FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Time and tide

Posted in Colombo, Galle, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 9, 2020

Our northbound steam hauled coastal express headed out of Galle around 8.30, taking us up the single line that had been hidden from us in the darkness last night. We made good progress, helped by some diesel assistance, pausing along the route from time to time to allow trains to cross or overtake us. The trains we saw crossing and passing us amply demonstrated that this line was still very busy outside the working week.


Once again we made a lengthy stop at Aluthgama (11.02) to take on water and allow some express trains to overtake us, before continuing up the line to Payagala South (13.12) and North (13.14). Our arrival on the most scenic section of line in early afternoon meant it was time for some photographic action. The weather gods had fortunately once again blessed us with blue skies and sun.

The best position for us to stand for one of the shots here turned out to be out to sea, so off we strode into the sea with trousers rolled-up armed with stepladders and stools in the hope of putting us out of reach of the ever higher waves of the incoming tide. This failed the intelligence test on many counts. My step-stool steadily sank hopelessly into the sand, undoing any good that it might have done, while others found their stepladders completely submerged by the time our loco steamed past.

We looked quite absurd to each other, so goodness knows what the locals made of us. Not that has ever stopped us from doing utterly bonkers things in the name of photography (I’m thinking of painting coaches in the Brazilian midday sun as a classic example).

After four runpasts we re-joined the train and continued on our way, passing through Katukurunda (14.07), Kalutara South (14.18), Kalutara North (14.52), Train halt no. 1 (14.58) and then Wadduwa (15.07). The journey was not dull with plenty of local scenery on offer, including many games of cricket (on both sand and grass), an array of stupas and hundreds of fish being dried on village roofs.


The stop at Wadduwa should have been a simple pause to allow an assortment of trains to overtake us, but one of these seemed to have hit trouble. Water was pouring from the radiator of the class M7 diesel (806) as it arrived with a Colombo bound passenger service (15.22) and with the engine shut down looked to be going nowhere fast. The crew started passing buckets of water up to a colleague on the roof of the diesel who was dutifully filling her up. In the light of this our steam hauled special was given the road but not too much later a neat bit of wrong-line working allowed the signalers to route the revived diesel past us.

Things started to fall apart as we got closer to Colombo with an interesting photo stop at a beach between Koralawalla and Moratuwa cancelled by the railway authorities when nearly everyone was in position, then a sunset shot later in the afternoon was lost when the train was sent by the railway authorities fast to Colombo Fort before our buses could be sent to an appropriate location. I can only imagine the immense frustration that our tour organiser felt at this point.

Thankfully we got a memorable last shot in the bag at Mount Lavinia (17.20) which involved a walk along the tracks, through the bathers on the beach and onto a photo position on the rocks overlooking the track. Once again it looked bonkers, especially as ever higher waves were crashing against over our feet and trousers, but it was fun. I don’t rate the picture I took but the experience was unforgettable.

Our day ended at Wellawatta (17:53) and from there we returned to our hotel in Colombo and a wonderful evening of conversation. It was a brilliant way to end my all-too short participation in this tour. I really wished I could be continuing on with the group.


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Morning in Galle

Posted in Galle, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 9, 2020

A night with bursts of sleep at our hotel, the Fairway Sunset, was followed by a reasonably leisurely breakfast in the rooftop restaurant. The views over Dewata Beach and across to Galle Fort were quite splendid, particularly with the spectacle of the local fishermen pulling one of their boats in.

A fishing boat comes in at Dewata Beach

My room had an impressive balcony looking out onto the level crossing and railway track which allowed for a little unexpected early morning railway photography. I’m not sure if regular guests as impressed by this, or the sound of trains rumbling past in the early morning, but it worked for me!

Today’s plan will see us return from Galle to Colombo. Our southbound journey yesterday was made easier by the lighter traffic of a public holiday, but we don’t have that advantage today so we’ll have to cope with a few more service trains on the line. On top of that we’ll be travelling against the light, making the photography more challenging. It will be interesting to see how many opportunities we get once we get going.

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Boats, beaches and a B1a

Posted in Colombo, Galle, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 8, 2020

Our run south along the coast towards Galle took us past three trains in succession heading in the opposite direction, each packed to the rafters. Our train was also filled with local passengers, all extras paid (and fed) to join the train for the day to help give it an authentic feel through the photostops. In between stops it also gave the carriages a lovely friendly atmosphere.

The attention to detail on the tours run by FarRail is second to none, which I really appreciate. However, that is only a fraction of the incredible organisation and behind the scenes work required to achieve this. The heroic efforts to deliver the best trip began long before that, ranging from the manufacture of new parts to keep the locomotives working to the air freighting of oil to overcome local shortages.

Our train on the line between Payagala North and Katukurunda

The temperature had risen to around 35 degrees as the clock struck midday, accompanied by a welcome sea breeze. In these conditions our train had reached a stretch of line between Kalutara South and Payagala North with the most idyllic setting imaginable – an authentic combination of palm trees, boats and the gentle lapping of the Indian Ocean against the shore. For around an hour in the early afternoon sun we photographed our train in paradise.

Sometimes the temptations of a better vantage point brought extra challenges, such as when we walked further round the sweep of one beach to find the tide coming in surprisingly quickly after finishing the shot. The setting was lovely – a curving beach, driftwood, traditional boats and a line of palm trees behind the track. All it needed was for the photographer not to screw up his shot. Ho hum!

