The Main Line – Nanuoya, Sri Lanka - Atlas Obscura

The Main Line

Nanuoya, Sri Lanka

Known as the most scenic route in Sri Lanka, this train line is steeped in history and offers an unparalleled view of the country. 

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The Main Line was the name given to this railway line by the British who are often credited with its construction beginning around 1874. It was the first major line constructed on the island and was originally designed to link tea growing estates in the mountains to the port at Colombo.

However, while the desire to build the railroad came from the British, many of its key elements were constructed and designed by a group of talented local engineers.

This fantastic railway line runs from Colombo Fort station to Badulla, some 182 miles to the east. It passes through both natural and cultivated countrysides, which include quite a few tea plantations. The breathtaking views and natural beauty are complemented by the train’s journey through various towns and villages. 

Even express trains along this line only travel at about 15 mph through the winding mountain terrain, allowing for passengers to soak in their surroundings. One of the more unique features along the line is the Demodara Railway Loop. This is a junction where the track spirals sharply, passing over itself to gain height in a short distance. Such configurations are not uncommon on railways in mountainous regions, but what makes this one so unique is the station that sits directly over the tunnel, allowing the line to cross itself. It’s said that the engineer who designed the loop was inspired by watching a man tie and retie his Talappawa. 

There is a famous train service along the Main Line called the Blue Train, which runs from Kandy to Ella. It’s a very popular trip among tourists due to the modern carriages and air-conditioned first class. The trains themselves are Chinese built, diesel multiple units, with a power car and driving cab at each end. However, the intercity services, which run all the way to and from Colombo Fort Station, are hauled by traditional diesel locomotives and include a much more diverse range of coaches. 

The second and third class coaches have opening windows and provide better views than first-class, making for better photo ops. Many of the trains also include a special observation car at the rear. It’s arguably the best way to experience the journey; with a marvelous view along the backend of the tracks.

One of the most well-used stations is Nanu Oya, which is the closest one to the mountain resort of Nuwara Eliya. It was here that British colonials decamped during the hot summer months. 

Know Before You Go

The coordinates are for Nanu Oya station which is the 63rd station on the line from Colombo Fort.

When getting off at Colombo Fort, hold onto your ticket until well outside the station, checkpoints seem to be numerous and random. You need to book the train a couple of days in advance to ensure you get the seat of your choice. Buying tickets on the day is cheaper, but with a 5-6 hour journey in first class, including advanced booking, at about £5, the cost is not really an issue.

If you have the time, a return route from Nanu Oya to Kandy by road (two buses per hour but a 4-5 hour trip, some are air-conditioned) will take you past some spectacular scenery you don't see on the train and is worth the extra time.

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Dr Alan P Newman
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