Railway Control Room - a confluence of directions and decisions | Sunday Observer

Railway Control Room - a confluence of directions and decisions

6 January, 2019


As we continue to delve into railway operations, it becomes clear that there are many branches that work behind the scenes. One of the most important and responsible tasks in train operations is performed by Train Controllers. Their operations room is located at the Maradana Railway Station, which was the first epicenter of rail operations in Ceylon. The control room comes under the supervision of Deputy Operating Superintendent V.S. Polwatte.

A striking feature in this room is the 30-foot wide digital display screen covering the wall. Against a grey backdrop, the rail routes are indicated by white lines. The signal points, in green, are marked by numbers. The screen displays stations and level crossings. The trains are indicated by a red blip, and each train has a designated number. Train names such as, Ruhunu Kumari or Yal Devi are not used in the control room, only the number. As the trains move, the track indicates their progress by changing colour. Controllers are busy plotting and tracking train journeys in their individual booths, which have three display screens. Every update on their personal screen is relayed in real time to the massive display, monitored by the Chief Controller, whose desk is positioned in a manner that he commands a 180 degree view of the room.

Digital PABX system

The digital PABX system, specially designed for railway communication facilitates Station Masters to call and update controllers on pre designated frequencies. As the trains move their travel times are logged by the controller to tally against the master train time table.

During his tea break senior controller, Janaka Fernando explained the complex operations of the control room. He said, “Before a train begins her journey there are many sub divisions involved to get her ready.

Once the marshalling and formation is complete the train is positioned on the platforms. From this moment it is our responsibility to clear the train on her designated track, and we coordinate with the Station Masters. When the train begins her movement, we direct the journey until she reaches her terminus station.

The control room has to interact daily with other divisions such as, Ways & Works, responsible for maintaining rail tracks, Signal and Telecommunication, keep all the colour light and point systems in good order and the Commercial section updates us on passenger requirements. For example, they request us to increase compartments during festive seasons or religious holidays. We liaise with the Time Table Branch. The Railway Guards branch also work closely with us, as the guards plot the journey on their respective trains. The gatemen at major level crossings interact with us sometimes to ensure a safe journey”.

The train control operations are divided into three divisions as the rail network covers hundreds of miles across the nation. The busiest is the Colombo Division which handles nearly 200 trains a day. These trains terminate at the Fort and Maradana stations. The Colombo Control covers Maradana to Matara, Avisawella, Rambukkana, Mahawa up to Puttalam. The second is the Nawalapitiya Division, the upcountry headquarters of the railways. This control room is responsible for trains running from Rambukkana to Badualla and Peradeniya to Matale. The third division is Anuradhapura which guides trains running from Mahawa to Batticaloa, Gal Oya to Trincomalee, Mahawa to Kankesanthurai and Medawachchiya to Talaimanar. A total of 84 train controllers work in these three divisions on a 24 hour roster.

There is no short cut to become a train controller. Fernando explains, “To be eligible for this post you have to be a serving Station Master with a minimum of 15 years experience. This is the process by which you inherit the pulse of train operations, so that you can understand and relate to Station Masters and staff of other branches. All controllers have been Station Masters at one point. After we are selected to the Control Room we undergo six months training. This is a highly digital and computerized environment.

A controller must have four vital skill sets and personality traits. First, he must be good at communication. Our job involves communicating with many branches as I mentioned before. You have to display patience; there is no room for tension though we work under pressure, at times.

Calm and clear mind

You must maintain a calm and clear mind, as your focus impacts the train movement. Finally, the most important skill is being a practical decision maker. We have to take important decisions within minutes, that impact the lives of hundreds of passengers”.

When a train begins her journey there are occurrences beyond her control. This may come in the form of a person committing suicide on the rail tracks, which would cause the train to stop for about 15 minutes. Within this time frame there are other scheduled trains, including express trains that have to move back and forth, and the controller must swing into action and redirect the trains. Another example is on the upcountry line where certain areas encounter earth slips. The train has to stop which in turn delays the time table for other trains. The same happens when a wild elephant is knocked down, at times causing a train to derail. Derailment takes more time to clear and the controllers must remain calm and make ‘clearing alterations’ to incoming trains”.

Circuit controllers

A controller points to the screen and says, “At times we have to make way for shunting locomotives (mostly Hunslet engines) that move out of our railway yards at Ratmalana and Dematagoda. We have to clear these engines amidst the pre-planned time tables of other trains”.

On the left side of the Colombo Control Room there are a few men dressed in full white, seated at work desks. They are circuit controllers. They silently chart the train’s movements against a master time table chart. Every hour on their chart is divided into four sections of 15 minutes. Using a pencil they mark the train’s journey as they are updated on the PABX by the corresponding Station Masters. Often, commuters are annoyed when a train is delayed by a few minutes, for a valid reason. However, every minute of the train journey is plotted by the circuit controller. In case of a delay the engine driver will submit a report for the delay. Apart from monitoring, train controllers produce daily data of train running times, which is tabulated into a monthly and quarterly report, enabling the General Manager Railways to implement decisions to enhance train services. Another new feature at the Colombo Division is a CCTV section. There are 72 cameras that monitor the platforms at Fort (11 platforms) and Maradana (10 platforms). These cameras enable the operator to update the Station Master who can’t be on every platform at a given time. In addition, there were incidents where operators were able to point out pick pockets to the police.


With 290 trains travelling across the country day and night, the task of Train Controllers is indeed appreciated as it ensures adherence to time tables and facilitates memorable train rides to commuters.