Mon, Feb 21, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lankan train gets back on track after the tsunami

AP , Peraliya, Sri Lanka

Almost two months after the Asian tsunami swept away a passenger train, killing nearly 2,000 people, Sri Lanka prepared yesterday to send its first train along the repaired coastal tracks in a symbolic journey meant to show that life is returning to normal.

Engine 59 and the eight coaches of the Queen of the Sea have become an icon of the Dec. 26 tragedy that killed nearly 31,000 people on this island.

Yesterday's train left the capital, Colombo, for the port of Matara, about 120km south. After three hours, it reached the train disaster site at Peraliya village, where officials and dignitaries on board were set to attend a Buddhist ceremony honoring those who perished.

About a kilometer down the restored rail line, the train was to pass three battered, rust-colored coaches of the tsunami-hit train.

The coaches have been put back on parallel tracks, where they remain as a reminder of the killer waves. Entering them is prohibited.

Of the 2,000 victims, 824 bodies were found. Some were passengers, others were villagers who climbed onto the train in attempt to get above the water. Scores were buried in mass graves.

"It will be a site people will not forget for a very long time," said Priyal de Silva, the general manager of the state-run railways.

"We still can't believe how the sea managed to topple this train," said Bladina Perera, who traveled with her family and friends from a town north of Colombo to inspect the damage.

While many people looked forward to the resumed rail services, for some the memory of the tragedy was too fresh.

The station manager, Nimal Premasiri, was on the train with his family when the waves struck. He lost his wife and 18-year-old daughter.

"I'm not sure when I will be ready to go," he told reporters. "I feel a terrible sense of loss and emptiness ... hard to explain. It was on a Sunday like this that we set off. We were so happy."

The train had been chugging slowly up the sandy, palm-fringed coast and was at Peraliya, near the historic city of Galle, when the waves struck, twisting the engine.

Yesterday, workers with shovels and other tools were frantically putting the final touches on the new tracks. "This is a special train to inaugurate and test the track," de Silva said.

Regular service won't resume yet, he said, adding the signaling system and the track were still not up to pre-tsunami standards. Some of the signaling between stations will be done manually, he said.

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