Following the tragic events in Sri Lanka recently, I pondered whether I would complete the intended final post of the series I had in mind. I have concluded that I would primarily because the experience that I had of Sri Lanka and its people was so friendly and felt so safe. So this post is my small bit of illustrating that Sri Lanka is not the country that was illustrated by the acts of a few deranged members of the population.
One of the joys of Sri Lanka’s railways is the retention of widespread railway relics from times past – in particular the signalling. Whilst there are modernised sections, substantial sections are still firmly in the first half of last century with full semaphore signals, tablets and block sections. Although a few arms have been removed, the bulk of the installations are still in situ and largely in use; so it is a bit of a cornucopia of signalling. Here are a few of the signals that I saw:
The signalling that I saw was all Saxby and Farmer – I only saw a couple of the lines in the country so it may be that there are other suppliers in evidence. The ground signals were quite similar to the McKenzie & Holland equivalents and tended to come in batches – looking like sentinels from an episode of Dr Who!
I thought the signal boxes looked decidedly home counties, although the rather shocking salmon pink wouldn’t have been found in Hertfordshire or Surrey I hazard!
With the exception of the signalman’s attire, the inside of the signal box was instantly recognisable to any UK railwayman of the last century of a half (well perhaps any UK railwayman of the last 40 years would be surprised to see so few white levers………).
This is the inside of Kandy’s signal box. Kandy is largely a terminus with the line from the Highlands and Columbo meeting here, along with a branch. With five platform faces and only moderate amounts of sidings, it struck me as a perfect modelling track plan if anyone wants to have a go! Here is the view from the steps of the box, along with the signalling diagram.
The approach to Kandy was in the process of being doubled when I visited, so I suspect that it will be resignalled with colour lights when this is done – so you had best get there soon if you want to see it like this………….
With plenty of justification, the most well known line in Sri Lanka is up into the hill country – from Kandy to either Elle or Badulla. The line was constructed during the colonial era to reach what was then Sri Lanka’s most important economic asset, tea. The hill country being famous for tea plantations – and there really are a lot of them! The views below genuinely representative of long stretches of the line.
The line twists and winds through the hills often crossing from one side of the hill side to the other through a large number of tunnels. At one portion, the line really was travelling along the top of a mountain ridge with steep slopes falling away to both sides.
Sometimes tea pickets were visible and so too were tea factories, such as these ones.
There was a fairly significant amount of traffic on the line; we crossed or overtook around seven trains. Some were headed by relatively modern sets such as the class S12 multiple unit set built in China that is in the video at the base of the post but there were also much older diesel units such as this class M5 dating from 1979 (and far from the oldest loco’s on the island!).
Besides the stunning scenery, probably the biggest thrill is the rather old fashioned (to a westerner anyway) attitude to riding on the trains. Getting the best view of the line by literally hanging on like this was quite normal and I did it for hours. Doing that in the UK would quite quickly get me a visit from the British Transport Police and a potentially a bit of a write up in the local paper!
Obviously, being in south asia, rules are largely there for breaking such as not bothering with the footbridge (or indeed road home). This lot were getting the station staff quite agitated, the reason being a train was already visible in the near distance!
Sri Lankan railway staff are clearly very proud of their railway; the fella below was not unrepresentative of the station masters that lined every station – very dapper!
The hill country is relatively cool (being why the colonials decamped there in the summer months) but the line drops significantly by the time it reaches Kandy. So much so, tea plantations give way to paddy fields and farm land – all still very lush, Sri Lanka being an island is notably more green than, say, nearby India.
The train journey is hardly fast = my journey (from Elle to Kandy, so not quite the end of the line) took seven and a half hours which is about twice the duration of the equivalent bus journey. But then, I would not have experienced one of the best train rides I have even had and all that for a heady £1.40 – plus I could have halved the cost if I had gone third class!
The modern DMUs are not nearly as exciting as the proper diesels (which do still appear on some trains, notably the overnight sleeper) and I wonder what it was like in the steam era?
My working life involves visiting a fair amount of buildings across the UK. Typically these are fairly ordinary office blocks or distribution centres but sometimes something a bit more exotic comes along. I have just returned from the most exotic inspection that my career has yet presented – Colombo in Sri Lanka.
And obviously, if I am going to go to such a distant destination, it would be rude not to explore the country’s railways; especially as I was well aware that Sri Lanka’s railways are fabulous………….
Sri Lanka is not a small country; it has an area a touch less than Ireland’s but a population of nearly 22 million. Colombo is the largest city on the island by a margin but the remainder of the population is rather more dispersed than most countries; which means communications around the island are of some important. The bulk of the railways are centred on Colombo and originate from Colombo Fort; not perhaps as exotic as many Indian sub-continent’s stations but it was definitely a very bustling place!
As befits the principal station, most of the country’s locomotives and multiple unit sets can be seen at Colombo Fort. These have been accumulated from a variety of sources; these originate from 1968 (but have been rebuilt) from Henschel and is a diesel hydraulic.
These are much more recent, being built in 2000 by Alstom.
More short distance services were generally formed of multiple units, such as these Hyundai units from 1991.
And these class S10 from CSR in China.
My first journey was down the coast to Galle and then Matara. Portions of the trip were absolutely next to the Indian Ocean and one of the thrills of trains on the sub-continent for us in the the safety cossetted west is that there are a rather wider number of places to take in the view…………..
The rest of the journey is a short distance in from the coast through the jungle and fields.
Galle is a terminus station and as most of the trains proceed onwards, they have to tun around and reverse their direction; in this case behind a class M10 which are relatively recent being built in 2012 by the Diesel Locomotive Works in the USA.
There are local services (although the expresses stopped at the majority of the services, so the concept is relative!), here one is being prepared by a class Y shunter from Hunslet in the UK and then in the bay behind a class M7.
The present end of the line is at Matara, but the Sri Lankan government are in the process of extending the line a further 70km to Hambantota – maybe I’ll have to come back!
And to conclude this post, here are a couple of videos from this part of the trip. The first is of the train departing Aluthgama:
And the second one is the departure of the same train from Galle:
…………and the best bit of the journey was still to come……….