Monday, October 29, 2012

To Galle, by train

I am a regular visitor to Galle during the Literary Festival but never visit otherwise. I have been meaning to explore the town further so accepted an invitation from a friend living in Galle to spend a few days with him.

I was too lazy to drive and thought it would be a change to take the train instead. It is a fairly short journey and the ride could be fun.

The greatest difficulty with the train is obtaining proper information. Seat61 is one of the best sources of information. If you want to cross check anything try the  Government information service number 0112-191919. They are helpful but their information is sometimes a bit dodgy (when I went to Haputale they told me that advance bookings for the observation carriage were possible 10 days ahead, but it turned out that they were open 14 days ahead and tickets were sold out when I went to book). You could also try calling the CGR directly ( I got the numbers from the Government Information Service and did that, just to make sure). Anyway by a process of triangulation, it is possible to get a fair idea.

I wanted to take the morning train (at 6.50am) but my brother warned me that I should get to the station by around 6am, because the queues may be long. It was a good thing that I did because the queues were long and I stood in the wrong one.

There are two sets of ticket counters, one right at the centre of the station which only issues warrants. Warrants are free passes available to Government Servants. They do not sell tickets to the public. As these are the most prominent counters and no others are visible from that place (there should be an arrow pointing to the other counters at least), it is possible to waste time standing in the wrong queue.

Lesson No.1: avoid the set of counters that says "warrants only". After reaching the head of the queue I was informed that I should move to another set of counters that were on the other side.

The queue there was even longer and one needs to be quite firm to maintain ones place. The concept of personal space does not exist so don't stand too far back from the person in front, people will just step in front of you; naturally this also means plenty of poking and shoving from behind.

Once I had got my tickets I went over to the platform. The train pulled up on time and there seemed to be a lot of people in it. I though people would get off, but no one did.

Lesson No.2 - get on the train at the starting point (in this case, Maradana) if you want a seat. 

 I scrambled into carriage that looked less crowded, but there were no seats. I looked across at the other carriages, they seemed worse so I decided to stay put. I was comforted by the fact that there seemed to be little heavy baggage; I guessed most people were on short journeys and once someone got off at Panadura or Kalutara I would get a seat.

Imagine therefore my growing horror as more people boarded at Dehiwala, still more at Mount Lavinia and even more at Moratuwa.  After we past Kalutara with no one getting off I had given up any hope of getting a seat. In a compartment with 28 seats I counted 20 people standing in the aisle or perched on the arm rests of seats. There were several families with small children and babes in arms. There seemed to be an unspoken arrangement whereby children who were in the aisles were slowly herded with families who had seats, the children sharing seats, sitting on armrests or standing in between the rows of seats.

Into this overcrowded carriage followed a procession on vendors setting vadai, soft drinks and snacks, not to mention numerous beggars. 
Mercifully, the morning was cool, there were fresh sea breezes blowing through the windows but as the windows are set fairly low, for standing passengers, no view. After a while I stopped worrying about the nuisances.  People started getting off in stages from Ambalangoda onwards and my mood lightened considerably. The train was quick and ran on time, arriving at Galle at around 9.40am. Overall it was a tolerable journey but not fun. Had I got a seat I would have quite enjoyed it, but deprived of a view there was nothing positive to focus on.

The cost of the ticket was cheap Rs.180 for 2nd class, it would be acceptable value for a single person or a gang of youngsters but not recommended for families.

On the return journey I took the Expressway bus (a bus every 15 minutes) , it cost Rs.470 to Maharagama but I got a seat. The bus was comfortable and fast. I took an ordinary bus from Maharagama to get to Colombo, which was not crowded and cost only Rs.27. The total journey took me 2 hours including the ride on the 138 to Colombo. The bus was by far the better option of the two modes of transport.

Apart from the hassle of getting there and the somewhat damp weather I had a good holiday in Galle, one of the highlights of which was the discovery of a very nice restaurant called "Refresh" in Hikkaduwa-excellent ambiance, a great place for a drink on the beach, watching the sunset.



sbarrkum said...

You could have paid (surreptitiously) and asked him to get you a seat. Train is nice specially if you get a seaside window or a 4 to 5 people crowd.
That said Expressway bus is better specially when doing the trip alone as its faster and get a seat

Another place at Hikkaduwa is Sunset Coffee Bar right in front of Red Lobster. As the reviews say reasonable booze (beer) and food and right on the water.

Jack Point said...


who could I have paid to get a seat?

Yes, the train would have been nice, which is why I wanted to use it, but the overcrowding was the problem.

Will keep the Sunset Coffee Bar in mind, for the next time.

Anonymous said...

Jack Point, I like to read this kind of blog notes. I can vividly recall the journey from Maradaana or Kotuva (Fort) to Badulla in Udarata Manike when we were small kids. It was a long but a memorable journey. Our parents were government servants and they got annual warrants. I like to travel by train because it is less tiring. I agree that Sri Lankan trains are too crowded (but are still better compared to Indian ones I guess). When I was working in Colombo, I used to go to work from Panadura to Bambalapitiya by train which was not too bad.

sbarrkum said...

Oops didnt check.
One of the station attendants in brown uniform.
Another tip if you travel by regular bus, carry a backpack (or whatever) make it look big (if necessary stuff paper) and buy two tickets. One for you and one for the bag.
You need to be thick skinned because all will ask you for the seat. Just remember that tourists are most often asked to buy two tickets. On the other hand you can always offer the seat to a nice looking woman (I have almost never got that opportunity).

Cant recall where I saw the comment, a country is developed when the well off travel by public transport.

Anyway cheers and happy public transport traveling.

Jack Point said...

Anon, yes I agree with you. I recently did much the same run, just check my earlier travel posts for a review. It was a good trip :)

Ha ha good tactic. I'm afraid with my luck I may have as much success as you.

The comment on a country's wealth being measured by the fact that its rich travel by public transport is something that resonates strongly with me.

I make it a point to travel by public transport when overseas, even on the slightly more difficult airport to hotel leg.

However walking from the bus/train stop to the hotel can be a bit tiring when carrying bags. Its amazing how a gentle 15 minute stroll becomes a hassle when carrying a 7-10kg piece of luggage, especially if one is not certain of the directions and one is worried about taking a wrong turn or two.

Using public transport overseas was something of a point of honour between myself and a couple of cheapskate friends, have not been abroad in a couple of years, lets see if I can keep my commitment on my next trip!

At home, on weekends I am an occasional user of public transport, for office its a pain, although I try to use it if the car is in the garage.

I am also trying to do more walking on weekends.

shammi said...

Pity you weren't aware of some things that we regular train travelers usually know, like the south bound trains starting from Maradana and not the Fort station, and the deplorable lack of proprer directions/signs at the ticket counters (They sometimes have a handwritten sign on the counter,not visible from where you're standing in the queue, which is different to the one hanging above).
My sister and her husband went to Hikkaduwa over the weekend,in the Vavuniya/Matara train. We took them to a station before Maradana, so that they would be INSIDE the train when many people got off the train at Maradana and wouldn't have to deal with the crush in Maradana.
But they got seats in second class, right from the station where they started, probably because it was a Sunday, when there'd be more people coming in to Colombo, than going out.
They're returning tomorrow,and we've advised them to take a cab rather than dealing with the intricacies of local train travel, without our expert advice.

Jack Point said...

The train is a cheap way to travel but not having a seat and overcrowding are a real pain.

Maybe I will try it again, but this time from Maradana.