B1a 251 ‘Governor class’ 4-6-0 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ on the curve at Katukurunda

After our photo frenzy we re-boarded our train and continued on to Payagala North (14.05). From Payagala South (14.18) we joined the single track which would take us all the way to our destination at Galle. At Aluthgama (14.47) we stopped for the loco to take on water from a local tanker. The volume of local passengers and tourists on the platform was a clear indication that some late-running trains were expected in both directions.

As we settled in for the wait at Aluthgama the station cafe was opened up and an enterprising local chap set up an impromptu beer delivery service. There was time enough to check out their turntable (Cowans Sheldon & Co Ltd of Carlisle 1960). The stop turned out to be longer than anyone expected and it was not until 16.22 that we set off again, after three diesel worked local trains had passed through.

Our journey south took us on to Bentota (16.27), where our extras left; Induruwa (16.40); Mahu Induruwa (16.45); Kosgoda (16.50); Piyagama (16.57) and Ahungalla (17.00). A quick stop between Piyagam and Ahungalla allowed us to get a shot with one of the many semaphore signals still on this route and to observe one of the stranger sights of the day – a cow tied up in the middle of a football pitch.

The train reached Ambalangoda at 5.25pm, with a stop of just short of an hour to let service trains cross and overtake us. After a false departure we headed away with the diesel on the back for the run through the dark to Galle (19.35) with occasional glimpses of the festivals to celebrate the new moon. It was a long but satisfying day and worth a bottle or two of ginger beer at the hotel to celebrate (no beer is sold on religious holidays).


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Coastal express from Colombo

Posted in Colombo, Galle, Sri Lanka by folkestonejack on February 8, 2020

The tour got underway this morning with a run along the coast from Colombo Fort to Galle, a distance of around 70 miles, with the track rarely too far from sight of the shore.

Our motive power for the day would be provided by freshly overhauled B1a 251 ‘Governor class’ 4-6-0 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ (Beyer Peacock 6469/1928) hauling three coaches with M4 class 747 ‘Kelani’ (Montreal Locomotive Works, 1975) as our standby diesel. The timings to work around the marginally lighter holiday services would be tight, with five photo stops planned in the schedule and the hope that more could be squeezed in on the fly.

B1a 251 ‘Governor class’ 4-6-0 ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ (Beyer Peacock 6469/1928)

It was hard to imagine better conditions for photography when we stepped off our tour buses and onto the main coastal road. Perfectly blue skies with not a cloud in sight. A vast improvement on the last time I spent time on this stretch of line photographing regular services with an abundance of cloud and barely a glimpse of the sun. It would have been easy to forget why we were here with temperatures in the mid 30s and the tempting sound of the ocean lapping against the shore!

The delayed departure of our train from Colombo Fort (originally scheduled for 8.00) gave us ample time to explore the options for photographing our coastal express as it passed by. The complications of a streetside view with traffic and street furniture, plus the probability of people stopping at the last moment to photograph the spectacle on their smartphones, persuaded me that a higher viewpoint would be preferable.

The staff of the Hotel Sunhill were most accommodating in allowing us to take their lift up to their rooftop terrace. It turned out to be the most fashionable spot to be on this fine morning with a jet-setting crowd of photographers lining the walls when we got up top. I found a spot and settled in for the wait, with plenty of entertainment from the regular passenger services in the meantime. Never dull with the astonishing variety of diesel traction on offer here.

Our steam hauled coastal express heads towards Bambalapitiya

Our patience was rewarded at around 9.20. From our exclusive rooftop vantage point we watched as our train made its way along the coast and on to Bambalapitiya, the next station on the line. A glorious sight with a long trail of smoke, even if not necessarily the most straightforward or satisfying of photographs judging by my efforts. Once the moment was over it was time to get back down to the street, into our buses, and on to Mount Lavinia.

It seemed appropriate to spend a bit of time at Mount Lavinia Hotel to photograph ‘Sir Thomas Maitland’ steaming through as the buildings at the heart of the hotel were part of Sir Thomas Maitland’s original mansion. The mansion was built in 1806 during his tenure as the second Governor of British Ceylon, but adapted for use as an asylum and then the forerunner to the hotel of today.

The Mount Lavinia Hotel is a lovely place and the staff were kind enough to let us spend a moment or two on their terraces and on a service bridge over the line to grab a few rather unusual shots. It’s a little hard computing the combination of sandy beaches, palm trees and steam locomotives when it’s so far from the image in my head of the traditional setting for British locomotives.

The view from the terraces

Once we had the shots in the bag it was time to board the train (10.45) and head south. Our express took us through Ratmalana (10.55), Angulana (11.00), Lunawa (11.01), Moratuwa (11.04), Koralawella (11.07), Egodayuana (11.10), Panadura (11.17), Pinwatta (11.24) and then brought us to a stop at Wadduwa (11.30). Our stop allowed a diesel hauled passenger express to overtake us (12.00) before we continued on our way south (12.07).

As mornings go, this had delivered plenty already but we still had the promise of some interesting running along the coast not too much further down the line. In the meantime, it was great catching up with old friends, enjoying the wonderful scenery and marveling at our ability to enjoy such a spectacle in the 21st century!


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