FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Farewell to Colombo

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 5, 2018

The end of the tour saw the slow drift of the group in the direction of the airport, though with a late night flight with Emirates I had plenty of time to kill. I mused on various options, but in the end settled on a relatively relaxed wander around Fort District to mop up the sights I missed on my first couple of days in the country followed by an afternoon of rail photography.

One of the most striking contrasts of my wanders came from a visit to the modern lighthouse overlooking the Indian Ocean. The lighthouse was unveiled on 2nd February 1951 to commemorate the commencement of work on the Colombo Port Development Scheme of 1950, a massive modernisation programme that saw the creation of multiple berths, transit sheds and warehouses. It was a significant milestone in the economic development of the country in the first few years of independence.

Monument to mark the Colombo Port Development of 1950

Today, that same stretch of land is the site of another massive project – Colombo International Finance City. As the name suggests this is not just any property development, it is quite literally the construction of an entirely new city on the doorstep of old Colombo, bankrolled as part of the Chinese government’s One Belt One Road initiative. It’s not the only major development in play – a game of global stakes is afoot with India and Japan investing in the development of Sri Lanka’s ports following the recent handover of Hambantota port to the Chinese on a 99 year lease.

A glance at the panels all along Chaithya Road show the incredibly ambitious plans which are intended to rival Dubai and Singapore. Tall buildings in the city already dwarf the colonial remnants, but this will change the city beyond recognition. The plans envisage the construction of a complete financial district, a marina, hotels, restaurants, apartment blocks, retail units, banks, embassies, museums, galleries and convention facilities.

At the moment the focus is on the $1.4 billion reclamation of the 269 hectares of land that will be needed for this project. The work continues 24 hours a day with completion is anticipated in June 2019. It was no surprise to learn that such a substantial project has proved controversial and the degree of dependence on Chinese finance has been heavily debated in the Sri Lankan parliament and beyond.

Hoardings promote the ambitious vision for the future of Colombo

In the afternoon I found myself staring at another new development project, this time the shell of the troubled Grand Hyatt Colombo which the papers have suggested has run out of funding. I didn’t spend much time pondering the controversies associated with this and instead focused on the railway line that runs in its shadow, through Koluptiya, alongside Marine Drive and on its way towards Mount Lavinia.

It turned out to be a splendid spot to watch passing trains, but only if you could ignore the almost constant invitations for a Tuk-Tuk tour of the city, offers of massages or horror stories about the number of suicides that had taken place here. The view of the fishermen trying their luck in the Indian Ocean made an interesting foreground to the line, though these were only ever going to be record shots as the skies had already clouded over.

Class S10 railcar 879 heading away from Koluptiya

Over an hour or two, I managed to photograph a couple of railcars (S8 and S10) and one loco hauled service (M4) before I had to head back to pick up my ride to the airport. In typical fashion when I actually wanted a Tuk Tuk ride there were none to be found, but it was an interesting enough walk up through Galle Face Green and back to my hotel in Fort District.

One of my last impressions of the country was the most surprising – an encounter with the friendliest immigration officer I have ever chanced upon who chatted amiably about the highlights of my trip. Sometimes it is the little moments like this that really stay with you. On making my way airside I was pleased to discover that my flight was on time whereas the same flight 24 hours earlier had left some 20 hours late. Time to swap 36 degree heat for the deep freeze of London…

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Steam to Colombo Fort

Posted in Colombo, Kadugannawa, Kandy, Rambukkana, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 4, 2018

The last day of the tour saw us travel seventy-six miles from Kandy to Colombo Fort on a busy public holiday. Across the country celebrations were taking place to mark the 70th anniversary of Sri Lankan independence, something we had seen for ourselves in the morning as marching bands started to make their way into the city centre. It wasn’t entirely clear if any extra trains would be running but most of the services we saw looked as packed as ever.

On arrival at Kandy station at we found our two steam locomotives sat outside the shed and not attached to the stock. AS all the trains seemed to be running late it was no surprise to hear that our departure had been pushed back an hour to 2.30pm. At least it gave us another opportunity to photograph the beautiful signal gantry at Kandy. Inevitably the best light fell on the service trains, but it was a marked improvement on the murky conditions that had greeted us some days earlier.

Steam under the gantries of Kandy

A walk down the track to a position just beyond the gantry gave us a great vantage point to admire the variety of locomotive classes in action today, including an S12 diesel multiple unit, two classes of diesel electric locomotives (M5C and M6), two classes of diesel-hydraulic locomotive (W2A and W3) and a class Y Hunslet shunter. Most of us were looking pretty clean and refreshed after a morning chilling or taking in the city but many a white shirt proved a good litmus test for the speed at which dirt gets sprayed around on these trips!

After taking a photograph of a false departure we boarded our train and set off at 2.45pm. The plan was as simple as it could be – we would run as fast as the pathing would let us be, apart from a scheduled photostop at the Lion’s Mouth. In reality the complexities of our train’s appearance on the network were amply demonstrated by the many stops needed to allow the service trains to overtake us. Luckily, we were able to take advantage of a couple of these to squeeze in extra runpasts at Kadugannawa (4.15pm) and Rambukkana (5.32pm) on the way to Colombo Fort (8.05pm).

Most of all, the run in to Colombo Fort gave us a chance to soak up the atmosphere and absorb the detail of the stations, signals and even the wonderful weigh bridges along the route. Our speed was pretty limited for a long stretch, dictated by the speed restriction signs enforcing a limit of 25km/h due to weak rails and sleepers, but once we got clear of this section we were able to pick up speed and got up to 65 km/h where we had an uninterrupted run.

