Colombo: The "Queen of Jaffna," a once-popular train linking the ethnic Tamil's northern heartland to the rest of Sri Lanka before a bloody civil war cut the link 24 years ago, chugs back into service next week, reinforcing the government's authority in a region once controlled by Tamil rebels.
For the old, it is a nostalgic piece of the Indian Ocean island's past. For the young, the train represents something novel and opens opportunities to explore the north. For the central government, the resumption of the "Yarl Devi," as it is known in Tamil, marks a step toward restoring national unity five years after the Tamil separatists were defeated.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa will inaugurate service along the 400-kilometer (250-mile) route between Jaffna and Colombo, the capital, in a ceremony Monday. Rebuilding the railroad, stretches of which disappeared as rebels and residents used the rails and sleepers to build bunkers and houses, is one of the government's big infrastructure projects to contribute to the economy in the north and win over Tamils, many of whom are still estranged after the war.
Like the old version, the new "Queen of Jaffna" is not a luxury train, although some of its coaches will have air conditioning, Internet access and televisions. The new track will make for a faster, smoother ride, allowing the trip to take about six hours.
The line was shut down in 1990 as militants from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, stepped up attacks in the north to push for their own independent state.
The train holds significant symbolic importance. Before the war, it not only was the most convenient way to travel between the two important cities, but also was a symbol of unity between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority.
Now with the "Queen of Jaffna" also scheduled to start running again, thanks to an USD 800 million loan from India, restoration of the government's authority in the north will be complete.
But many Tamils feel such infrastructure projects won't bring true national unity.