PERALIYA, Sri Lanka — The sea shimmers to the west as the train rattles north toward Colombo. It passes a Christian cemetery, fields where grazing cattle listlessly watch boys in white uniforms play cricket, and crumpled shacks unrepaired nearly a year after the waves came.
Three of the eight coaches of the Colombo-Matara train have been set up on unused track in Peraliya in honor of the dead.
This is the same track that carried more than 1,000 passengers and railway workers to their deaths when the Dec. 26 tsunami hit a stopped eight-car commuter train here — one tragedy among many on a day when more than 216,000 people are believed to have died across southern Asia.
Now, vendors walk the aisles offering their wares in singsong voices. Namal Paranavithana, 35, settles back in his seat. He's on his way from his home in Matara, about 40 miles south of here, to his job as a criminal investigator in a government office in Colombo, a trip he makes every two days.
Yet whenever the train passes Peraliya, he pauses a moment to remember the day, Dec. 26, and the dead. He wasn't on the train when it was swamped here. He had business north of Colombo. But like most Sri Lankans, he has losses to grieve. An aunt and uncle died on the train. At home in Matara, the tsunami carried away his son — his only child — who was 7.
In honor of the dead, three of the tsunami-battered train's eight coaches have been set up on unused track in Peraliya. It has become a makeshift shrine. Meanwhile, the restored railway line along Sri Lanka's southwestern coast has become a testament to the living.
Defying skeptics in the government and setting aside a history of bitter disputes, rail workers and their managers came together to get the trains running again in just 57 days. It was a symbolic triumph for this shattered country, and a practical one, too: 77,000 Sri Lankans, many commuting from jobs in the south to the capital, Colombo, take the train each way daily.
As the first anniversary of the tsunami approaches, the state-run railway's success stands in sharp contrast to Sri Lanka's overall reconstruction and particularly its efforts to house the half-million people left homeless by the tsunami. Red tape and political squabbling have left tens of thousands of Sri Lankans living in temporary wooden shelters, awaiting permanent housing.
The return of rail service "was a marvelous achievement," says Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, a University of Colombo economics lecturer and an adviser to the railroad during the reconstruction. "It's a showcase. If 130 kilometers (80 miles) of railroad track can be reconstructed in 57 days, six months should be sufficient to finish housing."
'People were running in fear'
The Colombo-to-Matara coastal train was running on time when it reached this southern village at about 9:20 on the morning of Dec. 26.
Sri Lankan trains typically run late and erratically, but on that morning the 50-year-old Canadian-built General Motors locomotive was being piloted by one of the rail line's best engineers: Janaka Fernando. Just a couple of days earlier, Fernando had been recognized for his excellence: He had been picked to take a special train from Colombo to the east coast town of Batticaloa to inaugurate a new railway timetable.
But something was wrong the morning after Christmas. The train suddenly stopped in this village, a mile north of the resort town of Hikkaduwa on the southwestern coast. The engineer awaited a green light that never came. Weddkial Chandrasiri Silva, 54, was riding in a small compartment just behind the train's engine; he and two other rail workers were on their way to deliver spare parts to a crew laboring on the track south of Hikkaduwa.
They didn't know an earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra 2½ hours earlier had sent a tsunami rolling toward Sri Lanka.
Suddenly, water began seeping into the carriage, Silva recalls: "People on the train started shouting. As the water rolled in, we heard a sound. The carriage behind us toppled over and lodged against a tree. Bodies were floating. People were running in fear. We minded our own business and stayed in the compartment."
The water began to recede. Passengers stayed dry in the train; villagers clambered aboard to seek refuge from the water. Then, "Somebody shouted, 'There's another wave coming.' And I looked out." Silva saw a wave 25 to 30 feet high. "The water was completely black. It was like a mountain moving toward us." The raging water pulled Silva out the window, up and over the top of the train. He was swept along, bobbing up and down, swallowing water, trying to find something secure to hold on to. "I got banged against lots of things," he says.
Silva figures the water carried him a half-mile inland before he managed to grab a tree. He made his way to a Buddhist temple on high ground and then to a hospital, where an overworked doctor, unimpressed with his aches, gave him painkillers and sent him on his way. After hours on foot and buses, he arrived at his home in Payagala, south of Colombo, around midnight. He later learned that his two colleagues, men he had known for 15 years, had died in the train along with engineer Fernando and more than 1,000 others.
Within days he was back on the track, working to get the trains running again.
Sri Lankan officials originally figured it would take foreign expertise, at least six months and tens of millions of dollars to get the trains running again along the route from Colombo to Matara, on the island's southern tip.
Priyal de Silva, the general manager of Sri Lanka's state-run railways, disagreed. He'd seen worse: In 1957, massive floods tore up Sri Lanka's railways. De Silva, then 10 years old, had tagged along while his father, a senior railroad engineer, inspected the destruction.
