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New Trains, New Hopes, Old Anguish

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka, Oct 10 2014 (IPS) - The kids of Kodikaman, a dusty village straddling the newly laid railway line in Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna District, enjoy a special treat these days.

For hours on end, they wait expectantly at the edge of the rails for a track construction engine to pass by; when it nears, they rush to place metal coins on the track and when the trundling vehicle has passed, they run back gleefully to pick up the disfigured money.

This little ritual is just one of many signs that the new line, re-laid here after 24 years, is a big deal all over the Vanni, the northern region of Sri Lanka that bore the brunt of the country’s three-decade-old conflict that ended in May 2009.

The last train that plied the line through Kodikaman, some 380 km north of the capital, Colombo, ran on the night of Jun. 13, 1990, when the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked the popular Yal Devi (Jaffna Princess) express.

“The entire public here is waiting for this dream to come true,” said S L Gupta, project director for IRCON, the government-owned Indian company – a subsidiary of Indian Railways – that is reconstructing 252 km of train links in the Vanni at a cost of 800 million dollars.

The project got off the ground in February 2011 and large sections have already been completed. Trains now ply up to Madhu Road on the northwestern line and up to Pallai, about 17 km south of Jaffna, on the northern line.

On Oct. 13, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa will officially declare open the track all the way to Jaffna.

“It will be momentous,” Gupta asserted.

Indeed, a ticket from Colombo all the way up to the Vanni – covering a distance of some 264 km – costs just 180 rupees (about 1.25 dollars). But the novelty of the trains, many say, ends there.

Despite its multi-million-dollar price tag, the new rail-line is yet to provide the spark needed to jumpstart the Vanni economy, still in the doldrums despite five years of peace and a massive reconstruction effort in the Northern Province exceeding three billion dollars.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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