One of the many warning signs along the first part of our route

In the cab for today’s run there was one driver and three firemen (one past fireman and two trainees) so they could keep at it all the time. Although inexperienced (with only two previous trips behind them) they seemed to be doing a good job, improvising where they needed to and giving us a superb run into Colombo Fort. It was pretty splendid to be riding west into the setting sun, towards the Indian Ocean, with cinders flying past the windows and locals crowded at the lineside. The air thick with smoke as we thundered towards Colombo.

At Polgahawela we could see photographers in tuk-tuks chasing the train, which seemed a rather uneven battle, whilst at another stretch workers packed into an open truck cheered and waved as we passed. Somewhere else a family of three perched precariously on a motorbike waved as they rode in parallel.

More often than not it looked as though ordinary folk had heard about the train whistling in the distance and come to the lineside to see it pass. It certainly seemed to add something to the celebratory vibe of the day. In all these snapshots of lives intersecting with our train, as seen from the carriage windows, we were reminded of the final line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic poem about the views from a railway carriage ‘Each a glimpse and gone forever!’

A quickly arranged run past between service trains at Kadugannawa

Even when the colourful skies gave way to darkness there were still many marvelous sights to enjoy on the approach to Colombo, from the fishermen in the wetlands using lamps to illuminate their spots to the sight of the Lotus Tower specially illuminated for national day. However, it was just enough to sit in the dark carriage illuminated only by the streaks of light from passing trains and stations, along with the constant spark show.

It has been a very enjoyable tour in good company, even if one of our number did voice the opinion that it would make a great psycho-pathology field trip! The weather might have been less than kind at times, but it did at least clear the skies, giving us bursts of brilliant blue rather than the haze that apparently dogged the previous tour here. Bernd thought that we should also thank the Chinese engineers – for it was their railcar breaking down that gave us such brilliant photo opportunities when we had to push back rather than forward a few days ago!

A considerable degree of effort has gone in to making this tour possible, from the way that the railway staff across the network have found ways to make things work for us (often at short notice) to the supreme efforts of the crew handling the locomotives with limited experience and equipment. Most of all though, it is Bernd’s years of effort and incredible organisational skills that have delivered the most astonishing photographic opportunities to us. I for one am very appreciative of everything that has contributed to making this such a wonderful trip and look forward to my next FarRail adventure!

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Beyond the boundary

Posted in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Talawakele by folkestonejack on February 3, 2018

Our re-arranged morning saw us take a bus to Talawakele at 6am, ready to take advantage of the glorious morning sun. The first few shots around the station were enough evidence of how good the decision to change the plan had been but better was to come.

A morning glint at Talawakele

A short walk across the railway bridge, over the waters of the Kotmale Oya, gave us a wonderful view that just kept improving the further away you walked. Up close you had a shot of the town with a pretty splendid distance signal but as you walked back the mountains came into view along with some lovely reflections in the water. A couple of double-headed runpasts over the bridge had everyone smiling and Bernd joked that we could go back to the hotel now, the best shots of the day in the bag…

On our return to Talawakele we boarded our train and headed off in the direction of Hatton (8:53), once again passing through the tea fields and small communities on each side of the line. An extended stay at one spot a little further on, not too far from the small halt at Derryclare, saw us descend upon a community cricket match. Play had just finished but we were able to persuade some of the team to return to the field to give us some impressive foreground for a couple of runpasts. If you got the shot right, as some did, you could have got the batsman striking a six just as the train passed. Needless to say my photographic efforts don’t capture this!

Colonial imports: cricket and steam

After continuing under the midday sun we found ourselves at a spot just beyond Kotagala where we tried a shot that required a little climb. It didn’t really work out for me but paid back the effort some had made with wet feet, muddy clothes and some leaches! We spent a while shunting up and down the line around Kotagala, getting out of the way of service trains that needed to overtake or cross us, only leaving for good in mid afternoon (14:16). The increasing cloud cover, with only small breaks for the sun, certainly backed up the re-arrangement of our activities for the day. If we had stuck to the original schedule we would have missed all the best conditions for photography.

A few more shots from the hillsides (14:35-14:45) were followed by a fast run to Hatton (arriving 15:05). The choice of continuing on by bus or by train seemed a fairly simple one – the bus would take two hours to reach Kandy whereas the train would take four and a half hours (our two steam locomotives would need to take water first, around 30 minutes per loco, and wouldn’t get a clear run). The faster drive by bus had its downsides – our driver had an interesting line in overtaking on blind left hand bends (think it was better in the fog when we couldn’t see how bad the driving was!).

Token exchange at Kotagala

We finally reached Kandy just after 6pm and were soon enjoying what I can only describe as the blandest meal of my life – a bowl of lukewarm tomato soup followed up a rather tasteless carbonara pasta dish with pomegranate seeds – served up by some of the most hopeless waiters I have encountered! A bit like theatre performances that are so bad that they become unmissable, this was one meal that could only be appreciated for its comedic value. Thankfully, no-one seemed to have agreed to their requests for credit card pin numbers to be disclosed…

My day finally came to an end with a session of night photography at Kandy which involved working around the late night trains and empties moving in/out of the station. It was a lively experience but I think we were all happy that we could return to our beds for a good nights sleep before too long.

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Quick thinking

Posted in Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 2, 2018

An early start saw us arrive at Diya Talawa at 7 o’clock, just beating our train by ten minutes. Our loco, class B2b no. 213, looked splendid in the early morning light but before we could start our day in earnest we needed to let a service train overtake us. The intended plan unraveled rather quickly when the service train developed a problem, blocking the line.

