Saturday, July 22, 2006

Kandy to Colombo - reflections on Train Travel in Sri Lanka

9 July 2006
Kandy to Colombo: Reflections in Train Travel in Sri Lanka
Once the Ceylon National Railways were the pride of South Asia. Friends have told me of their travels, as children, on immaculate comfortably appointed cars. White gloved stewards served meals on crisp linens in the dining cars.

But decades of government management have changed things. A Sri Lankan colleague, who organizes exchange programs for students from the US told me he no longer rides the trains himself. He makes students in his programs sign written statements promising that they will not travel by train. He reinforced his warnings to me with a gruesome story of a woman friend who had nearly lost a leg in a rail accident, attributed to poor maintenance. He told of a personal friend, a German rail engineer who, on four successive trips to Sri Lanka wrote detailed memoranda to the Transport Ministry documenting poor maintenance and the hazards it created.

Even in the nineteen years I have been visiting Sri Lanka, I can mark visible signs of deterioration. Rolling stock, in many instances first used in pre-independence years, seems more run down. On the Inter City Express, from Kandy to Colombo (I could not book a seat today) there used to be a snack bar car. This has been replaced by itinerant sales people offering short eats, fresh fruit and newspapers. I am somewhat reminded of Communist era trains in which I traveled in East Germany and Hungary.

Perhaps one explanation is that the prices remain low. The train trip from Colombo to Kandy costs less than the “Tuk Tuk” trip from my home away from home to the rail station, 130 Rupees (second class) for the four hour tirp.

The train trip from Kandy to Colombo must be one of the most beautiful in the world and on this trip, I was able to take full advantage, arriving 90 minutes before train time, to be assured of getting a good seat. Having made the trip many times before, I knew on which side of the car to sit. Eventually – it was standing room only.

For the first part of the trip the train moved slowly, this was not out of deference to passengers, but to safety Along the track side were crudely hand-lettered signs in read saying “15 mph – weak sleepers” or “weak rails.” But the trip passed without incident. Once out of Colombo, the quality of the roadbed and the speed of the train improved. We arrived in Colombo about 7:30. Night comes early at the equator and it was completely dark except for a full moon, occasionally obscured by grey windblown clouds.

A enterprising Tuk Tuk man was waiting outside the exit gate awaiting likely patrons. He correctly identified me as one. Cost of the 15 minute ride from Colombo Fort Station to Horton Place, in light traffic. 200 Rupees.


Anonymous sunny said...

Colombo is one of the must visit Sri Lanka places:)

10:11 AM  

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