Riding the Colombo Rails
A slow train to Slave Island Station
It’s a slow Sunday afternoon in Colombo, and I’m wandering through side streets and back alleys, enjoying the different styles of life visible over walls and around corners. Then I hear it, the “hoot” of a train horn, and off I am, in a mad dash to the train station.
That “hoot” signals the arrival of a train, a local commuter train and I am gonna jump on for a ride. See, as much as I fly, I really don’t like traveling that way. What, with the dry air, cramped space, and checked baggage intrigue, airplanes have none of my love.
Trains, though, have a sweet spot in my heart. Slow enough that you can adjust to time zones, fast enough that you know you’re going somewhere, and with the stops, a connection to land, people, and changes in both that airlines and airports cannot match.
Pieced together, I’ve taken trains from Edinburgh, Scotland to Hong Kong, China, even the Trans-Siberian, and the sound of that “hoot” called me to make another train ride.
This time, unlike when I missed my train in China, the station master didn’t mind tossing a ticket at me as I rushed through the station, especially when I tossed back 100 rupees for his 3 rupee ticket.
As the train started to roll, I jumped aboard and looked around. This wasn’t main train, not even a Thai train, this was more like a Russian elektrichka, a local commuter train.
Creaking along on this slow Sunday, I stood at one of the many open doors and watched the beach roll by. Yes, the beach. The British, in their logistical wisdom, put the train tracks right along the beach. While it might be flat ground perfect for a train, it didn’t do much for the beach, though the train line was far from deserted.
Seaward, on the rocks just beneath the train, were many young couples snuggled close to watch the waves and whisper sweet nothings to each other. On the tracks, parting just before the train passed, were others, out for an afternoon stroll. More still were living in shanties built on the seaward side of the train stations, impromptu cafes and rest stops for those commuting on the rails this day.
When we arrived at the Fort Railway Station, after we passed the oddly titles Slave Island Station, I took my cue from the other passengers and left the calm train for the ruckus of the station. There, as I made to exit, I saw the interesting way in which tickets are checked. You present your ticket as you leave the station, as apparently there are no ticket-checking conductors on the trains themselves.
Leaving that relative calm, once outside the station Colombo came alive again, a cornucopia of sounds, smells, and movement, my slow Sunday erased with a fateful footfall.