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 Post subject: Podi Menike: Sri Lanka's Hill Country by Train
 Post Posted: Sun Sep 11, 2005 4:43 pm 
Great Train Journeys
Podi Menike: Sri Lanka's Hill Country by Train

Reserve a first-class seat in the Podi Menike train's observation car and sit back to marvel at mountains, forests... and landslides, says Peter MacNeil

Published: 20 November 2004
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but for independent travellers on the Indian sub-continent, foresight is even better. Start taking anti-malaria tablets weeks before you leave. Once on the move, phone ahead to confirm all flights and hotel rooms. Phone again to reconfirm. Don't keep all your currency in the same place. Book all rail journeys at least one week in advance. Even in this era of travel-for-all, it pays to get the fundamentals right.

In Sri Lanka, overlooking the seven-day booking principle can mean the difference between railway heaven and hell. Remembering to reserve a seat in the first-class observation car from Colombo through the hill country to Badulla guarantees you a ringside seat on one of the world's most scenic railway journeys. Failing to do so consigns you - no, condemns you - to interminable hours in a hot, fetid, overcrowded carriage with unsanitary toilets. You may not get a seat, or even a portion of a bench. The view outside the window will be scant compensation.

So hang the (minimal) cost and be on the platform at Colombo Fort station in time for the scheduled daily departure at 5.55am. There is no orderly queue for the ticket barrier here, but a desperate scramble to get on board as soon as the train appears on the platform. Some agile types dodge the scrum at the doors and manage to climb through the windows instead. But if you have had the foresight to make a reservation, there's no need to push and shove: your precious seat is waiting. The buffet car is just next door. The overhead fan is working. The picture window holds the promise of unforgettable sights. Your foresight has earned its reward.

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Landscape outside, becoming greener with every mile

Like all good railway journeys, the early stages are unremarkable, giving you time to settle in. The train rattles along at a good lick, heading north-east towards the hills. The climb begins about a third of the way into the 180-mile journey, and by mid-morning we're through the Balane Pass at an altitude of about 1,500 feet - high enough to take the sting out of the cloying heat. Back at the coast it would now be stifling, but the landscape outside, becoming greener with every mile, could belong to another country, another continent.

Fellow passengers in the observation car, who had been dozing, reading or chatting, now concentrate on the remarkable tableaux unfolding beyond the picture window. Cameras appear. The engine slows to 10 miles an hour, then to walking pace, as the gradients steepen. "Any faster and the wheels would slip," says the railway enthusiast across the table, who has been waiting all his life for this.

We stop at stations with long and unpronounceable names, each one higher than the last. At Nawalapitiya, 2,000 feet above sea level, a sudden shunt indicates that a second locomotive has been tacked on to share the burden. Together, past mid-day and into the afternoon, the engines pull their load deep into the Hill Country, through rain, mist and sunshine, past waterfalls and gullies, escarpments and ravines. Climbing past 5,000 feet, the hills are cloaked with the damp greenness of vast tea plantations, established by the British to make colonial Ceylon pay its way. Here, in a climate of perpetual spring aptly known as Little England, the occupiers built the weekend retreat of Nuwara Eliya, with its parks, lake, post office, country club and golf course apparently imported direct from the Home Counties. The town can no longer be reached by rail (although a narrow-gauge line, six miles long, used to branch off at Nanu Oya, where the staff on this tropical mid-afternoon are wearing coats against the drizzle and keen wind.)

Back on the mainline, the clanking restarts and we edge beyond 6,000 feet, to the high savannah of Horton's Plains, one of Sri Lanka's most attractive hiking areas, inhabited by monkeys, wild boar and deer. Unseen from the railway track, but known to all keen walkers, is a point where the plain comes to a sudden end at a cliff face that falls more than 2,000 feet. Quite properly, it's called World's End.

