Take a three hour train trip from Colombo’s Fort station to Sri Lanka’s second city, Kandy, and there are plenty of reminders of the amazing legacy which Victorian railway pioneers left to this former outpost of the British Empire. While the train itself is likely to be one of the modern Chinese-built S12 diesel units dating from 2012, the bargain priced ticket (190 Rupees second class, or just under £1.00) will be a classic Edmondson card, like all the tickets issued at ticket offices throughout the country.
For the first 90 minutes of the 75-mile journey there is nothing too special to see, other than three unidentifiable steam locomotives standing at the depot just east of the capital, but things start to change when you get to Polgahawela Junction, 45.5 miles from Columbo and the place where the northern route towards Jaffna and Mannar diverges, with the first opportunity to see the classic lower quadrant semaphore signals that are a feature of the route from here to Kandy.
By my count, there are no less than ten stations from here onwards to Kandy which are signalled by semaphores, with numerous attractive junction signals on tall lattice posts, and notable locations being Rambukkana (52 miles from Columbo and the end of double track), Kadugannawa (65 miles from Columbo, where British-built M1 Class loco 560 stands alongside the station outside the transport museum) and the triangular Peridenya Junction, 71 miles from Columbo and just four miles south of Kandy.
But for lovers of mechanical signalling, the real treasure is at Kandy itself, location of the finest collection of semaphore signals anywhere on the island and home to a five-arm gantry on the southern approach to the station. Here the signal box at the southern end of platforms 1 & 2 is a masterpiece of British engineering, with a 63-lever Saxby & Farmer frame and no less than 56 working levers, and only seven painted in the traditional white to denote not being in use.
Like all Sri Lankans, the signallers at Kandy are a friendly bunch, only too happy to welcome a British tourist into their domain and happy to acknowledge the enduring quality of Victorian signalling technology, which also remains a notable feature of the routes beyond Kandy to Matale and Badulla. The Kandy signallers talk about double-manned shifts that keep the box open 24 hours a day, and happily do not seem to have any fear that their traditional methods are about to be swept away in the interests of progress, as is the case in Great Britain.
Action here seems to be almost continuous, with endless shunting of stock, including use of the nearby hand-operated turntable to turn the first class observation car that is a tourist-orientated feature of certain trains on the route from Colombo and on through the mountains to the end of the line at Badulla.
While most of the train movements take place at the south end of the station, several times a day the chaotic flow of traffic in front of the station is brought to a halt when a green metal gate across the single line leading north is unlocked to allow a train bound for the terminus station of Matale to leave platform 1 and continue its journey.