If you’re reading this you’ve probably seen all the hype about how you absolutely must experience the joys of travelling by train in the hill country. And there is no doubt that the line from Kandy to Badulla, and especially the stretch between Nanu Oya (Nuwara Eliya’s station), Ella and the terminus at Badulla, is among the world’s most scenic rail routes. But you may want to consider all the angles before you book your ticket.
I should start by saying I’m a lifelong train enthusiast. Where some guys’ fantasy job would be managing their favourite football team, mine would be running Sri Lankan railways – but only on the basis of guaranteed investment based on my very sound business plan! So I’m not here to knock train travel in general or Sri Lankan train travel in particular. Just to give you the facts so you can make up your own mind.
The positives are easy and quick to state. The beauty of the scenery; the low cost of tickets; the romance of being in an old train where you can hang out of doors, take photos, experience itinerant snack-sellers peddling their wares and generally feel part of the Sri Lankan way of life. OK that last lot isn’t everyone’s cup of Ceylon tea, but I certainly love it.
The downsides are more numerous and more complex. Let’s start with the time it’s likely to take. Generally, tourists don’t realise how slow travel is in Sri Lanka and end up spending far more time in vans, buses and trains than is sensible. The train from Kandy to Ella (the most popular trip) takes around six hours. Add to that the fact that the train may be anything up to two hours late arriving in Kandy from Colombo and/or may lose more time en route and you realise you have to be prepared to take up an entire day of your holiday doing the amazing train trip. That’s fine if you have three or four weeks or more in Sri Lanka. If you’re trying to see something of the island in around a week can you really afford to spend a day of it on a train?
Then there is the small matter of booking a seat. Here’s how it works. All first class carriages are reserved seats only (by no means all trains have first class). One of the second class carriages and sometimes one third class carriage are reserved seats only. The rest of second and third class is everyone for themselves. If you haven’t booked a seat in advance you can certainly travel but in very crowded conditions. Not fun if you have heavy baggage, or children, or indeed if you’re of shorter than average height. If you can’t see past the people standing next to you then the stupendous views are a bit irrelevant!
Seats can only be booked thirty days before the date of travel. Earlier and they’re not available; leave it much later in peak periods and they’re sold out. You cannot book them via the Sri Lanka Railways website either. The site we recommend you use is visitsrilankatours.co.uk (we can also sometimes get tickets through a travel company in Kandy we use). So you need to be organised and able to plan your train trip well in advance – which may not be easy if you’re the kind of traveller who likes to be spontaneous. That said, at the time of writing this blog tourism in Sri Lanka is still well down following the Easter 2019 bombings so there is less pressure at the moment on getting train seats than there was before.
So – first or second class? Each has its advantages and disadvantages and it depends on what you like and dislike. First class is a/c, which makes for a more comfortable ride but means you can’t open the windows or hang out of the doors. Safer but less exciting. The toilets are often cleaner too. A few first class carriages are the old observation saloons which give you a great rearward view as well as seeing out of the windows – but check your train has this before you book first class. Also hawkers and food-sellers are not allowed into the first class carriages so if they annoy you then book first class. On the other hand, if you like itinerant street food sellers and like to hang out of doorways and feel the rush of mountain air then second class is your thing.
You may read in forums that a clever trick if you don’t have a booked seat and want to sit down is to get on at the station before Kandy with a non-reservation ticket (which you can buy at the station) and wait for the inevitable lot of people to get off at Kandy and grab a vacated seat. Brilliant – except that this ruse is now so common that everyone knows it and many Sri Lankans as well as tourists are merciless in their physical efforts to get a seat. If you choose this option be prepared to fight your way to a seat!
However we do have one clever suggestion of our own. There is a much-travelled standard tourist route around the south of Sri Lanka which goes Airport – Sigiriya – Kandy – train from Kandy to Ella – down to the south coast and back round to the Airport. The Kandy to Ella trains are crowded, especially in the Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) pilgrimage season between December and April. But if you do the circuit the other way around – starting by going down the coast from the airport and getting the train from Ella to Kandy – it will be less crowded.
And don’t forget that the weather may be against you. It rains a lot in the hill country and don’t believe any website that confidently predicts dry weather at any given time of the year. All that kind of certainty vanished in the tropics with the onset of climate change. Generally January to March are drier months but there are no guarantees. If the weather has turned wet then you’re not going to see those spectacular mountain views.
We hope this hasn’t put you off train travel in the hills. All we want to do is to reduce the number of disappointed travellers by helping people to make informed decisions based on local knowledge, not on persuasion from tourism websites. And if it has put you off the hill country route, don’t forget that the coastal line from Colombo down to Galle and Matara also has some lovely ocean views and more frequent trains – so do try it.
Although this blog has been mainly concerned with the tourist route in the hill country I’ll end with a few more general observations on Sri Lankan rail travel. The most important is to tell you to forget everything you know about train timetables and routes if you come from a western or developed country. The main purpose of the Sri Lanka rail system is to get people to and from work in the Colombo area. It is not to get visitors or even residents around the country. Outside the Colombo travel to work area trains are few and far between. And even in majority world terms Sri Lanka is unusual in being a country without a rail link between its international airport and its capital city – or indeed anywhere else. There are no trains from or to the airport. The very limited network is entirely centred on Colombo. So for example you could not get a train from Kandy to Trincomalee even though both have stations. Large areas of the island have no train lines at all. Even the famous hill country route has but two trains each way per day from Kandy to Ella and a third from Peradeniya Junction (actually there’s also an overnight one but that’s not relevant if you want mountain views!).
There is also a major problem of under-investment in rail. Only one short branch line (from Anuradhapura to nearby Mihintale) has been constructed since independence in 1948 and maintenance of track and rolling stock is poor. Most of the trains are American or Chinese hand-me-downs. Though they are currently doubling the single track between Kandy and Peradeniya Junction which – for reasons I won’t bore you with – should improve timekeeping and maybe enable more trains to run in future. Finally, strikes and industrial action are quite common occurrences. Of course, Sri Lanka is a fairly poor country and its ability to invest in its railway system is llimited – but over many decades such transport infrastructure investment as there has been has gone almost entirely into roads, ports and airports. The railways are the poor relation. Which makes it somwhat ironic that rail travel is seen as such an important strand of tourism, which is a crucial sector of the economy. A country which is serious about tourism really should get more serious about its railways.
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