I feel a momentary shudder inside as we pass the evidence of a recent landslide - and make a mental note to ask the (now enraptured) railway expert whether the line has ever been swept away by an avalanche. But not quite yet.

The sudden darkness of a tunnel is reassuring. There are a total of 46 along the route - one every four miles or so - at places where the Victorian engineers found the topography impossible to bridge or circumnavigate. A few miles beyond Pattipola is the most notable construction of all: Summit Tunnel, the highest point of the railway at 6,226 feet. When the train emerges into daylight a mile further on, the drizzle has disappeared and there is a clear change in the colour and density of the vegetation. Incredibly, in that short distance, we have moved from one of Sri Lanka's major climate zones to another - from the Wet to the Dry.

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The engine slows to 10 miles an hour, then to walking pace, as the gradients steepen.

It's all downhill from here on. As the sun slips lower in the sky, the locomotives alternately accelerate and brake their way out of the Hill Country, over solid stone viaducts and through another warren of tunnels. If anything, the views are even more striking here than on the upward climb, especially at the Haputale Pass, where it is possible, on a clear day, to see the famous Dondra lighthouse at the southern tip of the island. But we are sated with scenery now, tired of travelling, anxious to stretch our legs.

One final railway buff's highlight remains. At Demodara, there are two stations belonging to the same line - one about 90 feet above the other. This is the world-famous loop, where the engineers decided the natural contours of the hill were too steep for safety, so they would reach the village by bending the line into the tightest spiral they could manage. Their ingenuity is best appreciated by clambering down the path from the upper station to the lower, but that would mean leaving the train and breaking the journey with an overnight stop. So much of interest has passed tantalisingly close to my gently moving eyrie that I have already resolved to return here later in life. Or perhaps, since we are in Buddhist territory, in another life.

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fellow passengers in the observation car, who had been dozing, reading or chatting.

Those of us who stay on board are rewarded with some last views of the mountains before the sun slips out of sight, and the exhilaration of hearing the brakes screech for the final time and hearing someone on the platform shout "Badulla" - our terminus. We are still 2,000 feet above sea level, but positively low-country in terms of the road we have travelled.

With only one unscheduled delay, the journey has taken a few minutes short of 12 hours. As we stumble groggily into the cool night air, I ask my friend whether things ever go wrong on this most ambitious of railway constructions. "All the time," he replies. "Landslides, derailments, engine and brake failures - scores of them every year."

One last word of advice, then, for adventurous visitors to the Indian sub-continent: make sure your travel insurance is up to date.


TRAVELLERS' GUIDE

The 'Podi Menike' train is scheduled to leave Colombo Fort every day at 5.55am, arriving at Badulla at 5pm. The return service leaves Badulla at 8.50am, arriving Colombo Fort 8pm. The observation car/first-class single fare costs 500 rupees (£2.50). Second-class fare 250 rupees (£1.25).

Sri Lanka Tourist Board: main office, 76-78 Steuart Place, Colombo, 00 94 11 2437059, www.srilankatourism.org.

Railway Information Centre, Colombo Fort station: 00 94 11 2440048. Open Mon-Sat 9am-4.30pm. They can help with timetables and booking arrangements.

The most spectacular section of the line to Badulla can also be reached from Kandy.

There is a Railway Information Centre at Colombo Airport: 00 94 11 2315260).

Sri Lanka's railway timetable is at www.atsrilanka.com/trains.htm

The Sri Lankan Tourist Board in London: 020-7903 2627.


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 Post subject: The upcountry railway line
 Post Posted: Mon Jan 01, 2007 8:29 pm 
The upcountry railway line
“Looping the loop” - Innovative rail track design at Demodara

At Demodara the surveyors discovered that the elevation of the hills was too great for the track to negotiate. With the maximum inclination allowed in railways at that time being one foot per 44 feet, an innovative track design had to be devised. Situated 172 miles from Colombo, Demodara has joined railway legend for its fascinating loop. It is said when surveyors were in a conundrum to proceed beyond Demodara, a local farmer suggested to the experts to build the track similar to the way his turban was tied. Thus the idea to build a looping track was suggested as a solution to the problem. After several years of construction, the track was finally commissioned in 1921 when the first train arrived at Demodara.

