I have fond memories of a summer day, several years ago, when I had the good fortune to find a vacant seat upon an early-morning train from Delhi to Agra. Seats inside the crowded, steamy carriages which rattle out of New Delhi train station are highly prized. A significant percentage of passengers complete the three-hour journey hanging grimly out of open doorways. Sitting or lying on the carriage roof, despite its inherent risks, is considered a relatively comfortable alternative to standing inside.
Seated passengers are eyed with wistful envy. If one should reach their destination and stand to leave, remaining passengers will jostle for the empty seat, often with two winners sharing the spoils, one cheek each.
With both of my cheeks comfortably supported as the train rattled towards Delhi’s sprawling suburbs, I delved into my bag for a newspaper, remembering an article I had been waiting to read. A dozen men standing in close proximity immediately shifted position and turned their heads towards my newspaper. One rested his chin on my shoulder and the gentleman in the seat beside mine pulled a pair of wire-rimmed reading spectacles from his shirt pocket before squinting and reaching across to run an index finger along the lines of text. Clearly, reviewing my newspaper would be a communal exercise.
“The World’s Best Train Journeys”, announced the article headline above a list of exotic and evocative names. Flying Scotsman, Orient Express, Trans-Siberian, Maharajas’ Express, The Hiram Bingham, The Rocky Mountaineer and, topping the list as the very best of the best, Sri Lanka’s Colombo to Badulla Express. An enticingly vivid photograph showing sky blue train carriages arcing through lush, green tea plantations sealed the deal and I mentally added the Sri Lanka railway to my “Must See” list. I scanned further down the article but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the overcrowded 6:15 Delhi to Agra train with impromptu group reading club did not appear. Perhaps the journalist compiling the list was not blessed with my good fortune and had failed to secure a seat.
Five years after that journey to Agra, a photo assignment in Colombo provides an opportunity to ride the rails in Sri Lanka. My pre-trip research reveals that the route between Colombo and Badulla is regularly featured in lists of the world’s best train journeys. Adjectives such as ‘charming’, ‘attractive’ and ‘nostalgic’ prove to be a common denominator in news and magazine articles, which invariably feature variations on the blue carriage and green tea plantation photo theme.
Falling out of a tuk-tuk onto the pavement outside Colombo Fort railway station at 4:30 a.m., I’m feeling neither charming nor attractive but am experiencing some nostalgia - for my bed. I check my ticket through bleary eyes and stumble towards the entrance.
The white, scalloped fringes of the British colonial facade to Colombo Fort station are reminiscent of an English village cricket pavilion. Most stations along the line have a similar appearance and date back to the 19th century when the British colonial government began constructing a railway to service the rural tea plantations. From 1864 to the 1920s, the railway lines were gradually extended across Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was, providing a network of transport links which remain operational today.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sri Lanka’s own Chief Engineer, Bamunusinghearachchige Don Rampala MBE, managed a resurgence in the railway network. His systematic overhaul of the tracks, station improvements and the introduction of diesel locomotives to replace steam engines (known locally as ‘Anguru Kaka Wathura Bibi Duwana Yakada Yaka’ or ‘Coal-eating, water-drinking, sprinting, metal devils’), ensured the continued existence of the network, earning him an MBE and title of ‘Best Diesel Engineer in Asia’ in the process.
Many of the carriages waiting beside platforms inside Colombo Fort station appear to date back to B. D. Rampala’s time. The interiors are comfortably worn but impressively clean. I’m delighted to see that the red and blue carriage exteriors are completely devoid of the advertising which blights carriages elsewhere in the world. It always seems to me like an incongruous blot on the pleasing aesthetics of a train carriage to see it plastered with the grinning, oversized heads of toothy models advertising mobile phone networks, soda drinks and detergent. Not so in Sri Lanka where such modern intrusions are, thankfully, less important than the integrity of the railway’s pedigree.
As the sun rises above the horizon at the eastern end of the station, a growing crowd of passengers gather on the platforms. I find a vendor selling hot coffee from a wheeled cart and fall into conversation with a group of Buddhist monks. They’re returning to a monastery in the northern hills, having completed a monthly shopping expedition. Their saffron robes contrast pleasingly with the blue carriages and, thoughtfully, they position themselves on a line of seats, undoubtedly aware of the colour-conscious expectations of visiting travel photographers.
