Taking a train is one of the most wonderful experiences in Sri Lanka. You’ll get to see beautiful scenery along the way while experiencing the Srilankan way of life.
In this article, I share useful travel tips for train travel in Sri Lanka.
Train routes in Sri Lanka
Here are the main train routes in the country.
- The hill-city line: This scenic hill-country line starts from Colombo to Kandy. It’ll then continue to Hatton (Adam’s Peak), Nanu Oya (Nuwara Eliya), Haputale, Bandarawela, Ella, and finally, stop at Badulla.
- The west coast line: This line is excellent if you’d like to visit the South beaches. It starts from Puttalam going through Negombo, Colombo, Kalutara, Bentota, Beruwala, Aluthgama, Ambalangoda, Hikkaduwa, and Galle to Weligama and Matara.
- The northern line to Jaffna: It’s a perfect choice to explore the Northern parts. The line begins from Colombo to Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, and Vavuniya before stopping at Jaffna. This line also has 3 branches: to Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa, to Trincomalee, and to Madhu Road, Mannar, and Talaimannar.
Most scenic train routes in Sri Lanka
The most famous train route in Sri Lanka is from Kandy to Ella, especially the part from Nanu Oya (Nuwara Eliya).
Another popular train route is the coast line. You can take a scenic ride from Colombo Fort to Galle in 3 hours.
You can check train schedules at the stations or railway.gov.lk. In our experience, trains are not on-time and are usually 30 minutes late compared to the timetable.
There are three train classes: first, second and third class.
For first-class, you always have to make a reservation in advance. First-class cabins have A/C, so the windows are shut, creating a “trap” feeling.
There is not much difference between the second and third classes, except that 2nd classes have fans in the cabins and 3rd classes are usually more crowded. You can also reserve seats in the 2nd and 3rd class in advance.
How to book train tickets in Sri Lanka
You can reserve tickets in person at major stations up to thirty days before travel. If you can’t book a ticket in advance, you can show up at the train station 1 hour before departure.
You can also book tickets online. I usually use 12go and https://seatreservation.railway.gov.lk/mtktwebslr/.
I highly recommend reserving your seats because standing on the train without a seat is tiring. You may not even be able to board the train if the non-reserved cabins are full.
Our experiences using trains
The train network in Sri Lanka was initially built in the 19th century by the British. While there are some improvements, train speed is still relatively slow, especially if you travel in the hill country.
We have a love-hate relationship with trains in Sri Lanka. It was amazing when we could book a seat, and it was a bit like hell when we were not able to do so.
Once, we couldn’t get on the train because the non-reserved carriages were so full. We saw other travelers climbing through windows to the only reserved carriage (the doors are locked), which was truly chaotic and terrifying.
Tips on train travel in Sri Lanka
Here are some tips for taking a train in Sri Lanka.
Get your tickets a few days before your trip.
Seat reservations usually run out really fast, so it’s better to get your tickets as soon as possible. If you know your schedule, you can purchase the tickets and reserve your seats when you’re in a major city with a train station. Otherwise, you can get tickets one hour before the departure.
Bring water and snacks.
While locals sell drinks and food on board, it’s best to bring your own. We only saw people selling milk tea and some snacks on our trips.
Traveling light is always a good idea, especially if you use public transportation. You can carry your luggage easier on and off the train if they are lightweight.
Also, the overhead luggage racks in Sri Lanka’s trains are pretty small, so they only fit small suitcases and backpacks.
If you travel with big luggage, it will be inconvenient as you’ll have to keep it next to your feet all the time.
Be careful of open doors.
You may have seen several photos of tourists having outside the doors when traveling by train in Sri Lanka, but it’s very dangerous. There are often accidents on the route from Kandy to Ella.
Go toilet before boarding.
I highly recommend going toilet before you get on the train because the state of public restrooms on trains is not very pleasant. Also, the train is usually overcrowded, and it isn’t easy to move around.
Some stations have toilets in the waiting room, but some don’t.
For a long journey, prepare wet tissue and dry wash gel if you want to go to the bathroom.