Some splendid quick thinking saw the plan turned on its head. Instead of climbing uphill towards the summit we would head in the opposite direction and give them time to sort out the faulty diesel multiple unit.

Some early morning sun on the return to Diya Talawa

After rolling back a short distance we started our climb back to Diya Talawa, attempting three wonderfully atmospheric shots as the sun made short work of the morning mist. I lined up a lovely shot of a local family, sitting on a rock to watch proceedings, but the patience of my foreground was shorter than mine and they disappeared before our train returned. Some you win, some you lose!

The frustration of missed opportunities dogged us through the morning. After passing back through Diya Talawa (8:40) we walked along the track to a grand curve. It was one of those spots that would reward a little effort to get the most panoramic vista.

I followed a few others along a path up the hillside, on stepping stones over a little stream and then made the scramble up the rocks to gain some height. The view was splendid but three attempts to match the passage of the train with the breaks in the cloud (9:00-10:00) failed miserably. The best we got was the diesel running in isolation in sun – not the shot that many had hoped for. Still, at least I wasn’t one of the poor souls who tried an alternative route through boggy ground… soggy feet for a shot in shade must have seemed like a poor exchange!

Diesel in the sun at Diya Talawa

On our arrival at Haputale (10:13) we found the platforms packed with school children. At first we assumed that they were waiting for the service train scheduled to overtake us here but they were still on the platform when it departed. It dawned on us that they had come to see the steam loco – clearly a relatively rare event.

The loco needed to take on water here but it looked as though the water crane could no longer be turned. The solution was ingenious – the crew procured a piece of guttering that some locals took off a house under construction. The makeshift watering facilities did the job and were on our way just over an hour later (11.22).

Improvised watering facilities at Haputale

The afternoon took us from the sun of Haputale to the mists of Pattipola, with the usual back and forth between stations to get out of the way of service trains crossing or overtaking us. There were plenty of memorable moments along the way – a school sports day taking place next to the track at Idalgashinna, a shot that required standing on a stack of sleepers covered in ants and a photospot above a tunnel mouth abandoned after the discovery of a large nest of bees.

The cloud had closed right in as we reached Pattipola (17:02) and left us scratching our heads for a moment as we tried to work out which direction we needed to walk through the mist to find our buses. Overall, I think we have been quite lucky again. Although we didn’t have much luck getting our train in sun it could have been an awful lot worse. At one point it hammered down when the train set back but our photo spot didn’t see a drop of water!

In the clouds on the line between Haputale and Idalgashinna

Once we reached our hotel there was a discussion about alternatives to the planned schedule and near unanimous approval for the scrapping of night shots in favour of an early start to take advantage of the best conditions of the day (according to the forecasts). Let’s hope this pays off…

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The Demodara loop and other delights

Posted in Bandarawela, Demodara, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 1, 2018

I’m not sure where the threatened storms are but I’m glad they are keeping away. In fact, conditions were quite the opposite. On our arrival at Demodara this morning, around 8am, we were even treated to a spell of blue skies and sun. I wouldn’t exactly say that I made the best use of them at our first photospot but the opportunity was there…

Class B2b no. 213 departs from Demodara Station as a track ganger looks on

Demodara is one of the more interesting spots on the route. At first glance it looks like a pretty country station but step over to the other side of the forecourt and you see that a 414 foot long tunnel runs underneath the station (approximately 100 feet below). This was our first glimpse of the spiral that allows the line to manage the dramatic change in elevation.

A train climbing from Badulla will cross the valley over the Badulu Oya river by means of a 210 foot long iron girder bridge and then enter the 414 foot long Tunnel no. 42, passing underneath Demodara Station. On emerging from the tunnel the train completes a 360 degree loop around the hill before arriving at the station. It’s a terrific engineering feat for its time that laid the way to the official opening of the final section of the Uva Railway on 5th February 1924.

In practical terms the loop takes sufficient time that you can photograph a train crossing the valley and still have time to photograph it arriving at the station. Needless to say, we took full advantage of this. On top of that the well tended station, opened in 1921, is very photogenic in its own right. I’m sure its appearance has changed little in its 96 year history although I noted little signs of the ingenuity that keeps this railway going on a tight budget with a lamp shade cleverly fashioned from a bottle.

Once again the use of the Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet provided a marvelous demonstration of the continued application of the system for single line working (originally invented in 1878 and long since vanished in most other places).

Tea-pickers in the hillside plantation at Demodara

We spent a good while at Demodara, taking a variety of shots around the bridge and station for almost two hours (8.45-10.30), before heading up the hillside to a spot among the tea plants of the Demodara Tea Estate for a couple of scenic runpasts (11:00-11:15). Bernd had arranged the hire of three tea-pickers to work in just the right spot for our photography, providing a really neat touch. None of us had quite anticipated their Adidas branded uniforms though – a long way from the traditional outfits you usually associate with tea pickers!

After leaving Demodara behind we headed uphill towards Ella (11:45), passing over the famous nine-arch bridge. Once a service train had overtaken us (a diesel hauled mixed train with freight cars, regular passenger carriages and an observation coach) we set back for the bridge (12:12). We had already seen how popular a tourist spot this was on our way through with around a hundred people at the Ella end of the bridge taking photographs and plenty more hiking along the lineside (signs at the platform ends at Ella and at either end of the bridge prohibit walking along the track but are largely ignored).

