இலங்கை புகையிரத / ශ්රීl ලංකාව රේල් පාර

I bet those "squiggles" got your attention.

The first is Tamil and the second one is Sinhalese meaning "Sri Lanka Railways". Those are two of a triad of official languages in Sri Lanka. The third one being English. Sinhalese is the native language spoken by the majority of the Sri Lankans, Tamil is generally spoken in the north of the island. All official government communication is in all three languages and, thankfully for the visitor, so are the railway station signs and announcements. 

All three official languages on the Galle Railway Station, a major rail station.

Even out in the "provinces" where trains rarely stop, the signs are in the three languages.

Brad and I continued our visit to Sri Lanka (see a blog entry of our first impressions here) with a rail trip to the southern city of Galle. 

As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, the Sri Lanka railway system is roughly 900 miles in total. Mostly single track, mostly broad gauge at 5 feet 6 inches and mostly built by the British. The system is wholly owned by the Sri Lankan government, focuses on passenger transport and loses heaps of money every year. The Sri Lankan government however considers the railway a necessary public service and is now about four years into a ten year Railway Development Strategy Plan to bring the run down system back to a 21st century railroad. 

Railway lines in Sri Lanka

Back to our trip to Galle. There are ten daily trains between Colombo Fort and Galle. It's a distance of about 71 miles and an "Express Train" takes a bit under two hours and fifteen minutes! One of the slower trains takes roughly three and a half hours. Trains are generally not air conditioned. During our trip the temperature in Colombo hit 92 degrees F, with the humidity being a staggering 95 percent. Fortunately for us whimpy Westerners there is another rail travel option. A private company, the Rajadhani Express, has refurbished and air conditioned some older Rumanian built coaches and attaches them to regularly scheduled trains run by Sri Lanka Railways. On the route to Galle there is one service in either direction: down to Galle at 06:55 and back to Colombo Fort at 15:20. There is a premium fare of 990 Sri Lankan rupees one way. That's a whopping 7.50 US dollars. One must keep in mind though, that the lowest fare on this run is 100 Sri Lankan rupees or 75 US cents. 

Map of the rail line to the southern city of Galle

We start off at Colombo Fort station. It's rush hour of course and the place is heaving. Commuter trains are coming in fast and furious, and totally overcrowed. Most of the train services I observed were run with Class S-10 and S-11 stock. The Class S-11 are diesel multiple unit trains built in India. The Class S-10 was manufactured in China and expressly built for commuter service. 

A Class S-11 DMU approaching Colombo Fort station

One of the platforms at Colombo Fort station during rush hourAnother S-11 DMU arriving at Colombo Fort stationA Class S-10 DMU at Colombo Fort station

Our train however is not a DMU, but a locomotive hauled service. A Class M-8 is on the front of the train, slowly lumbering into the station. These were built in India commencing in 1996. They are of a Co'Co' configuration and at 2800 horse power purportedly the most powerful locomotives on the Sri Lanka Railways roster. 

A Class M-8 diesel electric locomotive (This photo is from Wiki Media Commons)

Our Rajadhani Express coach is on the back of the train. It is air conditioned bliss and even has free WiFi (take that Amtrak), but with one devil of a password.

The "Rajadhani Express" coach

I think this password is long enough!

The coach looks comfortable enough and we settle into our assigned seats. Individual seats can be chosen on the railroad's web site while booking the tickets. (again: Amtrak, are you listening?)

Sri Lanka Railways ticket with assigned seats F 13 and F 14 purchased via the SLR web site

But there was one thing that drives me nuts. Why can't railroad coach designers/renovators line up the seats with the windows? This problem seems to be somewhat universal with railroads. Among others, the Virgin Trains Class 390 in the UK have this issue, as do the Deutsche Bahn ICE 3 sets. 

 

Staring at the wall...Eventually we are off. Not quite on the advertised, but then again, we are in no rush. The train trundles through Colombo and eventually the track follows the coast line all the way to Galle.

 

View of the coast from the train

The track is not the best and we are jostled about a bit. The young coach attendant comes around with coffee, which I managed to promptly spill when we hit a particularly bad stretch of trackage. He is nonplussed and wipes it of the seat and the floor with a smile.

The line is mostly single track and as we clatter on our way south through some of the stations, we meet northbound commuter trains waiting for us to pass. All of the commuter trains seem to be the Class S-11, like here at the Ratmalana station meet. 

Crossing a northbound train at Ratmalana station

Another view from the "speeding" train

We continue south at break neck speed: about 82 or so kilometers per hour (ca. 51 mph) seems to be the top speed on this line.

Speed measuring app on my iPhone

In due time and on time we arrive at Galle station.

The Galle station and a fleet of waiting tuk-tuks.

Stay tuned for more on our travels in Sri Lanka.

 

All photographs by Brad Wing (Sony Rx-100) and Ralf Meier (Sony RX-10), unless otherwise noted.