We decided to travel by train from Kandy to Kadunnawa, equivalent to a trip from Southampton to Winchester, it takes about 30 minutes.
We have travelled by train in Sri Lanka before but always on the intercity express and always 1st class. This journey would be on a local train, just two stops.
At the ticket office we joined the queue. At the window we were told it was the wrong queue, we needed the next window. We asked for two second class returns and got a blank look, the clerk turned to his colleague. “Don’t worry, he’s new, this is his first day on the job.”
In the confusion we found we had purchased 2, 3rd class singles at a cost of 15 Rupees each (7.5p). There is no 1st class on these trains. We were early so there was plenty of time for people watching. We discovered that there were special toilets for tourists on the platform and a notice saying that we should be polite to women.
The train arrived only 10 minutes late and in the crush to get on, we found ourselves strap-hanging in 2nd class but with too great a crush to move around. Second class has padded seats, straps to hang from and air conditioning in the form of a ceiling fan. All the windows were fully open and the breeze, once moving, was most welcome. Coaches have doors but they are never closed.
Just two stops, well three because there was signal stop. The engine hoots at lot to warn people to step off the track. The track serves as a footpath as well. The track is broad gauge, 5’ 6’’, there is no welded rail you still hear the noise, ‘yakada yaka’ as the bogeys cross the joints.
Here was our stop. We did not see a sign. I asked if we were at Kadugannawa but the guys did not speak English. They wobbled their heads from side to side as only Asians can, a signal which means ‘I can hear you, but I don’t know what you are talking about.’ Sri Lankans never like to say, No.
We got off, otherwise we might end up in Colombo. The little station was deserted. There was a small sign, Pilimathalawa. Too late to get back on, it was a stop for a loop line where two trains could pass. The engine revved, the train moved slowly, leaving us alone.
We began to walk along the road, knowing that a tuk-tuk would be along shortly. A nice guy, who could not understand why tourists should be in Pilimathalawa, and having seen it, neither could we, took us to the National Rail Museum at Kadugannawa but it cost 200 Rupees (£1) for the 15 minute ride.
Then another 500 Rupees each to get into the museum and we had not bought our return ticket yet. Second class would be 30 Rupees each (15p), it was going to be an expensive day.
The museum was quiet, the two of us and 4 guides. There was a number of artefacts, engine name-plates, drills, levers, spanners and jacks for track laying. I had to agree with my wife that there is a limit to the excitement and interest these can generate. The original station timepiece was there in the form of a large brass sundial, made in England. The gnomon hardly protrudes from the face, it has to be at an angle equal to the latitude from the equator, in this case a mere 7 degrees.
There was a good demonstration of Tyer’s tablet, an old method of giving only one train access to a single track at a time, first introduced in 1874. I remember seeing one used on the North Yorkshire line at Whitby when I was a schoolboy but that was a few years after 1874.
Engines and rolling stock, mainly from the 1930s were parked and I enjoyed climbing on them. It was heaven for small boys, you could climb anywhere and most of the levers and valves could be moved. In some old coaches we came across railway workers who had set up hidey- holes for themselves with kettles and teabags and a newspaper. The early 20th century sleeper was occupied by a man who really did sleep there, for security, he said.
Sri Lankan Railways
There was not much information in the museum about the building of the rail lines in Sri Lanka. They are a magnificent achievement of Victorian engineering. The line from Colombo to Kandy was first and it had to be cut through rock with tunnels, cuttings and terraces. The gradient is up to 1:40 in parts. Near Colombo the line passes through marshland and needed plenty of ballast.
The tea and coffee planters needed the rail link to get their product to the docks quickly, before the vermin could get at it. Coffee could take up to 3 weeks to travel by road on a bullock cart.
From Kandy the line runs up into the hills and the highest part is over 6000 feet. They say it is a dramatic trip over viaducts and past waterfalls and tea plantations, through jungle and conifer forests, past sparkling blue lakes and purple mountain peaks. Journeys are often delayed by landslips. There are almost 1000 miles of track on this small island.
There were just a few of us waiting in a cool breeze on the platform for the journey back. Men sat around in the ticket office doing nothing. Forty minutes after the appointed time, bells rang and the men spruced up. The station master had a white uniform with shiny brass buttons and a splendid hat, the security guards appeared with their Khaki tunics. Small men with dark skins, knot-hard muscles and wearing sarongs were the porters.
The stationmaster carried a hoop, a Tyer’s tablet. They still use this old system of signalling. As the train drew along the platform, the driver handed his hoop to the platform staff and collected the next hoop from the stationmaster.
We had second class tickets but there were no second-class coaches. Third class has no hanging straps, but it did have a very gracious man who gave up his seat to my wife.
There was no problem about where to alight. Kandy was the terminus. There, smiling and waving was Asaf, our tuk-tuk driver.
For an un-bowdlerized version of how the Sri Lankan railways operate, a series of three hilarious and scurrilous novels, The Jam Fruit Tree, Yakada Yaka and Once Upon A Tender Time. by Carl Muller is worth a read. The books are fiction and any resemblance between the characters and real people is, of course, purely co-incidental. Kingsley de Silva, Sri Lanka’s foremost historian told me that he knew all the characters in the book. His father was the station master at Peradeniya. As a child he rode the footplate with Sonnyboy and the other characters in the books.