The railway line from Colombo to Badulla is a spectacular railway line which, over a distance of 180 miles, ascends from sea level to 6500 feet and then descends in to the Uva valley (or Uva Basin as it is usually called) to terminate at Badulla at 2000 feet. The railway was built by the British in the latter part of the 19th century primarily for freight. Since then very little has been changed. The gradients are steep and the tight curves prevent the use of modern rolling stock. There are 43 tunnels on this line and one complete spiral (at Demodera).
There are many avenues to reach the Central hills of Sri Lanka. Travellers could take air conditioned coach, a luxury car, van or a sea plane, but the best tip is, “Don’t miss that Train” the mountain railway up to Badulla would take you on a very picturesque journey and you would enjoy every minute of travelling by train. It takes you three different aspects of Sri Lankan life. First it would be urban settings, populated towns and traffic filled roads. The next is calm relaxed rural areas with large extents of paddy and coconut palms. An occasional buffalo would swing its giant horns would wave you off on your journey. After passing Polgahawela the apex of the coconut triangle, locomotives rushing in the opposite direction would whistle their way wishing you happy journey.
Once you pass Rambukkana, the adventure begins. The climb begins in serious after Rambukkana, there the railway becomes single track and the train pauses while the driver receives a token from the station master that confirms the track is clear. As the train climbs to Kadugannawa station at 517m above sea level, the scenery on one side of the track dives down deeply through wooded gorges. The flat coconut and paddy lands start disappearing and the scenery and the vegetation keeps changing. Every bend along the rail track would bring different scenery to the vision and the ruggedness would keep you spellbound. Rolling streams would disappear right under your carriage heading down deep valleys.
The line from Peradeniya Junction to Nawalapitiya via Gampola was opened in 1874. It was extended to Nanu Oya via Talawakelle and Hatton in 1885. The difficult stretch, climbing to a height of 6,226ft (1,897.7m) at the summit at Pattipola, reached Bandarawela in 1894. This became the highest point that any broad gauge railway line in the world has reached. (There are railway lines at higher altitudes but they are not as wide as broad gauge.) It was not until 1924 that the railway reached Badulla, due to the difficulties that had to be overcome in its construction.
Soon after leaving Talawakele two spectacular waterfalls come into view: The high and narrow St Clair Falls and the short and wide Devon Falls. An almost complete spiral/ zig zag follows as the train struggles to ascend to Nanu-Oya. Many passengers leave the trai
n stop at Nanu Oya, and board buses bound for the hill resort of Nuwara Eliya. The countryside is now rugged but green and the train is at over 5000 ft. Elgin Falls appears on the right side in a near inaccessible gorge. By the time the train arrives at Pattipola, the highest railway station in Sri Lanka, it is over 6000ft and the station is usually surrounded in mist (low clouds actually). By Sri Lankan standards it is quite cold. The crowded carriages are no longer a bother. It doesn’t seem to smell anymore although the carriage windows are now closed. The train is less crowded now.
By this stage you have spoken to a few fellow passengers and become friends. Platform staff and locals wear coats and turbans. It usually rains. The vegetation is different. Not a coconut tree in site. No paddy fields. Mostly Cypress and Eucalyptus forests are seen around.
A short distance from Pattipola station the train enters the Summit Tunnel and a little furthers on, at 6226ft the highest point on the railway. In passing through the tunnel the train has passed from the “wet zone” of the country into the “dry zone”. This is quite obvious when you emerge from the tunnel. No rain! The loco suddenly goes quiet and the brakes come into action for the steep descent which follows. The train now descends with a spectacular screeching of brakes and sparks from the wheels. An acrid smell comes from the train wheels and probably from the dynamic brake of the loco.
Tall pine and gum forests on all sides no signs of human habitation apart from the lone track man (wearing heavy clothes) blowing his whistle and waving the green flag. The Uva Basin now comes into view; the train emerges from one tunnel and enters another clouds float below. The main peak of the 6600ft high Namunukula range is visible in the far distance. Nothing matters anymore. You are in God’s own country. The sun is now low in the sky but there is more to come! There is hardly a sound from the loco. The train is travelling fast, too fast breaks come on again… screech…..tunnel…another tunnel and another tunnel….. Screech… more tunnels…short, long, medium length… Spectacular view and drop on the right side now…change seats… plenty of seats available now…not many people travel this far… Clouds float below in the Uva Valley. The train stops at Ohiya (the starting point for Lady Horton’s Plains and World’s End) then at Iddalgashinna and then on to Haputale.
Haputale is a pass and a real spectacular pass! On a clear day you would be able to see as far as Badulla on one side and as far as the Indian Ocean at Dondra Head (the southernmost point of Sri Lanka) on the other side!
The final descent begins now… through Diyatalawa, Bandarawela, Ella (another pass, this time towards the south-east) and on to Demodera. At Demodara there is the only complete spiral on the Sri Lankan railway system. Not spectacular but interesting. More tunnels and British style stone viaducts… brakes screech again….acrid smell…It is almost in Badulla, the last station in hill country railway track now.