Class B2b no. 213 crosses Nine Arch Bridge

The 400 foot long and 100 foot tall bridge, the largest viaduct on the railway in Sri Lanka, was constructed at Gotuwala in 1917 to link the two mountains on the line between Bandarawela and Badulla. It’s another impressive example of British engineering, not least because of the hard to reach worksite and limitations of the equipment available. In his superb book Essays on Ceylon Railways (184-1964) Hemasiri Fernando points out that the construction materials had to be transported by pack bulls for the entire period of construction!

After two runpasts over the bridge (12.30-12.45) we continued on towards Bandarawela, passing through Ella (13.03) and Heel-Oya (13.20) en route. Another runpast on the approach to Bandarawela (14.05) was followed by a lengthy stop at the station whilst we waited for a train to cross. This was no problem – the station was fascinating and deserved a good explore.

Arrival at Bandarawela

Along with the by now familiar historic equipment and the lovingly maintained gardens that we have seen at most stations we found that Bandarawela’s platform included an aquarium; a framed faded picture of a Baureihe 103; some helpful posters showing a complete class-by-class history of Sri Lanka’s railway locomotives and units; and one of the most beautiful wooden departure boards we have seen so far. Opposite the platform we could also see a G2 class Bo-Bo diesel-electric shunter (no. 535) – one of eight in its class (North British Locomotive Co., 1950). Just when we thought we had seen it all a member of the station staff came out of his office ringing a large brass bell to announce the imminent arrival of the next train!

After the service train (a S12 unit) had passed through we continued on our way towards Hapitale. The clouds seemed ever darker as we progressed whilst the distant rumble of thunder threatened. Nevertheless, the conditions gave us the opportunity for some moody shots and certainly hadn’t deterred local onlookers – it was lovely seeing a family of young railfans watching in awe atop a stack of wooden sleepers here and at a tunnel just after Diya Talawa two kids could be seen running back and forth at the top of the tunnel mouth enjoying the spectacle (especially being clouded in steam!).

A moody shot on the line between Bandarawela and Diya Talawa

On our arrival at Haputale (16:57) we called it a day and boarded the buses for the drive back to our hotel. It was good timing as the mist was closing in fast. The forecast from the meteorological office for tomorrow sounds pretty dire with the promise of heavy rain (75mm) accompanied by thunderstorms in mid afternoon. Yikes!

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Timewarp

Posted in Bandarawela, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 31, 2018

The reward at the end of a long drive from Pattipola was a stay at the Bandarawela Hotel, an incredible colonial survivor built in 1893 which has been spared significant alteration in the years that followed. Stepping inside the hotel it felt as though the clock had been wound back a century.

My room at the Bandarawela Hotel

It was not hard to imagine the hotel’s past life as a tea planters club as I wandered the balconies, relaxed in the lounge and enjoyed a drink in the bar. The experience extended to the rooms with interior decoration straight out of the 1930s (along with the light switches, plumbing and just about everything else). A bolted door in the bathroom was apparently once used by the staff to bring hot water to guests for their evening baths!

Climbing into the clouds

Posted in Great Western, Nanu-Oya, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 31, 2018

It would have been easy enough to believe that workmen had been hammering nails into the roof all night but I knew full well that it had been the rain. The BBC forecast is one of unmitigated doom for the next seven days – heavy rain, thunderstorms and the works. It was all too credible from what we could see on the ground and the reports in the local press about localised flooding in the Nuwara Eliya area (where we are currently staying). Some of the areas flooded have been experiencing a drought for the past few months, so our timing has been impeccable!

Station sign at Nanu-Oya

An early start ensured that we reached Nanu-Oya nice and early (7.30) and our train departed just a quarter of an hour later, rolling back to the station at Great Western. The name sounds as though it should have a railway connotation, though it actually comes from the nearby mountain. The conditions were also surprisingly good with blue skies and a little sun for our photographic efforts (a failed runpast, runpast and false departure) though things were slowed a little by the need for some impromptu repairs.

The usual pattern of setting off, rolling back and then departing for real continued today to allow us to work around the packed service trains into hill country. In that sense we only really left Great Western just after 10am. Thankfully, our train was not quite so much of a squeeze today with additional seating added to the crew compartment in the form of a station bench from Nanu-Oya (I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I saw the bench being lifted off the station, across the tracks and into the train!).

Extra seating for the train…. a station bench!

Our run up the line gave us the opportunity to take some photographs from the hillside, standing among the tea plants and looking out over the plantations. One of the spots, in the Kelani Valley Plantation (Glassaugh Estate), offered a stunning view of our train crossing a girder bridge over a waterfall with tea plantations on both sides. It was only a pity that I followed the water drainage channel on the way down rather than the much easier path and staircase! After we were done we headed back to Nanu-Oya, arriving at 1pm.

It’s not hard to see why many think the line is among the world’s most scenic with its views of the mountains, tea plantations and waterfalls. Most of the trains we passed in hill country were packed to standing with tourists rather than locals and tickets for seats in the reserved carriages disappear quickly during the peak holiday season. Our journey up the line might have been considerably slower but gave us ample opportunity to enjoy the scenery without those hassles and set foot in some of the equally lovely stations a little off the main tourist trail.

Class B2b no. 213 (1922) crosses a bridge over the Kelani Valley Plantation (Glassaugh Estate)

The station at Nanu-Oya is wonderfully atmospheric and well maintained, perhaps no wonder given its proximity to one of Sri Lanka’s top tourist attractions. It is a historic treasure trove with many features that can probably be traced back to its opening in 1885 such as the Tyer’s Electric Train Tablet system. Later additions include the turntable which dates to 1957 (a manufacturer’s plate shows that it was made by the Carlisle engineering firm of Cowans Sheldon and Co).

