Monday, June 04, 2012

Colombo to Haputale by Rail

There is something special about train travel. Perhaps it is the fact that the passengers are seated high above other traffic, perhaps because trains have priority over road users, possibly the immense power of the engine itself or the graceful shape of the train as it wends its way across the horizon. It is hard to pin down but when riding the train many will feel it.

I had read about the train journey in the observation carriage from Colombo to Badulla, all the travel guides advise visitors to do it. I finally got around to it a couple of months ago and it was well worth the effort.

Prospective travelers have three options; first-class observation car (Rs.750, one way), the air-conditioned Expo carriage (Rs.3,950, return) or the ordinary second-class compartment.

The observation carriage needs to be booked 14 days (not 10 days as advised by some websites) in advance of the journey. Tickets sell out fast so one needs to be there at opening time on the prescribed day. When I tried to book it 10 days ahead it was sold out so we had to take the Expo carriage. Booking the Expo carriage is convenient, it can be booked online or at a travel agent and at anytime. Second class travel is an option for the adventurous and should be fine, provided the journey is kept short, of which, more details below.

I think I was fourteen when I last went on a train, which was a long time ago. Walking into the Fort Railway station, things seem to be worse than I remember: overcrowded trains and a dirty, smelly station. I had opted to go from Colombo to Haputale, a journey of eight hours according to the time-table, looking at the crowded second-class carriages I was glad that we had decided to take the Expo carriage.

The Expo carriage is painted nicely but looks a lot better on the website than in real life. It has clean, airline type seats and is staffed by two helpful stewards who will offer breakfast, lunch, and tea. There is free bottled water, a decent lavatory and air-conditioning. The air-conditioning is not really necessary when travelling in the hills but it is welcome when on the plains. Unfortunately the windows are sealed shut, so it’s not possible to open them to feel the cool upcountry breezes. The windows were not very clean, there were black streaks that seemed to be some kind of waste from the engine but luckily they were not dirty enough to spoil the view.

Although clean, the seats are not very roomy and the overhead compartment is not very big so it is best to travel light. Some of the lids on the overhead lockers don’t have good springs so they have a tendency to close while one is taking things out or putting things in.

The food is like airline food, nothing great but edible. For me food is an important component of any trip and having read reviews which said the food was bad, I took my own sandwiches. The Keells at Crescat has some good whole wheat bread and some nice hams, cheese and other meats that can make a good sandwich. The bread had just come out of the oven when I went at 11am. Being particular about my tea I took a flask of strong home-brewed tea with me, the Expo staff were happy to supply me with cups, milk and sugar.

The train set off on time from the Fort station at 5.55am. The lights in the carriage were a little bright so it was difficult to see out of the windows at first, but as soon as it became light we could see the suburbs slowly waking up beneath us.

Life in rural areas tends to cluster around the road. Shops, houses and businesses congregate thickly near the road and thin out as one moves inwards on the lanes and by lanes that spread out from the main road. When one is on the road, one is a part of the activity on the road. The railway however, is away from the road. It travels on a higher elevation, parallel to or across the road. With its increased elevation, passengers on the train find themselves looking down, like distant observers, while daily life unfolds below them. It’s fascinating, almost voyeuristic at times. Children going to school, people walking to the shops, talking in the street, sweeping their doorsteps, watering their plants, digging their gardens, the suburban townscape can be very interesting.

(Click on the pictures for the high resolution image)

As the train starts move away from the suburbs the scenery changes. My childhood memories of the first part of the journey to Kandy were of paddy fields with farmers working the fields with buffaloes. There were far fewer fields and no buffaloes but the scenery was still pleasant and once the train starts to climb there are good views of the hills, especially past Kadugannawa.

From Peradeniya onwards the climb gets steeper and the views, progressively better. Once past Hatton the views are superb and past Nanu Oya, especially when approaching Ohiya, quite spectacular.

The approach to Ohiya skirts the Horton Plains reserve and the colours of the natural forest and vegetation are stunning: trees in deep greens, reds and orange, the grass in light green and yellow. Bella Sidney Woolf, in her book How to see Ceylon bemoaned the encroachment of tea estates on the natural vegetation. I never understood what she meant, until now. The tea estates have a beautiful green that looks very pretty but the glory and variety of the forest puts the cultivated estates in the shade.

The only problem with doing the whole journey is the time taken. Moreover the train tends to run late so the journey gets even longer: Colombo to Haputale was scheduled to be eight hours but we were an hour and a half late when we arrived at Haputale. On the way back we were 45 minutes late. According to people in Haputale the train is usually an hour or two late.

Haputale Station

Haputale Station, with the mist rolling down at about 10.45am

The beauty of the scenery means that the journey is a must-do, but for best effect I would suggest that it be done in stages. Since the best of the scenery is towards the end, travelers could do Hatton-Haputale or Nanu Oya-Badulla. For someone with a large budget it is possible to take the seaplane to the Castlereagh reservoir, which is a couple of kilometres from the Hatton town and then take the train from Hatton. Someone intending to do the journey from Nanu Oya could take the seaplane to Nuwara Eliya and then take a taxi to Nanu Oya. Alternatively, people can drive to either Hatton or Nanu Oya and take the train from there. On a shorter journey (three to four hours) a less comfortable carriage would not matter so much, so either the Observation carriage for even second-class should be fine with the added advantage that the windows can be opened, so it is possible to enjoy the fresh, clean air.

The Colombo-Peredeniya leg, not to be sneered at, could be done separately. The next time you need to go to Kandy, just take the train and enjoy the scenery.

Tips on the Expo Carriage

Not all seats on the Expo carriage have equally good views. Fortunately, provided the train is not crowded the stewards do allow one to switch seats. The best views are mostly on the right hand side of the carriage, so pick a seat on the right but keep a sharp lookout for good scenery on the left.

Rows 4,6,and 9 are good.
Row 7 is about medium.
Row 1 has smaller window, a messy tray table and limited legroom.

The worst seats are rows 3 and 5, only half a window to look through.

Exporail Website

General Tips

Take some sandwiches and water, especially if travelling on the observation carriage or 2nd class.

Do the journey in short legs.
Take a book to read while waiting for the train, it may be late
Journey’s of three to four hours are:

Peredeniya Junction to Hatton
Hatton to Nanu Oya
Nanu – Oya to Haputale or Ella.
Haputale to Badulla

For timetables and further info, have a look here.


Vindi said...

Thank you for this review! I've taken the train up to Nuwara-Eliya a couple times and thanks to ticket booking confusion (10 day vs. 14 day as you mentioned), very reluctantly settled for perching on the buffet car tables all the way, despite being in possession of (oversold) second class tickets.

It was a spectacular journey regardless- so was thinking of doing Badulla next. Lovely photos and thanks again for a very useful post.

Jack Point said...

Glad you liked it.

By the way, has your blog gone private?

bingo said...

awwwwwwwwwww!!!!! awesome pics...Is that the bungalow you stayed?the view is really nice....more info plzzzzz on the bungalow...

We have taken the observation carriage from colombo to Nanuoya but that was 7 years back...I hardly remember anything at all...
guess it's time for another trainy adventure ;)

Ankie Renique said...

Nice post! We did Colombo Fort to Hatton by second class carriage on the way to Tea Trails and first class observation on the way back. My tip: the second class seats were better then the first class ones (which were filthy!) and the windows opened fully thus giving you better views and a lovely breeze.

Jack Point said...

Bingo, thanks. The bungalow is Adisham, yes the journey is worth doing again.

Thanks, Ankie. Will keep that in mind for next time. I want to do the Haputale-Badulla leg some time.