"I knew (the tsunami damage) could be repaired in two to three months because my father had repaired greater damage in four months," de Silva says. "I was confident. I told the government I could do it in three months."
The railroad's achievement is even more remarkable because it occurred despite:
• A history of conflict between the railroad's management and the hard-line Marxist union that represents its 17,000 workers.
• A shortage of supplies, money and material.
• The fact that many of those repairing the line were themselves recovering from injuries and grieving lost loved ones.
• The opposition of top-level bureaucrats who were convinced Sri Lankans couldn't do the job themselves.
Union general secretary Sumathipala Manawadu, speaking in union offices in Colombo below portraits of Lenin and Marx, concedes that Sri Lankan "trade unions have a bad name for trying to get their workers benefits without caring for the general public." The union had led a 14-day rail strike in January 2004 and had been threatening another when the tsunami hit.
After the water receded, the union decided it had a duty to the nation and an opportunity to improve rail workers' image. The union mobilized 1,000 volunteers to clear the tracks — crucial work that let engineers assess the damage and figure out what to do. Three days after the tsunami, they had removed bodies, fallen trees and other debris, former rail adviser Gunaruwan says.
"They had identified us as an inefficient, lazy lot," union leader Manawadu says. "We always wanted to prove that if we had good leadership we could work."
De Silva divided the ravaged track between Kalutara and Matara into four sections and ordered repair work to begin on all of them simultaneously. The thinking: progress could continue even if work on one section got bogged down by something difficult such as replacing a damaged bridge.
Every Sunday, de Silva met his senior engineers in a track-side bungalow to assess the progress. They set a public deadline of April 13,the traditional Sri Lankan new year, to restore rail service from Colombo to Matara; privately, they meant to finish a lot faster.
De Silva's superiors at the Transportation Ministry were skeptical. They wanted to raise money from international donors such as the United Nations and the World Bank and hire foreign engineering firms to do the job. But the railway management and workers were determined to reconstruct the railway themselves. "If they had given it to foreign institutions, we knew from experience that a lot of money would be wasted and lost to corruption," Manawadu says.
To avoid spending money on new railroad ties and other parts, rail workers dug into the muck to salvage old parts buried 2 feet deep by the tsunami. They often worked from dawn until well into the night. Sometimes they took a bus back to a makeshift camp at a school in Ambalangoda, 50 miles south of Colombo. Sometimes they camped out where they were working.
"Everyone pitched in," says railroad laborer Kumara Wadu Prasama Priyal, 42. "We couldn't be happy because we kept seeing dead bodies, but we kept on working. ... Even the officials didn't pull rank. ... Usually, the higher officers don't do as much work, (but) they stayed by our sides without eating or drinking."
A key obstacle was a damaged bridge outside Kalutara, the first major town south of Colombo. The tsunami had washed away the embankment, leaving the bridge isolated in the middle of a river. Laborers painstakingly replaced the embankment by hand, filling in the gap with boulders.
The rail adviser, Gunaruwan, was attending a Buddhist ceremony when his cellphone rang Jan. 7 to bring him the news: The bridge had been repaired and the first train was on its way from Colombo to Kalutara; the first link had been completed. "I rode back to Colombo on that train," he says. "That gave us a boost. It showed that things can get done."
Even as the progress continued, top government finance officials wanted to hand the job to foreigners. De Silva pleaded with them: "I have already made the cake. Let me finish the icing." Finally, they relented.
The entire track was completed Feb. 21, 57 days after work had begun. Now, like the rest of Sri Lanka, where at least 35,000 people died in the tsunami, things aren't exactly back to normal on the railway. Repairs are still needed. The track isn't as solid as it was before the tsunami. So the trains are running at reduced speed — 38 miles an hour, down from 50 miles an hour, de Silva says. But they are running.
A makeshift shrine
On a typical day, 300 visitors stop by Peraliya to inspect the battered carriages and remember those who died here. Children climb inside, ignoring the signs warning visitors to stay away. Another sign declares: "Attention! Do not give money to schoolchildren. They will avoid school and beg here."
The shrine has become a local commercial enterprise. A snake charmer sits cross-legged near the main road; he has a dancing money, too — performances available for a tip. A gap-toothed man sells 10-cent ice cream cones from the back of his motorcycle. A local Buddhist temple has set up a booth to raise money for the village, which lost more than 300 people.
Former rail adviser Gunaruwan wishes the shrine had never been built. "I think it was a mistake," he says. "We did not want to see the carriages packed up as a museum. They are rotting and rusting there."
He says the three carriages should have been repaired like the other five and returned to service as a "running museum" and a symbol of human determination in the face of massive natural calamity.
"We have raised our hand up to the tsunami," he says. "The train is not a ghost. It is alive."