Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)
KELANI VALLEY RAIL JOURNEY
This tour by quaint passenger train heads through the cluttered suburbs of Colombo to the verdant paddy fields marking the beginning of Sri Lanka’s lush, rural interior.
DISTANCE: 25km (15.5 miles)
TIME: 1.5 hours (or 2.5 hours including return by road)
START: Colombo Fort Railway Station
POINTS TO NOTE: If possible take this route on a Wednesday, which is market day in Homagama.
Train travel arrived in what was then Ceylon with the opening of a single broad-gauge line to Kandy in 1867. With the transportation of the country’s new crop, tea, from the hill country to Colombo’s port, the rail prospered, resulting in a network covering the whole country. A single-track, narrow-gauge line was laid from Colombo through the Kelani Valley via Homagama to Avissawella in 1902.
In 1991, still served by a diminutive steam locomotive built in 1924, the line underwent improvements. A broad-gauge line was created, and the steam engine and its wooden carriages were scrapped. Diesel-hauled carriages now run on the Kelani Valley (KV) Line, ferrying commuters to and from Colombo. This is a wonderful, unusual tour for rail buffs and tourists who want to encounter ordinary Sri Lankans going about their daily routine.
Inside Fort Railway Station
FORT RAILWAY STATION
Ticket kiosk number 14 at Fort railway station 1 [map] opens at 8am, 30 minutes before the departure of Train Number 9254 for Avissawella, although note that timetables are subject to change. Try to catch a morning train if possible; the latest timetables are posted at www.railway.gov.lk , although you may wish to double check in person the day before travel (or get your hotel reception to ring up and check for you on 011-243 4215). The kiosk is at the northern end of the station forecourt, on the right as you approach the station from the main road.
Fort station is the starting point for all intercity trains from Colombo. It has an old-fashioned ambience, with a wooden awning stretching its length. Hanging outside the stationmaster’s office on platform 3 are antique wooden frames containing views of the railway from bygone days.
After buying your ticket, enter the station on platform 3 where, in the morning, the Udarata Menike is parked ready to leave for Kandy and the hill country. This is likely to be the train that the handful of tourists gathered at the station are catching.
Cross over the footbridge at the northern end of the platform to the island platform 10/11. In the yard outside a brightly painted steam locomotive is on display. The train leaves from one side of this platform - usually a few minutes late, once freight has been loaded into the guard’s van.
A railway ticket
Since only locals usually use this train, the signs painted on the interior of the carriage are in Sinhala. One requests ‘no smoking’, but travellers ignore it. The windows and doors are left open for the breeze to blow in, and are only closed when it is raining.
As the train sets off, look through a window on the right, as you face the engine, to see another steam engine stabled in lonely splendour in a building in the railway marshalling yard. On the other side of the tracks, abandoned rolling stock peeps from vegetation while a small shunting engine putters around like a ghost from the past.
The train jerks into Maradana station , which has kept its original colonial ambience and railway furniture. Drivers and guards exchange gossip while more freight is loaded. As there is no lavatory on the train, the station toilet here is your last chance until the destination. The driver sounds a horn to signal departure, and the train runs along the outermost of several lines until it veers off to the right on the single line that runs down a narrow funnel formed by two side walls overhung by trees.
ROYAL COLOMBO GOLF CLUB
You’re now passing through Colombo’s crowded suburbs, where the rear doors and windows of ramshackle terraced houses open onto the line.
More passengers get on at the suburban stations of Baseline Road and Cotta Road . Then the train suddenly breaks free of the shacks hemming in the line and emerges into a patch of bright, well-kept lawns and flower-filled ponds: the Royal Colombo Golf Club . Play stops as the train ambles across the fairways and golfers watch it with bemusement.
Going round the bend
At the next station, Narahenpita , more passengers get on, only to leave the train at busy Nugegoda 2 [map] , the Colombo suburb where many private hospitals are located. In this more prosperous area, vegetation lines the track instead of shacks.
The wheels begin to sing shrilly as the train speeds up and follows tight curves to enter open country. Plantain, mango, breadfruit and coconut palm trees begin to crowd in on the line, while beyond them bright-green paddy fields glisten in the distance.
The air seems hill-country fresh as the train pulls into Homagama 3 [map] , a busy village marking the entrance to Sri Lanka’s rural interior. As you alight, the stationmaster hands the driver the token that means the line is clear to continue. Surrender your ticket at the gate and turn right to walk up to the main road where tuk-tuks are parked.
You can hire one of these for the ride along the High Level Road back to Colombo. Before you set out, stop for much-needed refreshment at the Bonn Bonn Guesthouse , see 1 [map] , about 200m/yds along the High Level Road behind Homagama Police Station.
Alternatively, you could stay on the train all the way to Avissawella 4 [map] , 35km (22 miles) further inland.
Food and drink
1 BONN BONN GUESTHOUSE
Homagama [map] ; tel: 011-722 0102; restaurant daily 6am-11pm, bar daily 10am-11pm; 20 AC rooms; $
Hidden down a lane beside the Homagama Police Station, this modern guesthouse has a veranda for low-priced snacks, like devilled chicken, and drinks, with a view of its sparkling swimming pool and surrounding woodland.