thick foliage. “This could arguably be Sri Lanka’s tallest bridge, in terms of elevation, which would be above 6,000 feet at this point,” said Adil Reeza, an avid collector of railway literature. Roar Media. “The other bridge is even more spectacular, located over the wooded ravine, located about three kilometers after the bridge passes the famous Tunnel 18 – the first tunnel after the summit level at Pattipola, ”he said.

During this time, Kital-Ella Bridge, with its spectacular view over the countryside, is worth a walking tour. A staple of the itinerary for a visitor to Ella, this bridge is built high above the impressive waterfall that turns into a roaring waterfall during the rainy season. The bridge itself is a wonder, curving out into the deep valley below, with the waterfall hidden from view.

M6 ‘double head’ locomotives – the workhorses of the mountains carrying the night postal train over the Demodara viaduct. Photo credit: Subash Dhanasekara

There is no need to go into details about the Demodara Bridge (viaduct, in fact), which has long been recognized as one of Sri Lanka’s most famous landmarks. This one rushes into the view as the train exits the first tunnel after Ella station. When it was built in 1913, it was considered the longest viaduct in the East. Built under the supervision of Harold Cuthbert Marwood, the engineer in charge of construction, the workforce had to make do with a concrete mixer, a crane and two derricks to complete the work which lasted less than two years.

Immediately after the famous Demodara Loop, as the train descends into the mountain range along which it winds its way to Badulla, is the famous Black bridge, with its very elegant design blending beautifully into the secluded location where it connects the two mountain ranges. Of the bridge bridges that span countless ravines in the mountains, the Black Bridge is arguably the best in terms of design, due to its aesthetic appeal.

Demodara Black Bridge. Photo credit: Kavishka Malindu

Uduwara Bridge which jumps out a bit after the train has passed, the station is the last of the iconic bridges along the line leading to Badulla. Built high above the valley, about nine stories from the valley floor, this majestic structure stretching over 330 feet long may have been the tallest iron and stone structure in Sri Lanka at the time of the construction, according to Reeza.

Uduwara Bridge. Photo credit: Subash Dhanasekera

The mountain railway bridges along Sri Lanka’s main line are spectacular in themselves, in part due to the views they offer to take in the majestic natural beauty visible from the top of the ravines. The precious, albeit fleeting, moments where the traveler is suspended between the gushing stream below and the sky above are the gift one is rewarded with for all the hard work endured on the long journey to and from the mountains.


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