The entrance to the station has a marvelous wooden board listing the next trains due into the station, each with a little clock to indicate the time, and around the stations you can see signs that feel as though they come from a different age stating ‘partaking of meals brought from outside prohibited within‘ and ‘liquor served to railway passengers only’.

An invite to take a look in the signal box was most welcome and gave a wonderful illustration of how well the traditional signalling has been maintained across the network on a relatively restrained budget. I wouldn’t have thought the place out of keeping with a historic signal box on a preserved railway but here it was part of a functioning and busy main line! I was happy to give the team a little thank you for their time but I have a feeling it might be the most lucrative signal box on any network…

The view from the signal box at Nanu-Oya…

.. and how that appears in the track plan

Our afternoon gave us another opportunity to take a shot among the tea plantations before heading straight on to Ambewela, discovering in the process just how low the cloudbase is today. We had a moment or two to explore whilst we waited for a service train to overtake us, but since everything was shrouded in cloud didn’t want to stray too far. It seemed appropriate that one of the street leading up to the station was called World’s End Road! We set off again just after 4pm, reaching Pattipola, the highest station in Sri Lanka, a quarter of an hour later.

The cloud was even denser at Pattipola but that didn’t deter hordes of local children from turning up to see our steam locomotive – clearly not a frequent occurrence. Meanwhile, Bernd, our tour leader was seen disappearing into the fog armed with an umbrella trying to find a photo spot!

Despite the foggy conditions we still managed a shot of a token exchange, two runpasts at a semaphore signal beyond the station and another two runpasts at a tight spot in the forest beyond that. As the day came to an end the rain returned. On another day it might been the last straw, but given the severity of the forecasts I thought we’d all had a pretty lucky escape.

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Rain, leeches and a loco failure

Posted in Nawalapitiya, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 30, 2018

The sound of shunting might not be everyone’s idea of a great wake up call, but for me it was hard to fault the terrific sights and sounds of the railway station at in Nawalapitiya available from the balcony of the Jayabima Grand. Admittedly, I might have liked a room with glass in the window frames but I guess you can’t always get the luxuries in life!

The view from the platform at Nawalapitiya

It was raining steadily as we waited for our bus pick-up for the short run to the station and the mist seemed to be clinging with some determination to the hill tops. Everything suggested that we might be in for a difficult day of photography from the outset and a little dog seemed to capture that gloomy prospect perfectly when he cocked his leg to spray a microphone positioned by one of our number. If we managed to come away from the day with something decent it would be a very pleasant surprise.

I was perhaps more pessimistic than I should have been. There were some surprising moments of morning sunlight among the rain but it proved impossible to time our runpasts to take advantage of them (as usual, our movements were dictated by the timetable of service trains). Just occasionally the conditions worked in our favour, such as a shot with our steam locomotive passing underneath a pedestrian bridge filled with umbrella carrying commuters, but more often than not it was hard work for little reward.

Umbrellas at Nawalapitiya

It took a little while to get going – when we arrived at the station we discovered that our two locos were coupled together, facing each other, so a little re-marshalling was required. The plan today was to run with the class B2b no. 213 (Vulcan Foundry 3555/1922) up to Nanu-Oya.

Our station photography complete, we squeezed into a single carriage and set off from Nawalapitiya (8.40) heading deeper into the rain. Progress up the line was slow but steady, taking us to Inguruoya (8.55), Galboda (9.10), Watawala (10.05) and then on to Rozelle (10.57). The timings are more than a little deceptive as we sometimes arrived at a station, crossed with a local train, rolled back to a photo position, photographed the runpast, then returned to the station. A little distance can take quite a while!

In the worst of the rain we were mad enough to try a photo position on a hilltop overlooking a sweeping curve in the track. Normally we have to time the runpasts to catch the sun but here we had to time them for the moments where the mist thinned out sufficiently to reveal the landscape! A later shot that morning saw us standing utterly saturated in the forest, desperately trying to protect our cameras as thunder cracked around us and the rain poured. It was depressing that the forecast suggested we had two more days of this ahead.

The classy logo of Ceylon Government Railways (CGR)

After a welcome hour of respite at Hatton (13.20-14:30) we continued up the line. The next stop, Kotagoda, would prove to be as far as we we could go – our loco had a problem. Things seemed to have gone awry at the last stop, though the exact scenario proved hard to pin down. The facts were simple – there was now no water in the boiler and the fire was out.

Plan B was to lighten the load and run using our second locomotive – the class B1d no. 340 (“Fredrick North”, Robert Stephenson 7155/1944) – back towards Hatton. After re-marshaling the train we left Kotagoda at 16.40 and managed to squeeze in three decent photo stops before the light disappeared. Our train finally pulled in to Hatton at 6pm.

The day had one final kicker for me as I discovered that the wet weather had created the perfect conditions for us to discover the dubious delights of leeches. I’m sure that the local population are quite used to them, but to this squeamish westerner it was an unwanted experience! One had managed to attach itself to me and bitten through my sock. The results were painless but not pretty. The leech check now became a regular part of the post-photo stop routine…

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Through the Lion’s Mouth

Posted in Kadugannawa, Kandy, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 29, 2018

The complications of arranging photo stops on the main line were highlighted by our arrival at one of the most memorable locations – the Lion’s Mouth, a distinctive rock that overhangs the line at the Kadugannawa end of the Moragalla Tunnel.

