A ride on the Sri Lankan coastal railway, which hugs the teardrop island’s seaside from the southern surf beach area of Matara to Colombo Fort on the west coast, is magical. It’s a perfect stress-free alternative to the breakneck coast roads.
Whether embarking on a long journey, or simply hopping between beaches, you will love rolling over sleepy road crossings, past all the colour and detail of daily Sri Lankan life.
Although the line has been recently upgraded and maximum speeds are reputedly up to 62km/h, ‘chugging along’ more accurately describes the experience. With carriage doors open to the elements, and breezy windows looking out across green paddy fields and swaying palms fringing countless rural villages, the pace is slow and wholly seductive.
The price of a ticket from one of the remoter, yet fast becoming popular, south coast beaches to Galle, is under a £/US$. The all-stations service is regular (about once an hour) and efficient. Stopping off at lush train platforms, with arrivals and departure controlled by enthusiastic whistle-blowing and flag-waving station masters and train guards, there is a ‘toy train’ feeling about the whole affair.
Local passengers rely on the line as a commuter service, as well as an important link between families and friends. Enhanced by the post tsunami (2004) re-developments, which saw a complete reconstruction between Kalutara and Matara (2011/12), the eastern south coast section offers an even smoother and more efficient service. For example, the original 3.45 hour journey between Colombo and Matara has been cut to only two hours.
I highly recommend embarking on a train journey, even if just as a shuttle between beaches. The happy-go-lucky atmosphere, with the kaleidoscope of Sri Lankan life both on and from the train, will win you over. Saffron-robed monks, Islamic clergy and colourful Hindu families all enjoying the chance to relax, catch some Zs or watch the world go by. It is in marvellous contrast to the alternative, near-death Whacky Races road experience.