Sri Lankan Railways
The railway system is a vestige of British occupation dating from 1864.
The Brits introduced tea to the country, grown in the uplands, and the railway was needed to ship the processed tea leaves to Colombo for shipment by sea to England and other ports.
The locomotives were steam, then diesel and now are diesel-electric, using electric traction motors to power the sets.
The railway fell into disrepair when the importance of tea declined but began to rebound a few years ago.
The Sri Lankan government closed a $110,000,000 easy pay loan with the Chinese to furnish new train sets for use throughout much of the country.
I caught the train from Kandy to Nana Oyu on the way to Ella, located up in the area of the tea plantations.
It’s about a four-hour ride at about 25 miles an hour with the locomotive pulling a first class coach (air conditioning) and second and third class coaches.
I was told there was no food on board and that was wrong on two counts.
There was a buffet car at the end of the train but better still, at several stops vendors boarded the train and sold fresh somosas, pineapple, local peanuts, etc.
Food was obviously no problem.
After about three hours of travel I decided to get up and wander forward as I could see a heavy duty electric switch panel and I was curious about it.
It was at the very rear of the locomotive and next to it sat a crusty conductor who spotted me looking at it and through the hatchway door next to it.
That doorway led into the engine space of the train and far forward on the catwalk was another door presumably leading to the cab.
Next I knew, Moses-the-conductor was motioning me through the hatchway into the engine space.
Allow me to say with the utmost respect that I am not a “train nut” though I know several and hold them in the highest regard while refraining from engaging them in conversation about the subject.
I do, however, like machines and engines and realized this was going to be pretty cool, indeed.
The engine space was predictably noisy and hot and sure enough, the catwalk led to the engineer’s cab where I found myself peering in at the operator and his assistant.
I looked behind me and saw Moses motioning me on into the cab.
I was warmly received and shown the basic operation of the train as we moved through the steep countryside.
At one point we did a 360 degree loop using a tunnel to defeat the grade.
I was even given a seat and sat long enough to come close to overstaying my welcome.
As usual, the view up front is very different, and totally cool.
I should end this post by saying that I am now staying in Ambalangoda on the southwest coast which is very near the site of the worst train disaster in world history.
On the morning of December 26, 2004, the Queen of the Sea Line, travelling from Colombo to Galle came to a stop near the village of Periliya when the train operator was confronted with flooding from the first wave of the tsunami.
The train was carrying at least 1700 people and the next wave flooded the passenger cars and caused widespread panic.
The third wave, estimated at 28-feet high, picked the cars up and dashed them against trees and buildings further inland.
Only a handful survived.
Today, a Giant Buddha marks the spot.