The Lion’s Mouth is a spot that has fascinated photographers since the completion of the tunnel in 1866 and looks remarkably unchanged from a photograph in the British Library from the 1870s. Our timings allowed just one attempt at the shot (12.10) before we had to clear the line for an express, arriving at Kadugannawa ten minutes later. Once the express had passed through we were able to roll back down to the Lion’s Mouth for a second attempt.

B1d class steam locomotive no. 340 at the the Lion’s Mouth

Once this was all complete we were able to return to Kadugannawa and take a look round the National Railway Museum during a lull in the action. It’s a compact museum based around a goods shed with some locomotives and rolling stock displayed on the adjacent sidings (admission 500 rupees) with slightly forbidding no photography signs attached to just about everything.

The museum collection includes the oldest surviving steam locomotive in the country – an E1 class tank locomotive (no. 93) built by Dubs & Co in 1898. It seems astonishing to think that this was still in industrial use, in the mills, as late as the 1980s. Other exhibits on outdoor display include some interesting looking railcars, an early railway carriage (no. 4173), a class S3 diesel-hydraulic multiple unit (no. 613), a class M1 diesel-electric loco (no. 560) built by Brush in 1955, a diesel electric 0-4-0 shunter (no. 500) built by Armstrong Whitworth in 1934 and a N2 narrow gauge diesel (no. 732).

As we wandered the consist of our train was re-arranged to give us a brake van at the end of the wagons when the diesel and other carriages are taken off during runpasts. Our onward journey resumed in mid-afternoon (14:50), taking us through Pilimathalawa (15:00), where we were all astonished to see a maroon Routemaster in public service, then on to Peradeniya Junction (15:10).

Steaming through Peradeniya Junction

The triangular junction station at Peradeniya has three signal cabins to co-ordinate movements and you can see why they would be needed. Historically, this has always been one of the busiest spots on the Sri Lankan railway network and it certainly demonstrated that during our stay.

There are some lovely photographic opportunities here, including a beautifully positioned Buddha at the end of the station platform and a semaphore signal gantry. Unfortunately, the number of trains through the station made it difficult to make the most of this – when we arrived we had three trains cross so by the time we were able to attempt our shot with the gantry the sun had slipped behind the clouds and looked quite unlikely to return! I suspect the crew will have been relieved that the light had disappeared as their shift started at 11.30pm last night…

Our departure from the junction (16:39) left us with the very short run in to Kandy’s rather gorgeous art deco station (16:51). The day had a little more to give with a couple of false departures in rather dark and moody conditions, but after that we headed off to dinner and our hotels in Nawalapitiya.

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Runpast at Rambukkana

Posted in Rambukkana, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 29, 2018

The leisurely start we enjoyed yesterday was long forgotten as we rose in the early morning to prepare for a 4.30am departure from Colombo on our two tour buses. In truth most of us had enjoyed little sleep on account of an all night disco somewhere in the neighbourhood and the hotel maintenance team’s unfathomable conclusion that 12.30am was a good time to start some drilling.

It might well have been an early start for us but the traffic on the road suggested that it was a part of the daily routine for many commuters trying to avoid the traffic hell of rush hour in Colombo. The service buses on their way in to the city centre already looked full to standing. In the meantime we had a cardboard-boxed breakfast from the hotel to enjoy – what delights might be in store? The groans from around the bus suggested that I might not like the answer. I was somehow still surprised to see that the hotel had outdone themselves by serving up cold chips and a pot of mayonnaise!

A run past the water tower at Rambukkana

If our early start had left us bleary eyed then we ought to have spared a thought for the crews who left the shed with our empty coaching stock at 1.30am so that we could make an early start from Rambukkana, where the main line towards Badulla really begins its climb. I’d like to say that we were brimming with confidence for the day ahead, but after seeing the loco struggle on a first run past the signalbox (at 7.40am) we wondered how on earth it would cope with the gradients ahead…

A short walk up the line brought us to the next photo spot with a lovely view of palm trees and traditional telegraph poles, but we were not the first to reach the location. A friendly cow had been tethered in farmland adjacent to the line and the rope allowed it just enough scope to reach the perfect spot for the shot. You couldn’t turn your back without suddenly discovering that you were the next source of his/her curiosity! It was no fan of steam and didn’t stick around for the run past.

B1d class steam locomotive no. 340 passes the signals outside Kadigamuwa Station

After another burst of photography we headed up the line at 9.25, reaching the next stop at Kadigamuwa fifteen minutes later. Our train had to wait here for service trains to cross but there was time enough first for a couple of runpasts at a signal just beyond the station. The conditions were beautiful – blue skies, sun and lovely semapahore signals. Once the line was clear we continued on to Ihala Kotte.

Once again a service train needed to overtake us, so we walked back on ourselves to the exit from tunnel 5a and waited for it to pass before attempting a run past. Attempt is the operative word here – as the loco emerged from the tunnel the carriages decoupled and ended up standing stationery immediately in front of us! This didn’t matter too much to the stills photographers but was less enthusiastically received by those among us recording video. After a more successful repeat we returned to Ihala Kotte and crossed with a mixed freight headed towards Colombo (11.35) before continuing on our way (11.38).

The morning really brought home the organisational challenge of arranging opportunities for photography here. The runpasts have to be deftly interwoven with the schedule and this gets an awful lot more complicated when train delays are factored in. I’m sure that we are make life incredibly difficult for everyone on the line today so I’m incredibly appreciative for what we have been able to do. In many places they wouldn’t even consider attempting this!

