Traveling by train in Sri Lanka is on the bucket list of many travelers who’ve got this beautiful island on their vacation list. Sri Lanka is a safe, friendly and hassle-free holiday destination. By opting for train journeys, you can get your hands on real-life cultural experiences and gorgeous scenic routes; especially on the globally renowned Kandy to Ella tea country train ride and the coastal ride from Colombo to Galle.
So what are Sri Lankan trains like?
The railway network is very strong, making trains a great way to get across the island. Sri Lankan trains are very different to what you would see in other Asian countries, and this is what makes train traveling an adventure in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan trains only have first-class compartments that are equipped with air conditioning and reserved seating while the other carriages have open windows and free seating. If you want the authentic local experience, travel in free seating carriages, converse with locals, hang around on the open doorway and take in the breathtaking views.
This brief guide to exploring Sri Lanka by train will include:
- Key routes
- Train classes
- How to learn about train schedules
- How to purchase train tickets
- How to find your train
- Luggage and food
- Other tips
- East From Colombo: Colombo – Kandy – Hatton – Nanu Oya (Nuwara Eliya) – Elle – Badulla
This is a very scenic route running across tea plantations and the best of Sri Lanka’s hill country. The portion from Haputale to Ella is supposed to be amongst the world’s most scenic train journeys.
- South From Colombo: Colombo – Aluthgama – Hikkaduwa – Galle – Matara
Also a scenic delight; recently renovated route.
- Northeast from Colombo: Colombo – Galoya – Polonnaruwa, Batticaloa, Trincomalee
- North from Colombo: Colombo – Anuradhapura – Talaimannar/Vavuniya – Jaffna
- Colombo commuter: Negombo, Mount Lavinia, Kalutara, Puttalam, Avissawella
Sri Lankan Trains have 3 classes:
- 1st class seats: can be coaches, sleeping berths or observation saloons with large windows (most often used on the scenic lines). Reservations possible but since limited seats, you have to reserve well in advance.
- 2nd class seats: include seat padding and fans. Some trains allow for reservation of these seats.
- 3rd class seats: do not have much seat padding and cannot be reserved in advance. Each train car will accommodate as many that can be squeezed in there.
How to learn about train schedules
The official Sri Lankan railway website is www.railway.gov.lk, and this is where you can check train times between any two stations.
There are also several mobile applications that you can install on your phone to check train schedules in Sri Lanka. These apps are very user-friendly, giving you a list of all trains with timings that can take you to your destination. Some apps also have an in-built location tracker which gives you upcoming train notifications when you are near a railway station. It is a good idea though to cross-check train schedule information from 2-3 sources just to make sure the real-time, up-to-date information is available.
|Colombo ► Kandy ► Nuwara Eliya, Haputale, Elle, Badulla|
|km||Days of running:||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Sat,Sun||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Fri, Sun||Daily||Daily|
|Reserved seat classes:||O||1,2,3||O,2,3||1,2,3||O||O||1||–||O||1||–||Sleeper|
|Unreserved seat classes:||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||–||2,3||2,3|
|0||Colombo Fort depart:||–||05:55||07:00||08:30||09:00||09:45||10:35||12:40||15:35||17:20||17:45||20:00|
|173||Hatton (for adam’s peak)||07:07||11:14||–||13:28||–||14:30||–||19:51||–||–||–||01:30|
|207||Nanuoya (for Nuwara Eliya)||09:30||12:45||–||15:01||–||15:55||–||–||–||–||–||03:11|
|Badulla, Elle, Haputale, Nuwara Eliya ► Kandy ► Colombo|
|Days of running:||Daily||Sat,Mon||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Sat, Sun||Daily||Daily|
