What it means to ride wheels of steel on tracks of steel in Srilanka

A certain reference might be made to the Srilankan railways though. I can only make deliberate comparisons to the great Indian railways all throughout this small write-up, and hence, my dear readers, if you are not well acquainted with the Indian railway, do bear with me.

The railways crisscross the tiny island nation with the capital as its epicenter. Like a branching bo tree, it spans its arms and tracks across most of the nation, despite being skewed as the capital is on the eastern coast, south of the midline. It does make a pleasing tree though. During the travels, we have used the Colombo Fort station as our base for most of our time. A charming little station, unlike the sparkling steel and concrete monstrosities of the Indian ones, with six platforms makes the core station for the nation, in its entirety. Srilankan trains are but the young hatchlings of their steely, serpentine Indian counterparts. Hence, all the corollaries start from here.

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Colombo Fort railway station, Colombo and its innards.

Most Indian trains have a minimum of fifteen compartments, excluding the pantry car and engine(s), a third of them air conditioned coaches and two third of them are conditioned naturally, (This means that you are either stir fried or you slowly freeze to death, depending on wind conditions, season, latitude, altitude and the gap between the window shutter and the sill. Despite my exaggeration, I’ve found these naturally conditioned coaches great for travel, communication and even writing blog posts on the fly, as I am doing now. I digress. Occasionally. Make that ‘often’. This means you’ll find parentheses a constant companion of your reading. Maybe, that’s a style I am developing. Or a condition.) Coming back to the matter at hand, Srilankan trains are a generous contribution by the Raj (as in India) and are only about eight or ten coaches long. This means smaller capacities, smaller platforms and lesser number of hawkers on the platforms.  I should say India 1, Srilanka 0 in terms of carrying capacity.

Railway platforms are dainty little affairs in Srilanka. They melt into the landscape, often adjoining houses, roads and even the sea. And nature is found in abundance on the platforms with lot of flowering bushes, trees and we even found mango and coconut trees in fruit on one of the platforms.

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Enderamulla railway station- near our stay. Half an hours’ train ride from Colombo Fort. Notice the colourful tree, the road running at the immediate end of the platform and the unmanned crossings.

The roads look like they have been painted as an afterthought, along or across the tracks. The crossings themselves seem very orderly- one simple crossbar for half the lane on each side of the track. Vehicles queue in an orderly fashion behind the crossbar and wait, unlike in India where people and vehicles try their best to jump the tracks even the moment before the train crashes through. The public is alerted to the arrival of a train by the ringing of a bell. Most crossings are unmanned too and if manned, a small booth can be seen with the rail signals. Indian crossings are a major affair on the landscape, with the crossbar spanning the entire road (which the vehicles do not obey) and a large concrete structure serving as the guard’s housing. India, do learn the lessons here; the citizens have to cooperate though. Public safety – India 0, Srilanka 1.

Windows are completely open, with no cross bars or ugly iron rods to skewer the views. They can be closed by a glass pane completely though. So the cold night wind will not come in through the narrow gap between the pane and the sill (as I’ve mentioned before). I am giving this special mention as I’ve spent a few cold nights on Indian trains suffering from this particular, malicious and chilly current, which makes for very uncomfortable sleep with inadequate blankets. Completely openable windows translate to all windows being emergency exits for evacuation. Unrestricted viewing pleasure- India 0, Srilanka 1.

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                                                  Just illustrating the point here.

Srilankan trains shake too much. I do like the gentle lolling and the occasional yaw of the Indian trains but the Srilankan ones take it to the next level. It may not seem very uncomfortable to the ones sitting and may even seem a lullaby for the ones fortunate enough to lie supine, but it is downright uncomfortable when you are trying to jot down few travel notes or try a sneak photo and worse when you don’t get to sit during rush hour. Gentle chorea- India 1, Srilanka 0.

Ticket checking is pretty efficient at the main stations but it completely loses track at the small stations where you can pretty much walk in and out without being checked. At the Fort station, there are separate entrances and exits with security and personnel manning both the gates. No entrance through exits and vice versa. They are deliberately made narrow with room for only one person at a time. So people cannot travel to main stations, even in local trains, ticketless. The ticket inspector promptly arrives and punches your ticket if you are on a reserved compartment too. Ticket checking efficacy – India 0, Srilanka 1.

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                   The bored inspectors.