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Colombo Fort to Dematagoda

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 28, 2018

A short run in the afternoon with our class B1d steam locomotive (no. 340) took us from Colombo Fort to a spot just beyond Maradana with a few runpasts along the way. It was a good opportunity to get our rusty photographic skills back into gear and reacquaint ourselves with the art of clambering in an out of carriages at the unlikeliest of spots. I think our guards, more accustomed to the sedate pace of the luxurious Viceroy Special train, could already see that we were a little bit mad…

Our destination for the afternoon – Dematagoda

A walk along the trackside to Dematagoda brought us first to the former coaling stage, now home to a number of rusting steam locomotives, then on to the workshops and running shed. There were plenty of steam survivors here, though perhaps the most special were the narrow gauge class V1 Sentinel steam railcars sitting outside Shop 26, albeit looking rather sad in their overgrown and derelict state.

Other delights to be found at Dematagoda included class C1a Garratt no. 346 (Beyer Peacock, 1946) at the coaling stage; class B1e no. 352 (R. Stephenson, 1948) now almost completely hidden by lineside vegetation between the coaling stage and running shed; a line of J2a and J2b narrow gauge locomotives (1912-1913) alongside the running shed; and a 5’ 6” gauge Colombo Port Commission Locomotive (an 0-4-0ST built by Hunslet in 1899) inside Shop 26.

Dumped class A3a locomotive no. 277 (Hunslet, 1929) at Dematagoa Coaling Stage

Aside from the relics from the steam age it was interesting to see just how busy the approach to Colombo Fort was and the wide variety of motive power around. In just a few hours we had seen diesel multiple units from three classes (S8, S11 and S12), diesel electric locomotives from 6 classes (M2, M4, M6, M7, M9 and M10), one class of diesel-hydraulic locomotive (W3) and a pair of class Y Hunslet shunters.

The Sri Lankan railway fleet come from a variety of manufacturers so there was plenty of differences in styling and few looked like anything you might see on British shores (the exception, the class M9 diesel, was a dead-ringer for a British class 67 which makes sense you discover that both were manufactured by Alstom). Most classes are relatively small in number so you have a good chance of seeing a good mix on a trip to Sri Lanka.

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Stepping through time

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 28, 2018

Our introduction to Sri Lanka’s railway marvels began with a tour of Ratamalana Railway Workshops, a railway complex that was considered to be state of the art when it was constructed in 1935. At its peak the 77 acre site was served by a workforce of 4,000 skilled and unskilled workmen performing scheduled repairs on the entire rolling stock of the railway every few years. It’s still an impressive sight today and loaded with character.

Around the sprawling site we found various narrow and broad gauge survivors from the steam age, including: a gorgeous looking C1a class Garratt no. 347 (1946, Beyer Peacock); D2 class no. 21 (1914, R. Stephenson) as a stationary boiler; J1 class no. 220 (1925, Hunslet); L1b class no. 203 (1920, Hunslet). In one of the workshops we found B1a class 4-6-0 locomotive 251 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ (1928, Beyer Peacock) in bits. I don’t think any of us really believed the suggestion that it will be re-assembled and running in a couple of weeks!

In many ways it felt as though we were stepping through time with so many features and signs that quite possibly pre-date Sri Lankan independence in 1948. It was interesting to see Gledhill-Brook Time Recorders in the offices too. However, it wasn’t all frozen in time – along the way we saw the 2 stroke diesel, 4 stroke diesel and diesel hydraulic workshops plus plenty of quirky decorative additions from mermaids to fishermen.

It was a pleasure to take a look around this impressive site, albeit without its usual hum of activity. The workshops were eerily quiet with just a handful of workers on hand as we wandered through. However, there were plenty of signs of the ghost workforce with clothes strung up on lines everywhere you looked.

It gave me a little sense of how the big workshops of the steam age in the UK might once have looked. It’s certainly easier to get a feel for that here than when you are wandering around the shopping mall that was once Swindon works!

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Steam in Sri Lanka

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 27, 2018

The age of real steam may be almost over, but authentic looking recreations of the everyday sights for past generations are still possible in many places around the world where the infrastructure has yet to be completely modernized. Sri Lanka offers just such an opportunity with a wonderful variety of semaphore signals, traditional gantries and beautifully maintained stations. This will be the setting for our steam hauled mixed freights and passenger trains before much of this gets swept away.

Over a ten day stretch I will be participating in the madness of a FarRail photo charter that will take us deep into hill country and probably test the sanity of most. Our motive power will come from two locomotives, B2b 213 (Vulcan Foundry 3555/1922) and B1d 340 (“Frederick North”, Robert Stephenson 7155/1944).

Our locomotives, B2b 213 and B1d 340, outside the running shed at Kandy

The path to picture perfection is rarely smooth. You can pretty much guarantee that the exercise of trying to fit 32 photographers onto small rocky pinnacles and the like will not be achieved without a little heated debate and the occasional anguished cry. We won’t have a therapist or psychiatrist on our tour, so the best medicine is usually a bottle of beer at the end of the day…

The up side to this is that you can learn more about the art of photography and picture composition than on any course, picking up tips and advice from the many talented and published photographers on the trip. Sometimes it is a revelation to see the different angles each person has taken on the same shot. With all the help on offer, you would have to be trying very hard to come away with nothing.

