Last week I travelled to Jaffna by train instead of taking a bus. I made the decision as the reported road accidents have been frequent and tragic with many victims of deaths and injury. My last train journey to Jaffna was nearly 50 years ago when I travelled to the school hostel.
I arrived at Fort Station with a prepaid booking on 2nd class on the Utthara Devi Inter City at 11:40 p.m. Fort Station is mirror image of the country – Unkempt, lethargic officials, layers of dirt accumulated since independence. The train was on time and we shunted off amid much pushing and pulling amid travellers and baggage.
Sitting in pre-assigned seats we made ourselves comfortable. No ticket checkers until well into two hours of travel.
Looking out I realised that we were travelling at regular pace and stopping at almost all stations, although it was an Inter-City express.
To my utter amazement the stations had stopped in time of decades gone by or deteriorated. The green wooden slatted benches probably part of the colonial era still remain, unpainted. Unwashed, unkempt platforms and walls.
Stations reminded me of Western movies, basic structures, weather beaten and ancient, one horse stops.
They were the same structures as during my school days. In those times station masters took pride in keeping stations and environs clean and attractive with potted plants.
The journey itself was like riding a bullock cart on cobbled stones, swinging vertically and horizontally. A steady stream of food vendors shouting to sell their wares was an unending din. No canteen facilities in 2nd and 3rd class.
Central Stations Polgahawala, Anuradhapura, Maho were congested with filthy, unkempt platforms, littered tracks. Passengers scrambling into carriages for fear of being left, young and old alike.
From Vavuniya the scene changed dramatically. Newly-constructed stations with flowering potted plants white washed walls and clean paved platforms. Lo and behold stainless steel chairs similar to airport lounge seats.
Clean paved platforms and sparkling sign boards
President Rajapaksa inaugurated the new line from Vavuniya to KKS and instructed State and private banks to foot the bill for new railway stations. I believe they also maintain the stations and environs.
The journey was remarkably smooth too as the tracks were newly laid.
Travelled back to Colombo in air conditioned carriage. Journey was similar but in cooler conditions.
The most uneasy and unpleasant part of the return journey was, once dark we could not recognise stations and our whereabouts. Stations were badly or hardly lit. All sign boards of names of stations were not illuminated, and could not be read. Travelling in the wilderness.
It was an uncomfortable experience. Passengers were upset and concerned.
Ticket inspectors were infrequent and of no assistance. Foreigners were worried they would not disembark at scheduled stations. Language is a huge disadvantage.
My understanding is travellers are apathetic and tired of the inefficient, insufficient system and officials. Complaints are unheeded.
The inside electronic sign was not working on the return journey. Toilets were badly used unclean or broken.
If not for the British we would not have had a railway system. After 71 years a new rail line has been added in the south from Matara to Belliatta. Hooray!
Welcome to Sri Lanka Railway!