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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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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