Keeping in touch with family is important to most Sri Lankans, but the three-decade conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) made that difficult for those with relatives in the north.
Now, thanks to a massive investment in rebuilding the country's north-south railway lines, ties are being restored.
S. Periyasami, a resident of Colombo, remembers how he used to travel weekly to Jaffna to visit his family.
Following his Friday work shift, he would board the evening train. The journey took ten hours, bringing him to his destination the following morning. On Sunday nights, he would take the return train back to Colombo.
But after a series of rail bombings brought northern train service to a total standstill in June 1990, he could rarely get home.
"After the train service was crippled, I limited my weekly travel to Jaffna," Periyasami, now 62, told Khabar South Asia. "I sometimes did it once a month. Because of my longer stays in Colombo, I missed important family events such as parties and weddings." Reconstruction in progress
To help restore rail connectivity, neighbouring India has provided Sri Lanka with an $800m line of credit, to be paid within 20 years. A total of 250km of railway lines linking important towns and cities in the north and south are already being reconstructed, in four phases.
According to S.L. Gupta, general manager of IRCON International, the Indian government entity involved in the project, work on all the railway lines in the north will be completed by the end of next year.
Reconstruction of the 43km track between Medawachchiya and Madhu in the north would be completed next February, Gupta said. The same track would then be extended to Thalaimannar in the western section of Northern Province next June.
"We are now about to do track connection work on these lines," he told Khabar, adding "We will complete our work well ahead of the schedule.”
The remaining work on tracks connecting other major northern towns, including Jaffna service to Colombo, is pegged for completion by December 2013.
"There will be modern railway stations," Gupta said. "Once constructed, trains can be run on these lines at a maximum speed of 120kph."
An engine for economic renewal Renewed rail connectivity between the north and south will bring substantial economic benefits, analysts say.
According to Rohan Samarajiva, executive director of Learning Initiatives on Reforms for Network Economies Asia (LIRNE), Sri Lanka Railways got the bulk of its revenues from the northern railway lines before the civil war, and restoration of the rail tracks will help keep the cash-strapped institution afloat.
"Today, Sri Lanka Railways accounts for only 2% of freight transportations, and 5% of passenger transportation. We need to run more and more goods trains on these lines. We need to focus on freights. Then, it will be profitable," Samarajiva told Khabar.
"I call it the mainline. It is so important for our economy," he said of the north-south route.
G.A.P. Ariyaratne, General Manager of Sri Lanka Railways, takes a similar view. "Reconstruction of these lines will be a huge boost to the national economy," Ariyaratne told Khabar.
"The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation has already sought the possibility of transporting fuel to Jaffna through rail service. If we sign an agreement with them for fuel supply, we can get extra income," he said, adding, such a pact will be a money-saver.
Rail connectivity will also make transportation of agricultural produce easier and less costly, he added.
The potential benefits aren't all financial, however. The northern railway lines, once commissioned, are likely to foster cultural ties between the communities.
The Rev. Rayappu Joseph, Bishop of Mannar in the north, said the connection would increase pilgrims to the sacred Roman Catholic Church in Madhu for its annual feast from the south. The church is a 400-year-old Catholic Marian shrine in the Mannar district. It serves as a place for pilgrimage, miraculous healings and worship for all people.
"Once train service is restored, we will see an increased number of devotees coming here," Joseph said. "There are other places of religious worship in the north such as Nallur Kandaswamy Hindu Temple in Jaffna and Nagadeepa Buddhist Temple. Train service will be a comfortable mode of transport for pilgrims to those places."
Former passenger Periyasami says it will be like a treasured memory coming alive again. "I'm getting nostalgic now about my youthful past," he said. "I hope I can travel from Jaffna to Colombo by train again."