Sri Lanka is one of the most fascinating tropical destinations on the planet. After you land at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, you’re probably itching to explore the rest of this teardrop shaped island. The famous tea plantations lie at the heart of the island, while the historic Galle Fort and the best beaches are waiting on the southern coast.
Travelling by train is one of the best ways to see this beautiful country and it’s definitely more comfortable than withering a bumpy bus ride! The Sri Lankan railways span some 1,446 kilometres and the island itself measures at a 440 km north to south – so you can see plenty of Sri Lanka travelling on the railroad tracks.
What’s it Like to Travel by Train in Sri Lanka
Train travel in Sri Lanka is an adventure, that’s for sure! Just visiting the country’s beautiful colonial style train stations offers some great photo-ops. The trains vary in comfort and many of them don’t include air-conditioned first-class cars, so you might need to adjust your expectations of comfort. If you’re travelling during the cooler seasons, though, the fresh air blowing through the open windows is more than enough to keep you feeling fresh.
Rather than just a means of getting from point A to point B, travelling by train is a delight in and of itself, as Sri Lankan railways boast some of the most scenic views of any railroad. The trains run through rainforests, cascading hills of tea plantations and even overlook the ocean on the coastline.
That being said, Sri Lankan trains run slow and are often late. It’s best to travel with an unhurried mind-set and without any set-in-stone plans. You’re on holiday, after all!
This map shows the main railway stations in Sri Lanka:
Trains also run to the east coast (Trincomalee and Batticaloa) as well as the popular destinations in the south (Galle and Matara).
Train Companies in Sri Lanka
The railways are run by Sri Lankan Railways. They have an English website where you can check timetables and ticket prices, which is very handy. But before you get too excited, remember that trains in Sri Lanka often run late of the published schedule, so don’t be too set on arriving at a fixed time.
In addition to Sri Lankan Railways, there are two companies offering private cars which are attached to the national trains. The cars by Rajadhani Express and Expo Trail offer first-class comfort with a price tag to match.
Train Classes in Sri Lanka
Roughly put, there are three classes on trains in Sri Lanka:
- 1st class: Air-conditioning! First class seats are available only on some trains and first class sleepers on selected overnight trains.
- 2nd class: Padded seating and fans. Seats can be pre-booked on selected trains.
- 3rd class: No reservations and no padded seating. In other words: crowded and uncomfortable.
+ Special mention
- 1st class observation car: The best spot for sightseeing, this car manly runs on the main line from Colombo towards Badulla. The car has seating facing a full-length window at the rear, which overlooks the tracks. The observation cars are very popular, so be sure to book ahead.
Though this offers a helpful overview, remember that one size doesn’t fit all! When we were travelling from Nuwara Eliy to Kandy, we boarded the train only to discover that our second-class tickets didn’t guarantee seating. We’re talking four hours on a train, standing up the whole way! So always make sure to check what your ticket includes when booking – and be ready to cough up those extra rupees for some added comfort.
Travelling by train in Sri Lanka is very affordable. To give some perspective on the prices:
- 1st class observation car from Colombo to Badulla: Rs. 1000 (USD $6.5)
- 2nd class seat from Colombo to Galle: Rs. 180 (USD $1.2)
You can reserve tickets by visiting a Sri Lankan train station up to 30 days before your intended date of travel. The stations have an information desk and the staff can usually assist you in English.
Some cars are “unreserved”, meaning it’s not possible to pre-book seats and tickets are only sold on the day of departure. These trains cannot be “sold out” so they do get quite crowded.
Our Favourite Route in Sri Lanka
Besides being convenient, train travel in Sri Lanka is incredibly scenic. One of the highlights of our 10 days in Sri Lanka was taking the train from Ella to Nuwara Eliya. The track runs at an altitude of 1,868 metres through some of the most verdant tea plantations in Sri Lanka. The views were absolute breath-taking. Sometimes it really is about the journey and not the destination.