Usually rail is one of the most reliable forms or transportation. That’s not why I often opt for the train, but it is a major reason. Trains generally leave on time and arrive more or less on schedule. I know there are exceptions to this rule.
The railway is a classic way to explore Sri Lanka and a beautiful way to just feel like you’re part of the Sri Lankan populace. In many countries, I stand out as an obvious foreigner. Doing something as simple as riding the train, (as long as it’s 2nd or 3rd class) makes me feel more accepted—makes me feel like I’m blending in. Of course I’m not—I’ve got my oversized, clumsy backpack and the obvious physical features that set me apart from the average Sri Lankan.
We board the 10am train to Anuradhapura. The train originates here in Colombo so there’s no crush to get on and secure a seat. Colombo Fort station has ten platforms, some nice old iron work, and gets really crowded during the rush hours. Getting to the station is a different matter—that’s nearly always difficult in the traffic-choked streets.
The 318 km journey is scheduled to pull in at 15:45, 5 hours and 45 minutes from now. If you do the math, that’s an average of 55 km/hour—not exactly fast. If you saw the age and shape of the trains, you’d understand why it couldn’t go much faster and why you wouldn’t want it going any faster. Not to say the railway isn’t maintained properly; it’s just old.
We still consider ourselves fortunate to get a seat. Our first rail journey, down the coast to Galle, we had to stand much of the 2 ½ hours. A ticket here, even if it’s second class does not guarantee a seat. Predictably, third class is even more crowded. One thing is certain: ticket prices are outrageously cheap. Today’s journey cost 290 Sri Lankan Rupees ($ 2.30 US) in 2nd class. 3rd class is even cheaper.
Twenty minutes late the train pulls out, and when it does, the first 20 kilometers or so really drag on. I know this is not a good sign.
After an hour or two we seem to finally be rolling at full speed. The windows are all lowered and every door is open. Warm air blasts in, not quite drying our constantly sweating body. Sri Lankan guys hang out the side of the train from the doors. It doesn’t matter whether the train is packed or not, it’s just something they like to do.
Rice paddies and small towns distract us from the assortment of mobile vendors making their way down the central aisle. Cold drinks, hot drinks, as well as newspapers, children’s books and balloons were all being sold. Not sure what good a balloon can do us on a long ride, but it gives us a smile.
We ignore most until the sound of “vah-dey, vah-dey, vah-dey, vah-dey” gets our attention for the deep fried lentil patties garnished with onion and whole chilies.
The train bumps and rattles and goes absurdly slow at times for reasons we can’t figure. It’s a hot and difficult journey. But it’s worth it. This whole railway experience is a step back in time. Cars are old, stations are old-fashioned, even the thick cardboard tickets look antique.
Four hours later, about 50 meters short of Kurrunegala station, the train comes to a premature rest. There is no announcement about the unscheduled stop, so we are left wondering what has happened. Luckily, the fans above us inside our car provide a little relief from the heat and humidity.
Men begin working outside on the track and passengers slowly disembark the steep steps. It soon becomes clear that this train won’t be moving on.