Recent changes in Sri Lankan Train Travel

By Dr Kavan Ratnatunga

Train travel in Sri Lanka is changing and since many still do not use the train service regularly, I thought it is worth a review.

The Sri Lanka Government Railways (SLGR) has recently imported new 1st and 2nd class carriages from China and have started introducing them on the long distance just in the last few months. Some Private companies are offering 1st class travel in specially renovated carriages.

After returning to Lanka, my first long distance Train experience was an overnight 1st Class Sleeper from Colombo to Trincomallee a few years ago. The old 1st class sleeper may have had the old world charm, but appeared to have lacked maintenance for decades. Each compartment had pair of Bunk beds and shared a common toilet with the next compartment. The toilet was an uncleaned commode over a hole in the floor.

Reluctant to try something like that again I switched to Luxury Buses which are available on some long distance routes. However, all these buses travel overnight and you see nothing during the trip. Also the few rest stops are clearly far from luxury, and loud music that is often played to keep the driver awake, ensures you don't get any sleep as well.

Wanting to take a more scenic trip to the hill country we booked online at That booking process was smooth. Two issues however was that it was not possible to know which side faced south and have the better scenic view. Apparently the carriage can be linked in both directions to the train and that is beyond the control of Exporail. The other is that Exporail has two different Models of carriages that travel from Colombo to Badulla and return the next day. One of them is a lot nicer since you can walk out to an open deck which is particularly useful if you want to take photographs on the way. In the other you are trapped inside a carriage in which the windows don't open and becomes hot like an oven if the generator fails and there is no AC. At the time of reservation the website does not say on which model you are booking. Unfortunately we got the closed carriage although was lucky to pick the side with the view.

The e-ticket needs to be exchanged for a ticket issued by the Railways. The security of that exchange is based only on reservation number, so I recommend you pickup your ticket before the travel date. The Exporail website said that the train stopped at Maradana, on the way out, but the SLGR informed me that it does not. We would have missed the train If we had gone to Maradana without checking.

Paint peeling off exterior of Exporail Carriage Inside of Exporai Carriage
Paint peeling off exterior of Exporail Carriage Inside of Exporai Carriage
The Exporail carriage has been built by renovating probably an old 3rd class railway carriage. The peeling paint on the outside made that apparent as we got in. The inside was done nicely. The individual seats were comfortable with sufficient leg room. There were small Video monitors on the walls at both ends and from the roof in middle. I am curious why 3 of the 6 monitors faced opposite to all the seats. Maybe the original plan was to have half the seats facing the other way, which would have been nice specially if you preferred to face forward when travelling.

Problems arose as we started rolling. The suspension was still 3rd Class. The noise was so great that the sound track of the video was clear only when the train stopped at Stations. The standard seat pocket behind the seat in front was missing. There wasn't any place for any water bottle, reading material or trash. The cup holder did not match the beverage they provided.

On the positive side the toilets were very clean. The meals and beverage provided at no additional cost was good, but was it worth, about 100% surcharge on a regular 1st Class train fair.

Inside of SLGR First Class Carriage
Inside of SLGR First Class Carriage
For comparison We returned in a new SLGR Air conditioned 1st Class carriage. The new carriage had Air suspension and the ride was very smooth and noise kept to an minimum. The individual seats were comfortable.

However on the negative side there was no meals available from SLGR. One had to depend on street vendors they let in when the train stopped at major stations. It was food which did not meet the minimum standard of what could be expected in 1st class travel.

The SLGR toilets were also wet and smelly. Since it was single user toilets, rather than Ladies and Gents the two toilets were labeled squat and commode, which is probably a good development. They use a dry air suction system like in Airlines.

Second Class has no air conditioning and can be reserved or not reserved. The SLGR reservation system in these intercity trains sells only for complete Journey. So if you need to travel from Ohiya to Kandy you pay Rs600 for the full journey the seat is reserved for you from Badulla to Colombo. An unreserved second class costs just Rs200 from Ohiya to Kandy. Third Class Seats can also be reserved on these intercity trains on the same basis. They cost half of a second class Ticket. First class cost Double the second class Ticket. The new carriages still have good suspension.

If Exporail rents new SLGR 1st class Air Conditioned carriages and provides a good meal and keeps the toilets clean, we will have the best of both options and it will be worth paying double of the regular first Class fare. I don't understand why they don't do that.

However the biggest problem is that long distance Trains don't keep time. When the train travels beyond the Dual carriage way to a region with only a single track. Any train delay results in delay of all the trains on that line as the train has to stop and wait at the station for the train on the single track to arrive, The 9:40 hours schedule by Train from Colombo to Badulla is already much more than the 8:10 hours by Bus ( The additional more than 1.5 hour train delay, which I am told is common makes the train journey as long as an international flight.

Talking about timetables SLGR no longer prints train timetable. In 2009 with the help of ICTA the time table was put online at However according to local Station Master there are frequent updates to the schedule which take a long time to be reflected in the online edition. When I phoned the SLGR I was told that they send the changes but it is the SLGR IT department which needs to do the updates. ICTA said they are developing a new system. I hope it will take feedback from users to ensure it is of practical use.

Finally I wish to say something very positive on SLGR. At the Ohiya railway station when I got down, I left my backpack on a rack in the train by accident. When I realised the train was pulling out of the station. I could not be traced before the train reached the next station, but after a few calls to security in Colombo, it was finally found at Nawalapitya. I requested that it be returned to Ohiya. The contents had been inventoried in detail and I got it the next day and nothing was lost. I am so Thankful.

So as Transport in Lanka is being developed for increased Tourist demand I hope that my feedback will help improve the system

An edited version of this article Steaming ahead or still chugging along ? By Kavan Ratnatunga appeared in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2013 July 28th.