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  • Tsunami Train Engine 'Manitoba 591'

  • The biggest train tragedy in the world

    More than 1400 perished in 30 Minutes

  • Train Compartments Damaged Rail track

  • Train track

The biggest train tragedy in the world

The Tsunami Train Tragedy

It was 26th December 2004, just after Christmas. The Christians were in a festive mood. Also, being a full-moon Poya day, the Buddhists were attending temples far and near. For some, it was a day for picnics and outings and the most convenient mode of transport for the general public was the train.

An unusually large crowd of people were at the Fort Railway Station in Colombo jostling to board the express train that left daily at 6.40am to Matara, a coastal town in the south west of Sri Lanka. As the train was soon packed beyond capacity and many were left stranded on the platform, two Railway Guards, who manned the train, made an exception to allow them to travel in the guard's wagon.

Strangely the train, noted for leaving late, by a strange quirk of fate started off on time. A factor that proved decisive in the events that unfolded that day. Despite the hassle and discomfort, as most of the commuters were standing, they were in a happy frame of mind happy to be able to set off to their destinations. It was a lovely day. Bright sunshine, a gentle breeze and the the blue waters of the Indian ocean were calm with its gentle waves rolling back and forth.

Then, without any warning, all hell broke loose, the calm sea turned blackish and muddy. Rough and angry waves started to lash the shore. The first wave dashed onto the rail track, the signals failed and the train stopped at Peraliya.

The second wave dislodged a compartment and then the third killer wave carried the entire train to its doom. More than 1400 passengers died within thirty minutes and just a few managed to escape death.

The tsunami that struck the coastal areas of Sri Lanka proved to be a national calamity unprecedented for the number of casualties and the extent of damage to property. But what could not be estimated was the pain, anguish and damage done to the hearts and minds of those who lost their loved ones. Some of them even considered their survival to be a tragedy.

Yet this tragedy brought out the best in a great many of our people. It was lovely to see all communities - Sinhalese Tamil, Muslims Burghers and Malays joining together to help the tsunami victims.

Yes, unity did rise above the waves of death.

The proud team

that resurrected the locomotive – Manitoba 591

  • Dr. Gunaruwan General Manager Railways - 2008
  • D. Fernando Mechanical Engineer
  • H. L. R. Fonseka Chief Foreman – Running Shed
  • M. A. Cooray Technical Supervisor

Ralph Gunawardena

  • Chief Organiser of the 10th Year of The Tsunami commemoration project
  • Author of the book ‘The Tsunami Train’

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