Rail travel has a long and important place in Sri Lankan history. Originally known as the Ceylon Government Railways, the first piece of track was put down by the British Governor Sir Henry Ward in 1858 and was seen a crucial development in the gradual modernization of Ceylon.
The tracks were open for business around Christmas of 1864, a remarkable achievement both in terms of speed in the pre-industrial era of the island and of engineering ingenuity and excellence, as will become clear on your trip. The first journey was from Colombo to Ambepussa a small town on the way to Kandy, 54 km east of the capital.
The scope of the rail line was steadily increased during British colonial days and by 1927, there was 1530 km of track in operation. The line was extended to the Hill Capital of Kandy by 1867 and in 1926 work was completed on the line to Nelson’s favourite port of Trincomalee in the extreme east of Sri Lanka, meaning all points of the compass were now covered.
The railway was initially built with purely commercial interests in mind. First to transport coffee from the Hill Country to the coastal port of Colombo, then when the coffee crop was wiped out by disease, the embryonic crops of tea that Sri Lanka is now famed for were transported to the coast for exportation.
As the armies of the Portuguese and Dutch would testify too accessing the rolling hills, waterfalls and endless plateaus of the Hill Country is not easy. Thus the rail lines gradually became a connector for people, offering the intrepid tea planters ‘the wild men of the hills’ the chance for a bit of refinement in Colombo.
Nuwara Eliya south east of Kandy became a tourist destination before the phrase was coined, due to the expansion of the rail line. The journey from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya remains one of the world’s most stunning rail journeys. By the 1960’s the Sri Lankan rail system was being used more by commuters than by freight traffic.