The old Fort region of Colombo is one of the busiest sections of the city. It’s the trade quarter where all the goods that come in from the various countries are stocked and sold by wholesale tradesmen. It’s also where some important government departments such as the Sri Lanka Customs Headquarters, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and the Merchant Shipping Department. The Colombo Port is in the same area too; which makes the place bustle with businessmen, sailors and other workers. Adding to this conglomeration are the common folk who go there, not only to purchase goods for a lower price, but also to travel.
The reason travelers come here is, because this is where the Central Bus Stand, for buses from all the main routes, is; and also where the Colombo Fort Railway Station is. This Railway Station is the biggest station of Sri Lanka and has quite a bit of history.
The railway line was started over a 150 years ago by the British. At the time, the Central Terminus was in a place near Maradana, The location can still be seen as it is now serving as the Sri Lanka Railway Museum. In 1877 the Coastal Railway Line was created, and that is when the first Fort Station came into use. At the time it was just a small stop located west of where the current station is. It was the terminal just after the Central Terminus, and not at all the same size that it is now. Meanwhile, the Central Terminus was decommissioned in 1906 and a larger railway station in Maradana came into use. But then in 1908 the swiftly growing railway operation started making even the new station defunct. As the space near at the Maradana railway station was limited due to the complicated network of railway lines that crisscrossed near the station; plans were made to make the nearby Fort station the main terminal. The construction work began after proper designing and took a few years as the structure was quite extensive. It was completed in 1917 and the entire operation was moved to the location where the Colombo Fort Railway Station is today.
What you can see now is the original colonial era structure with just a few changes. These were namely the replacement of rotting wooden boards, which were used for stairs and railings, with cement stairs and stainless steel railings. The many cafeterias, waiting rooms, powder rooms and bathrooms have received a facelift within the last decade or so, bringing them to the modern era.
However, the slightly dilapidated-looking outer structure, the little booking rooms with their dated wooden booths, the old roof with its black steel girder supports, the old-fashioned wood and steel railway tracks, and the many old trains that pull up in the station along with the new ones; all add to the aura of having travelled backwards into time. The platforms are always crowded with the hundreds of thousands of travelers who pass through the station daily. Throughout the day and night the bustle of the place never ceases. Though many new additions have been made; the beauty of the original station remains eternal and everlasting; a footprint of Sri Lanka‘s colonial history.
Things to note:
- If you are on holiday in Sri Lanka during one of the peak tourist seasons; make sure to book over a month in advance to get even the most basic seat. During this time, the trains are so full that even the first class cabins are jam-packed like a sardine can.
- The station bathrooms are quite filthy, despite being cleaned fairly often. This is due to the sheer number of people who pass through. So if you hope to go there, be forewarned that it will be like the Fifth Circle of Hell or something equivalent.
- Be very careful with your possessions. Since there are many people thieves and pickpockets abound. There are some who will pick up a luggage placed on the ground nearby and vanish with it, and you can never get it back with the huge crowd. So keep a very good hold of your things. If you do lose your things inform one of the officers at the information counter.
- The information counter, while usually being helpful, has also been known to falsify information with regards to certain places. This is due to the political agendas of individual officers, which are unavoidable in all countries. So it’s best to find your information beforehand from reliable sources, and only approach the counter with regards to station related information; such as the booking rooms for the trains, and where a location in the station is.
- Double-check the ticket prices online before visiting the station; as there are some records of tourists being overcharged by the person at the ticket counter. The extra is usually added to that person’s pocket.
- Be alert to scams where you’re asked to donate sums of money to people holding pieces of paper stating that they are disabled with one thing or another. These people are usually scammers, who are faking it. If you do wish to donate, please do so at a proper Disability Home such as the one in Rajagiriya. There is a very good chance that these scammers are not only trying to skim some money off you, but also trying to spy on you to see how much you have on your person. They then pass on the information to an organized gang of thieves who carry out a Fagin-style (ref: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens) robbery.
- Make sure to bring your own snacks, as the unsealed snacks such as bakery goods that can be bought on board the trains are not very reliable on the stomach.