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The Sri Lanka railway network, which began operating in 1864, comprises nine lines radiating from Colombo, the most beautiful of which runs deep into the hills, travelling via Kandy and Nuwara Eliya before terminating in Badulla.

The upcountry railway line is one of the most picturesque in the region, winding through tea estates, pine forests and misty peaks, passing along the way waterfalls and heart wrenching precipices. Adding to this natural beauty are the man-made engineering garlands found along the way. Many of these structures date back to the British era, when the track was originally built.

It was no mediocre task to build the upcountry railway track. The feat is still celebrated as one of the greatest achievements of the colonial engineers. Many were the challenges laid in the path of the designers and engineers, to negotiate through the treacherous central hills. The innovative remedies which these 19th century masters came up with are still considered engineering masterpieces. The railway line around the Horton Plains is one of those fabulous masterpieces, while the many tunnels and bridges which made the journey from Colombo to Badulla are works of genius, considering the limited resources and technology available in the late 19th century.

However nowhere was the challenge greater for the railway builders than at Demodara. Though the track had negotiated a more gruesome path through the dense forests and the steep mountains, at Demodara the surveyors discovered that the elevation of the hills was too great for the track to negotiate. With the maximum inclination allowed in railways at that time being one foot per 44 feet, an innovative track design had to be devised. Situated 172 miles from Colombo, Demodara has joined railway legend for its fascinating loop.

The railway loop at Demodara, is not difficult to visualise with a little bit of imagination. It is easily visible from the Demodara railway station, though a passenger on the train might not comprehend the actual engineering feat involved. First conceptualised by Sri Lankan engineer, D.J. Nimalasurendra the design is called “Looping the loop”. This involves a tunnel which actually runs beneath the Demodara railway station. On the track which exists, the tunnel winds around a mountain, continuously ascending to end up at a higher elevation on what was the mountain under which the tunnel is built. This enabled the engineers to take the railway track to a higher elevation as required for it to reach the height at which it can ascend to the Central Hills, while at the same time keeping to the gradient stipulated by the standards.

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It is easy to imagine this stretch of railway at Demodra if one can visualise a ribbon that is worn for AIDS or Breast Cancer awareness. Similarly the track crosses itself, only at two elevations. The tunnel therefore, which is 320 metres long, is situated underneath the Demodara railway station.

The initial conceptualisation of the design is now railway legend. It is said when surveyors were in a conundrum to proceed beyond Demodara, a local farmer suggested to the experts to build the track similar to the way his turban was tied. Thus the idea to build a looping track was suggested as a solution to the problem. After several years of construction, the track was finally commissioned in 1921 when the first train arrived at Demodara.

The Demodara loop is the not the only railway attraction in the area. The magnificent Nine Arch Bridge between Ella and Demodara stations are just a few kilometres along the track from the station. This bridge which is nearly 100 years old has been built with blocks of stone and cement without any reinforcing iron or concrete. The tall arches take the bridge on a semi circular path to connect to mountains.

At both Ella and Demodara stations the equipment which was installed during its early days are still in function. Like gadgets from a toy shop, these levers and signalling equipment are in prime condition as they were 90 years ago. A good way to observe these fascinating treats along the upcountry railway is to break journey occasionally in places like Ella or Demodara and to either to take a bus for the rest of the journey or to catch a different train which traverses along the way.

Due to the poor maintenance of the upcountry railway line, the long term sustainability of these charming railway secrets is now in doubt. Hopefully with a little support from the relevant authorities the railway will resurrect itself to its former glory. Then engineering wonders like the Demodara loop and the Nine Arch Bridge will again take their due places in the hearts of enthusiastic travellers.


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