I struggle oftentimes with post-colonial guilt but it is undeniable that one the great and lasting legacies the British left behind in Sri Lanka – and India for that matter – is the railway system. Here in Sri Lanka we have about 1500 kilometres of broad gauge track passing through arguably some of the most beautiful and spectacular scenery in the world.
As with so many things in Sri Lanka the railway system has a feel of something frozen in time about it. Like me, the rolling stock has all seen better days, the locomotives are 1960s and 1970s diesels and there is a glorious absence of technology. This does not appear to effect efficiency though and the trains pretty much arrive and depart on time. Or in some cases early; there doesn’t seem to be a concept of waiting for the timetabled departure time at the non-terminus stations so as soon as everyone has disembarked/embarked the whistle is blown and the train leaves; handy to know if, like me, you have a tendency to cut it fine…
At Matara, my nearest station, the ticket office has two windows. One for 3rd Class and the other for 1st and 2nd although I have yet to see a train with a 1st Class carriage. The tickets are tiny rectangles of cardboard printed on a machine which Queen Victoria would have recognised and a ticket to Colombo – the equivalent of travelling from Bristol to London – costs about £1. Walking on to the platform the ticket is clipped and on reaching your destination it is surrendered and recorded – by hand of course – in a large ledger called the “Register of Collected Book”. On Poya days and other Buddhist festivals the stations are festooned with orange and white banners as if they were temples themselves.
The timetable and departures board are works of art; a combination of the utter beauty of Sinhala script and that by and large they are sign-written by hand rather than printed. My absolute favourite is the departure board at Talpe (40 minutes and 40p by train from Matara) which is hand painted and on which little wooden signs are hung to indicate the time of the next train to the various destinations.
Once on board the carriages are functional; whilst they do have doors these are never, ever shut, likewise the windows are all thrown wide. This, along with the electric fans mounted on the ceilings, provides the air-conditioning and is, despite what you might think, really rather efficient. On a recent trip I actually got a sarong out of my bag to wrap around my shoulders, something I wouldn’t normally need to do even at night. Every ten minutes or so a hawker will come down the carriage selling either lottery tickets or “short-eats” which are the Sri Lankan version of fast food. My favourite are chilli fried prawns. These are served in bags made from stapling random bits of paper – a friend once had his presented in a child’s maths homework.
Counterintuitively, especially in a country with a patchy highway network, it is usually faster to travel by road, oftentimes even when the vehicle is a tuk-tuk however nothing compares to the sheer delight of the sights, sounds and smells of Sri Lankan Railways.
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Oh ya, there is a certain excitement, beauty and way of life that can only be experienced travelling on these clinking,clonking, banging and swaying Sri Lankan trains.I hope some day the railway network expands to cover more of the island so that more travellers could enjoy the journey while taking in the scenery. Each sleepy and mostly unnoticed station has such a beautiful story or grand history of its own.
Even the present railway network would do wonders with the input of some new technology that would bring the whole system up to date; but if you are an occasional traveller or a visitor on holiday, the old trains even with all their problems and shabby looks, would give you an experience that no fast move new train could provide.
Hope you have many more enjoyable trips and hope to hear about them too .
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