|Reserved seat classes:||–||1||O,2,3||–||–||–||–||1,2,3||O,2,3||1||1,2,3||O||O,2||O||Sleeper|
|Unreserved seat classes:||2,3||–||2,3||2,3||3||2,3||3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3|
|Nanuoya (For Nuwara Eliya)||–||–||–||–||–||05:30||–||09:25||–||–||12:02||13:50||–||17:30||22:17|
|Hatton (For adam’s peak)||–||–||–||–||05:10||07:10||08:45||10:39||–||–||13:20||15:12||–||19:15||23:43|
|Colombo fort arrive||08:23||08:42||08:52||09:45||–||14:03||–||15:27||17:36||18:50||18:57||20:53||19:30||–||05:17|
|Colombo ► Galle ► Matara|
|KM||Days of Running||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Daily||Mon – Fri||Sat – Sun||Mon – Fri||Mon – Fri||Sat – Sun||Daily|
|Reserved seat classes||1||–||–||–||–||–||–||–||–||–|
|Unreserved seat classes||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3||2,3|
|0||Colombo Maradana Depart||06:30||08:17||–||14:15||15:40||16:40||17:20||17:20||17:50||17:50||18:45|
|2||Colombo fort depart||06:55||08:35||10:30||14:25||15:50||16:46||17:25||17:30||18:05||17:55||19:30|
|14||Mount Lavinia depart||07:13||08:50||10:45||14:40||||||||||||||||||||||
How to purchase Train Tickets in Sri Lanka
Reserved Train Cars
Not all trains have a first-class carriage for reserved seats. But most of the prominent long-distance trains have designated 2nd class carriages as reserved seats and also sometimes (though rare) a third-class carriage with reserved seats, in addition to a few unreserved carriages. All reserved class seats often get sold out as soon as the bookings open. So it is a good idea to book tickets well in advance, probably before you even get to Sri Lanka.
These are some ways that tickets can be reserved:
- Since you will be planning your holiday in Sri Lanka from your home country, Blue Lanka Tours offers exclusive services of reserving your train tickets in advance via online booking facilties. Once you have confirmed a travel itinerary with us, we will make the relevant train bookings. You can call the hotline +94 777 300852 or use the contact us form here to book train tickets in Sri Lanka.
- By Telephone:
- Mobitel or Hutch network holders should dial 365. For more details, visit www.mobitel.lk/train-tickets
- Dialog network holders should dial 444. For more details, visit www.dialog.lk/mobile-vas-dial-444-purchase-train-tickets
After completing mobile ticketing, you will receive a text message or email confirmation which has to be converted into a valid rail ticket at any one of the above-listed railway stations or at any Mobitel or Dialog service branch. The same identification used for reserving the ticket should be produced at the counter to collect the ticket.
- Reserve in person: by visiting any one of these stations, up to 30 days before the date of travel:
Aluthgama, Anuradhapura, Badulla, Bandarawela, Batticaloa, China Bay, Colombo Fort, Diyathalawa, Ella, Galle, Gal Oya, Gampaha, Haputale, Hatton, Hikkaduwa, Hingurakgoda, Jaffna, Kalutara South, Kandy, Kantale, Kilinochchi, Kurunegala, Matara, Nanu Oya, Nawalapitiya, Pallai, Peradeniya, Polgahawela, Polonnaruwa, Thabalagamuwa, Trincomalee, Valaichchenai, Vavuniya, Welikanda, Wellawatte.
If the reserved seating is unavailable, 2nd or 3rd class tickets can easily be purchased on the date of travel. The opening hours for these reservation counters are from 6.00 am to 2.00 pm but sometimes remain open until 5.00pm. The lunch break is from 12.30-1.00 pm.
Unreserved Train Cars
Tickets for unreserved cars are only sold at the ticket office, sometimes only one hour before the actual departure time. If you are told a train is full, they are only referring to the compartment of the reserved car. Keep in mind that tickets for unreserved cars do not sell out, so you can purchase these on the day of travel. It goes without saying that these unreserved carriages are often crowded and expecting a seat depends on the location that you will be boarding the train and how busy that particular time of day is. If no seats are available, the open doorway is a good spot for taking in the breeze and great views!
