The reopening of the Jaffna to Colombo railway line in Sri Lanka is long overdue. Permanently closed since 1990, the route connects the northern provinces of Sri Lanka with its capital. This is critical in a nation where the road network and its associated infrastructure remains somewhat primitive.
Arguably one of Britain’s greatest imperial legacies is the establishment of modern railways across its former colonies. Ceylon was no different and the original Jaffna Railway Station was completed in 1902. By 1905 the Northern Line was in operation, cutting the journey time between the far north of the country and Colombo from several days to 13 hours. The introduction of an express train in the 1950s (after independence) further reduced the journey to 7 hours.
The reduction in travel times enabled some of the north’s impoverished people to seek employment in the capital, thus ultimately redistributing national wealth when these people returned home. It also provided an important commercial route between various economic sectors (such as the agricultural, fishing and industrial zones of the country).
Unfortunately, these opportunities were restricted by the Sri Lankan Civil War when Tamil insurgents sought to create an independent state in the north of the country. Jaffna Railway station was bombed in the 1980s by the Sri Lankan Air Force, after its seizure by the Tamil Tigers. Further bombing in 1990 rendered the station unusable and much of the Northern Line was torn up, the material used for the insurgents’ war effort.
Jaffna was recovered by government forces in 1995, yet its station and railway infrastructure remained abandoned. Whilst the civil war continued, the government was seemingly uninterested in reconstruction.
After a ceasefire in 2002 was poorly observed the Tamil Tigers finally surrendered in 2009, bringing to an end more than a quarter-century of internal warfare. Only then were attempts made to resurrect the Northern Line. These efforts have been undertaken in sections, with the final piece at Jaffna now complete.
The government’s reluctance to rebuild the line earlier has fuelled accusations that it is seeking to punish its northern inhabitants for supporting the insurgents. Now that the Jaffna-Colombo link has been re-established it is hoped that it will serve a role in the sensitive reconciliation process essential for Sri Lanka’s future. As northern Tamils are once again given the chance to interact peacefully with their southern counterparts, old wounds may slowly heal and economic parity across the country may one day be attainable.
It is important that the government gives precedence to such opportunities as it seeks to address a bitter legacy in which its own reputation is at the very least stained.