There aren’t many sleeper compartments, or for that matter, many overnight trains in the country. Distances cannot be far enough in a country that spans only 4 degrees of latitude. The sleeper cabins hold only 16 people (72 normally in an average coach in India, depending on season and route, where people are accommodated two on one berth and every inch of the floor occupied by sleepers) and are booked out pretty early. So, dear traveller, if you would are accustomed to a comfortable night of supine sleep as in Indian trains, I would advise you to book early enough(you can reserve berths 45 days in advance now) if you plan to take an overnight train from Fort (to Trincomalee or Badulla). We could not get a sleeping cabin in our trains to Trincomalee but 2nd class sleeperettes were available aplenty, even on the day of travel. Believe me, I could not get 2 hours of continuous sleep on the barely reclining, so-called sleeperettes. On pulling a lever beside your seat, itself barely comfortable for me who is 5’ 10”, the seat leans back a measly 4 inches behind. That’s it. It hardly gives you space to relax your feet or extend your neck. To compound things, there is so much room between your seat and the windowpane and hence you are unable to put your head there too. Sleeping comfort- India 1, Srilanka 0.

Booking Srilankan trains are a small bit of hassle too. You can only book in advance or even take tickets from the point of origin only. You cannot book other stations or interim stops from the station where you are. We had to get to Trincomalee to book the return ticket. Online and mobile reservations are possible, for few select stations and only through the government mobile telephone service only. There are different counters for different ticket classes too. In India, you are offered the leisure of any train, any class and any station from any one of the thousands of stations that dot the map. And how much ever the people hate IRCTC (the Indian railway online booking website), it gets the job done most of the time (at least for me), it is a blessing to book tickets sitting in the office, at home or your mobile. Ease of booking- India 1, Srilanka 0.

The engines are relatively new, belonging to classes S8-11 but some of them are efficient relics from the British era. Most of them are diesel and heavily environmentally unfriendly. The smoke from the engine comes straight through your window if you happened to be sitting in one of the front coaches, and precisely happened to me on my trip to Kandy. The worst parts are the tunnels in the mountains. The whole tunnel is engulfed with the smoke and you are in a torture chamber for the minute while the train slowly meanders out. Good luck if you are an asthmatic or allergic to smoke. Srilanka, please electrify all your trains, especially the ones which happen to go through tunnels. In this century, it is not rocket science. In Indian trains, you get all the peculiar smells of the surroundings and the damp musty odor of the tunnel. Smelliness- India 1, Srilanka 0.

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Ye olde diesel loco.

The Srilankan railway runs literally on the beach, separated from the sea by just  6 feet of dry land and 6 feet of wavebreaker rocks dumped unceremoniously, along most of its run in the Colombo Galle stretch. Everyone must take the morning train down south and make sure to get the window seats on the right side. And I keep wondering why do they not rust away into oblivion so fast, with the constant attack of the salt spray and tangy, salt laden breeze. I haven’t yet experienced such a journey in India. Unique beach ride- India 0, Srilanka 1.

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Railroad on the beach. Sweet.

So, in the long run, even though Srilankan railways cannot match the lumbering Indian cousin, it does have it’s unique perks. Do make sure to enjoy the pleasures of the steel roads in Srilanka, especially the beach section.

Dear readers, thanks for making it into the end of the fifteen hundred word behemoth of the post. I felt I could not do justice to my experience in piecemeal.

I did not intend you to keep score of the entire comparison. There may be many umpteen number of pluses and minuses in the rails on both sides of the Palk strait, and I am explaining the stuff I felt. Do feel free to add, contradict or comment on the post.

Which is the best train ride you have taken- in India, Srilanka or anywhere else on the pale blue dot we call home?

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2 thoughts on “What it means to ride wheels of steel on tracks of steel in Srilanka

  1. I’ve really enjoyed your trip to my (ex) island Paradise. Back in Australia, I’m still (too) nostalgic for a place I love but had to leave in the end because, after all, it’s not my home. I enjoyed that so many of your shots were of ‘normal’ life in normal settings but it was this post, with the two trains passing between platforms at Fort that really got me – the light’s just perfect and is exactly as I remember it, the morning I first took a train down South, on my first tip, 20 years ago. 🙂

    1. Thanks friend. I love to portrait life as I see it, on the street, off the street , on a treetop, etc. Even the photo of the trains from the overbridge at the Fort station , was just before my trip to Galle. I too would like to go back to Srilanka, for more images and food..

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