The Colombo Fort Railway station is a good location to start your train journeys. All mainline and commuter trains begin from here. At this station, there are specific ticket windows assigned to specific routes:
- Counter 1 provides tickets for Anuradhapura, Vavuniya, Talaimannar & Jaffna.
- Counter 2 provides tickets for Kandy, Hatton, Nanuoya, Haputale, Elle, Badulla.
- Counter 3 provides tickets for Batticaloa and/or Trincomalee.
- Counter 4 is responsible only for 1st and 2nd class tickets for any destination.
- Counters 13 or 14 provide tickets for Galle & Matara.
The Colombo-Galle-Matara route has all unreserved seats, hence pre-booking is not possible/required. All inter Colombo commuter trains including Puttalam and Avissawella also run on unreserved seats.
Tip to grab your seats: Many trains starting at Colombo and going towards Galle and Matara start from Maradana station before calling over at the main Colombo Fort station. If you board from Maradana, there are high possibilities of getting a good seat on the right-hand side of the train – which will give you the best views of the coastal line.
How to find your Train in Sri Lanka
Railway stations across Sri Lanka don’t have platform departure indicators and neither do the trains themselves show any destination boards. So it is very important that you double and triple check which platform your train leaves from when you come to the station.
At the Colombo Fort Railway Station, there is one electronic board showing departures and arrivals. Be sure not to miss it as it lies directly above your head when going to the main ticketing counters – 7, 8 and 9. This board will tell you which platform you should go to, but it will only show the final destination, not the major stops in between. So for example, you need to know that if you are going to Galle, the Matara train is what you should get on (as Matara is the final stop).
Luggage and Food
If you plan on traveling by train during your tour in Sri Lanka, carry small-sized luggage. In trains, you have to carry your luggage onto the train and place it on overhead racks that lie above your seat. These racks are sized to hold a large backpack or a hefty roll-along. Big suitcases are not advised for traveling on trains but if you do have one anyway, just place it on the floor. No one is really worried about how much weight or what size of luggage you are carrying on trains in Sri Lanka.
Some trains such as the Chinese-built blue trains and most of the overnight trains have a small counter with chips fizzy drinks and tea. None of these will be brought to your seat though. And if you are in the reserved carriage, it is difficult to access this counter because the compartment is sealed. Hence our advice is that it is best to carry your own food and drink. Carrying your own water is also important since Sri Lanka is a hot and humid country. It is possible though to purchase water and tea and other snacks when the train stops for a few minutes at major stations. Local vendors walk through with a basket
of food on top of their heads and look out for those in search of a snack.
- The 1st class air-conditioned cars in Sri Lankan (AFC) are as good as western standard trains. They are equipped with fabric reclining seats, seat-back tables and video screens that are hung from the ceiling but have no sound. The windows though are small and may not offer you the complete viewing experience.
- 2nd class reserved car (SCR) is a better option with comfortable seats, armrests, and drop-down seatback tables. This car is not air-conditioned but there is plenty of breeze wafting in through big open windows.
- If the SCR is full, some trains have a 3rd class reserved car (TCR) as well. So it is better to buy this ticket where you are guaranteed a seat and no standees are allowed. Always go for a TCR than a second class unreserved car.
- When boarding your train, avoid waiting for it at the wrong end of the platform; especially at intermediate stations such as Kandy, Nanu Oya, Ella or Galle. At Colombo Fort station, the AFC and SCR cars are towards the right side just as you walk off the forecourt and onto the platform. But at intermediate stations, the AFC and SCR cars are usually the furthest from the buffer stops.
- To get into the AFC and SCR cars, find the AFC doorway next to the SCR. Train attendants usually lock all other doors so as to control access to reserved cars. The internal gangway doors between these cars and the rest of the train are also usually locked.
- While there is no planned entertainment or activities on the train, take this opportunity to have a chat with the friendly locals who will be glad to tell you more about their country. If you are not quite the chatty type, bring a book or simply enjoy the scenery.
- The best part about train travel in Sri Lanka is that apart from the AFC car, all doors and windows stay open – thereby offering a paradise of photography opportunities in Sri Lanka!