The participants in the tour bring their own skill sets, but particularly meteorology (if we wait thirty minutes will that tiny opening in the clouds allow the sun to illuminate the train for the few seconds needed for a shot?), horticulture (how many blades of grass need to be removed to allow a clear shot of the tracks?), rock climbing (what shot couldn’t be improved after a ten minute impression of a mountain goat?), furniture arranger (wouldn’t that station bench be better positioned as a second row for a photo-line?) and animal tamer (how do I persuade that tethered cow stay to show me his most photogenic side as the train approaches?). Aside from this, it also helps to have plenty of patience and a ready supply of stories for the occasional hour when nothing is happening.

A grab shot of the group, perched opposite the Lion’s mouth (Moragalla Railway Tunnel)

One of the aspects that I like most about these tours is the freedom to experiment photographically, which is not always the case with photo-charters. There is no need to stand in a prescribed photo-line, so long as you are out of everyone else’s shot. Sometimes doing something different pays off, sometimes not. It’s nice to have the option.

I’m not expecting to walk away from the tour with the kind of master shot that my fellow photographers will produce, but if I can get a small set of images that do justice to the lovely setting then I will be more than happy.

Colonial Colombo

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 27, 2018

Colombo is not generally regarded as one of the highlights of the tourist circuit in Sri Lanka. More often than not it is left as an awkward last stop on the way to the airport at the end of a vacation. It is undoubtedly true that the city is no match for the ancient sights to be found across the island but it still has a fine legacy of colonial buildings and cultural sights that it would be a shame to miss.

The National Museum, Colombo

The reviews of the National Museum seemed decidedly mixed but after a bit of deliberation I paid up the 1000 rupee entrance fee and headed inside. I was glad that I did – there are some terrific exhibits to enjoy if you don’t mind the relatively conventional presentation. The air conditioning was also most welcome on a hot and humid day!

The star exhibits are the crown and throne of the last King of Kandy, which were returned to Sri Lanka by the Royal Family in the 1930s. However, there are plenty of smaller exhibits that reward close attention. Personal highlights included the 28 water colours painted by Andrew Nicholls in the 1840s, a rare pictorial record of Sri Lanka at this time; some oil lamps ingeniously crafted in the shape of birds and some striking 16th century fish hook coins that I have never seen the like of before.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee statue (1897)

It is also worth looking around the back gate to the museum for the rather marvelous statue of Queen Victoria, commissioned for her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It gained something of a reputation for bringing bad luck, prompting its relocation from a position outside the presidential palace to this rather quiet spot just across the road from Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park).

Viharamahadevi Park offers a few interesting sights of its own, including a large gilded Buddha facing the Town Hall (1927) but my eyes were immediately drawn to the rusting remains of a 2ft 6in gauge railway running through the park. It looks as though it must have been out of use for years but no clues to its history are offered in situ which is a pity. Quite apart from this, there were some rather amusingly worded signs that I couldn’t resist snapping…

What disasters await in Viharamahadevi Park?

Other sights that I enjoyed included the colourful kitsch exterior decoration of the Sri Subramananian Kovil, the striking red and white facade of the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, Seema Malaka temple on Lake Beira, the Clocktower in Colombo Fort and the Luytens designed Cenotaph War Memorial. There is easily enough to fill a day of wandering.

A wander alongside the seashore at Galle Face Green ended the day perfectly. It’s quite something to see this space come alive with families, street vendors and kite flyers as the sun sets.

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Doing the Colombo Crawl

Posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on January 26, 2018

It was a pleasure to step out onto the tarmac at Colombo this afternoon after 15+ hours spent in the air plus an interval aimlessly wandering the airport malls of Dubai.

I have arrived in Sri Lanka for a ten day stay to see and photograph a re-creation of some authentic looking steam-hauled passenger trains on the scenic broad gauge railway line into the mountains. Needless to say, I am happy to swap the 6 degree chill of London for the 30 degree heat of Colombo!

Welcome to Sri Lanka

The guidebooks to Sri Lanka mentioned that traffic was as nightmare in Colombo, but as we breezed along the expressway from the airport it was hard to imagine that there was any issue at all. It was only when the expressway merged into the regular route that I realised just how agonising the slow crawl of Colombo’s rush hour traffic could be, only inching forward with each change of the lights. Even the slowest prediction offered by the guidebooks proved to be far quicker than we managed! I dread to think how much slower the bus that avoids the expressway would have been…

The traffic situation makes a rail connection highly desirable but the efforts to offer this in the past have been relatively short-lived. The future offers more hope, with plans for the re-development of Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) that include the operation of an airport express rail service to Maradana. The existing line runs alongside the airport road and it looks as though the proposal is to build a station pretty much where it ends today with a connection to the airport by elevated passenger walkway. You can see some visuals for the station in a promotional video and there is a model on display in airside departures.

I am not entirely sure how the airport re-development plans I have seen tie into the announcement of a $2 billion investment in a maglev line between Colombo and Katunayake in June 2017, but it looks like one way or another the airport will be served by rail in the future.

A view of the Altair, Lotus Tower and other skyscrapers under construction (as seen from the Cinnamon Red Colombo)

My taxi ended up reaching my hotel in the last few moments of sunset. There was just about time enough to head up to the rooftop bar for a view of the Colombo skyline which has seen incredible change in the past couple of years. The two most striking additions are the Lotus Tower (350m) and the Altair (240m) which are scheduled for completion in 2018. On top of this there are many other skyscrapers, entertainment complexes and an entirely new port city under construction!

I’ve never been anywhere with so much work underway at the same time and can only imagine how bewildering it must be for the local population to see their city changing beyond recognition in such a short space of time. I hope the character of the city doesn’t get lost in the process.

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