June 2017


A Visit to the Maradana Railway Station
June 2017




Stately fa├žade of the Maradana Railway Station

Words and Photography: David Blacker


It's almost like history took an alternate route somewhere in the early 20th century, and time stood still. Dark gloomy caverns and iron girders with bulging rivets are hallmarks of Europe's industrial revolution; classical architecture meeting modern engineering. But instead of the clouds of black coal smoke, the hissing white geysers of steam, and the clanking of the yakada yaka, I watch the blue and silver diesel Udarata Menike shunting into position to link up with its long line of carriages.


Maradana is Colombo's second-oldest operational railway station, completed in 1908, to replace the Colombo Terminus on Olcott Avenue, which had functioned as the city's main station since 1865. The Terminus was built when the British created the Ceylon Government Railway to transport tea and coffee from Ambepussa, in the foothills of the Central Highlands, to Colombo. As this rail network was extended further into the mountains and to other parts of the country, it was decided to build a southern coastal line, and with this came the Slave Island Station in the 1870s (Colombo's oldest operational railway station). Thus, the Colombo Terminus was rendered obsolete.

Maradana is Colombo’s second-oldest operational railway station, completed in 1908, to replace the Colombo Terminus on Olcott Avenue, which had functioned as the city’s main station since 1865.


The Maradana Railway Station was built as the new hub of Ceylon's railway system; a grand Victorian-era complex, the two-storey building at that time consisted of a ticket office, waiting room, sundry railway administrative offices, and a clock tower. Railway running sheds and maintenance facilities spread out around the station. Sidings and passing tracks were added as new lines went into operation and more trains were commissioned.


Eventually, however, Maradana in turn was replaced, in 1917, by the Colombo Fort Railway Station, a larger complex, which remains the centre of Sri Lanka's rail system today. With the shifting of the hub to the Fort, the Maradana Railway Station lost much of its importance, becoming quieter, but never going into retirement; retaining an old-world charm that its successor never quite captured.

The Maradana Railway Station was built as the new hub of Ceylon’s railway system; a grand Victorian-era complex.


While I may not be old enough to remember Maradana in its heyday, my earliest memories of railway travel begin with this station. Maradana is still where much of the locomotive maintenance work is carried out, and trains turning around in Colombo often even spend the night here. As a child in the 1970s, family holidays to Bandarawela, in the Central Highlands usually began at Maradana. Knowing that the Udarata Menike would depart Maradana at the crack of dawn to pick up passengers at the Fort for the ten-hour journey to Badulla, we would board here, bagging ourselves window seats and beating the throng.


As I walk into the stately Maradana Railway Station approximately forty years later, not much has changed. Dark iron arches into the tin roof over the platforms, and the wooden stairs sag with the weight of a century, a million footfalls, and tens of thousands of rush hours. Digital clocks with large red numbers tell the time now, instead of the old Victorian railway clocks, and the walls are bright with raw terracotta colours of orange as well as vermillion overlaying the original English grey. And through it all the metallic smell of oil and diesel, a distinctive feature of Asian railway stations.

If you plan to leave Colombo by train on your next holiday, skip the crush of the Fort and go instead to Maradana.


The Maradana Railway Station is still moderately busy on weekdays, mostly with government and public services workers commuting into the city from the suburbs and surrounding towns. But go in on a Sunday, or a holiday, and you will find the place less crowded. My own most recent visit was on a Sunday morning, and I found a bench on an empty shaded platform. Not exactly a leafy park, but almost as good. A haven in the city. I sat and wished I had brought a book or a newspaper. I felt cosseted from the hubbub of nearby Maradana Road and Panchikawatte. The peace of my sanctuary was eventually broken by the squeal of brakes as a green and red M6 Class locomotive thundered in, hauling passenger carriages and its own special atmosphere. As the train slowed and stopped, the passengers poured out; amongst them a family, carrying large bags and suitcases, tired but cheerful. As I watched them hurry up the stairs to the ancient overhead iron and wood pedestrian walkway, I wondered if they were back from a holiday. I breathed in the atmosphere the train has brought, of mountains and mist, and slopes of green tea. The scent of a holiday. The Maradana station is where it begins.


If you plan to leave Colombo by train on your next holiday, skip the crush of the Fort and go instead to Maradana. Go there a little early. It will be worth it. While Colombo has recently restored many of its colonial heritage buildings to their former glory, the Maradana Railway Station is probably one of the few places still functioning relatively unchanged for over half a century.

 

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    The day's train schedule at the entrance hall

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    A quiet Sunday in Maradana

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    Entrance hall with fluted columns, and heavy wooden ticket booths

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    The Victorian aura of the station

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    Original iron and wood pedestrian walkway crosses tracks and platforms. The concrete walkway was added later

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    The original main stairs to the central platforms had its steps replaced a few years ago

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    A W3 Class locomotive in the original blue and silver livery of the Udarata Menike waits on the rails

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