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Sri Lanka By Rail

Sri Lanka By Rail

By Royston Ellis

Travelling by train for tourists, as long as you pick the right trains, has become more convenient in recent years as special air-conditioned carriages have been added to long distance trains.

In addition, the northern railway links, closed for nearly three decades, have recently re-opened and tourists can now travel from the southernmost station of Matara in the deep south, via Galle and Colombo, to the northernmost station of Kankesanturai (KKS) via Jaffna.

Celebrating 150 years of trains in Sri Lanka_opt

In March visiting Prime Minister Modi of India opened the last link to restore the entire network by flagging off a train from Thalaimannar in the northwest (and the closest station to India) signifying the recommencement of the Thalaimannar/Medawchchiya sector of the train service to Colombo, following rehabilitation work carried out with Indian credit assistance.
It was on 27 December 2014 that Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) celebrated its sesquicentennial, marking the day 150 years ago when the first train steamed into Ambepussa. The story is in a coffee table book (which I wrote) published by SLR to commemorate the occasion.

The railway didn’t reach Kandy until 1867, which was just 52 years after the former impregnable (because of the mountains that surrounded it) kingdom fell to the British. It was a remarkable achievement by British engineers and Ceylonese workers (helped by imported Indian labour) given the rivers and swamps that had to be crossed, rocks to be blasted away and hills to be pierced by tunnels by hand. Three thousand men worked regardless of malaria, falling rocks, flying snakes, and wild animals.

Newly built Jaffna railway station_opt

The journey from steam to diesel took 80 years and now even the robust Canadian-built diesel locomotives of the past 60 years are being replaced by sleek Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) without a separate coupled locomotive, imported from China and India. They may have air-conditioned first class, but the essential romance of breezy rail travel standing by an open carriage door seems to be disappearing.

However, the new DMUs provide a convenient service to Nuwara Eliya (alight at Nanu Oya) and on through Ambewela to Bandarawela, Ella and Badulla. There is a 1st Class air-conditioned carriage with seats bookable in advance on two daily trains while a third daily train has an Observation Car and private carriages run by Exporail and Rajadhani Rail with seats bookable on line.
There is also an intercity express twice a day between Colombo and Kandy.

DMU power set from China at Bandarawela_opt

Another popular train for tourists is the daily departure (at 6.55am) from Colombo with stops at the west coast beach resorts of Bentota, Hikkaduwa and Galle, arriving at 9.26am. The train leaves Galle in the evening at 3.30pm to return to Colombo (at 6.05pm) so it’s great for a day trip to the south. It has a Rajadhani luxury carriage as well as an SLR 1st Class carriage (with pairs of seats in curtained cubicles), all bookable in advance.

Royston Ellis ( is a British author resident in Sri Lanka since 1980