Family groups congregate inside carriages whilst loving aunts, uncles and cousins wait patiently on the platform to wave farewell. The arrival of the InterCity Express to Kandy at Platform Two is announced and I join the line of commuters walking across the tracks to join my train. Whilst the option of a seat inside one of the private, luxury carriages is appealing, they depart later in the day and I want to be heading out of Colombo when the light is at its most favourable. The older Observation Car probably has greater appeal for those hoping to enjoy the views. Always hitched at the rear of the train, the carriage features large windows at one end. Once seated, passengers can appreciate the retreating landscape in what feels like a narrow, swaying cinema showing a pastoral movie in slow rewind.
Precisely at 5:55 a.m., the Guard, smartly dressed in neat railway uniform, leans out of a doorway; waves a green flag; blows with puffed cheeks into a polished, silver whistle; waves the green flag a second time and the train jolts into forward motion. From the Observation Car, we watch as Fort station recedes, giving way almost immediately to the colonial architecture of suburban Colombo and then quickly to rice paddies and green jungle.
As the train leaves the city, it gathers speed, heading northeastwards towards Kandy. The early morning sun is still climbing lazily, not yet reaching above the jungle canopy. The light splinters through palm tree fronds into golden shafts which light up the morning mist. In the Guard’s van, I lean from an open doorway, enjoying the cool breeze, camera in one hand, a tight grip on the stainless steel door handle with the other.
From this vantage point, I have a good view of the other carriages. Beyond the Guard’s van, from windows in the First Class carriage, European and American tourists poke GoPro cameras attached to the ends of extending ‘selfie’ sticks. Beyond them in the Second and Third class carriages, locals sit in open doorways, nonchalantly smoking or chatting with friends leaning from open windows.
The line dividing luxuriant landscape and train interior is more conceptual than definitive. The open doors and windows on a train that is now travelling at an impressive speed would leave a western Health and Safety inspector feeling faint. In Sri Lanka, passengers are treated with a little more respect. Above the growing volume of the rattling wheels on tracks, I ask the Guard how long he’s worked with the railway.
“Thirty years. I started in 1985 when I was 16”.
“Has anybody ever fallen out of the train?”, I ask.
“No.” The reply comes without hesitation but is accompanied by one raised eyebrow and an expression that I take to mean, “Why would anybody do that”?
It’s obviously much safer to travel in trains where the doors and windows stubbornly refuse to open but where’s the fun in that? Leaning out of a doorway on a train that’s climbing rapidly into the mist-shrouded jungles of Sri Lanka towards a rising sun that’s painting the world in rich, amber tones must surely be one of life’s simplest yet greatest pleasures.
It takes three hours to reach Kandy and another seven before we arrive at Ella, where 95% of the passengers disembark. Ella is pretty much the final stop as far as tourists are concerned and boasts a small collection of western cafes and hotels. However, just a few kilometres beyond Ella is one of Sri Lanka Railways’ most impressive accomplishments, the vertiginous Nine Arches Bridge. Spanning a 25 metre drop into the valley below, the bridge is nearly 100 metres long yet only 7 metres wide, giving the train the appearance of travelling along the knife-edge of a deeply serrated blade.
It is worth the extra 60 minutes on board to experience the ride across Nine Arches viaduct. Beyond that, the train circles back on itself, turning 360 degrees beneath and then into Demodara station, the final stop before the train terminates in Badulla.
Any ten hour journey is destined to be tiring but when the brakes bring us to a shuddering, shrieking stop at Badulla and the diesel engine gives a final, weary sigh, I am sorry to leave the train. Perhaps it’s the elastic stretching of time, the hypnotic clickety-clack rhythm of the wheels and the gentle rocking motion which combine to lull passengers into a state of agreeable friendliness but I rarely make as many new friends on other forms of transport as I do on a train journey.
Paul Theroux concludes his introduction to ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, widely regarded as one of the finest examples of travel literature since its publication in 1975, with the line “￼I sought trains; I found passengers.”
So it is for me on the Colombo to Badulla Intercity Express. The journey meets all my highest expectations, providing chocolate box scenes at every bend in the tracks, including the sky blue carriages and lush, green tea plantations the articles had promised. Beyond that, the chance encounters and conversations are what I will remember with greatest fondness. From the monks in Colombo, the families patiently waiting to depart, the friendly Guards and Station Masters, the charming Sri Lankan honeymooning couples and the many tourists and fellow passengers, each conversation provided a delightful interlude.
Upon reflection, I can confirm that Sri Lankan railways are fully deserving of their regular place in any ‘Best Railway Journeys’ list. They are, in fact, charming, attractive and, looking back, I find myself deeply nostalgic for the views and cooling breezes of an open doorway.
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