One of the most difficult pieces of information to find out in Sri Lanka, for us, was how to transport a bike by train. In our experience, sometimes even those who should be in the know are not and being armed with a little bit of foresight can make all the difference in making those all important travel plans.
Hopefully, if you are planning on cycle touring in Sri Lanka, you will find this info helpful to get you on your way.
So, first of all, it is unfortunately, not possible to put your bike on just any old train here. The new chinese trains do not have a goods carriage and so you will not be able to bring it on board, it’s simply not allowed. In our experience, the only option is to put your bike on a mail train. These usually travel at night and stop at every little station on the way to their destination. We did not, however, want to tavel at night and so we sent our bikes on the 3am train and we followed on a different train the next day. Despite our worries, our bikes were unloaded at the right stop and were ready and waiting for us when we reached our destination. When we questioned the man in charge of the baggage facilities before buying any tickets, he told it us it wasn’t possible to do this, but you should always seek a second opinion. So we asked the Station Master who told us it was no problem at all and not to listen to that eejit in the baggage office, or something to that effect.
First things first, you will need a train ticket. If you are travelling on the same train as your bike, head to the ticket counters first to make sure you can get a seat on the train. During feast days and holidays, trains can be busy and so it’s best to make sure you can get that important ticket before you send your bike off into the sunset. As we were travelling the next day, we couldn’t get our tickets until then. The system is quite confusing and for some reason they wouldn’t sell us the tickets a day in advance. And so we began the rigamarole of checking in our bikes. This will be the same whether you are travelling on the same train as your bike or not. The rate is approximately 4 ruppees per kilometre of travel and then a few taxes thrown on at the end for good measure. There are a few forms to fill out, nothing too taxing and you hand over the money. Once you’ve paid, you’ll be given a duplicate of your form (a receipt) that you will need to get your bike back.
Then you need to hand over the bike. You’ll be directed to another room, where there will probably be other people dropping off goods for transport. We made a mistake here, we hadn’t attached any sort of a label to our bikes and so we had to make do with their arrangement at the office. Namely, a tiny scrap of cardboard tied on to the handlebars with a measly bit of string. In hindsight, I would have made a label myself, with a large piece of cardboard and a bit more secure in it’s attachment. The label should state your name (as given on the receipt you have), a contact number and the name of the station that your bike is going to. You can drop your bike off approximately 3 hours before the train leaves, so there is no panicked rush at the end. Remember, you must remove all accessories that aren’t attached to the bike; bottles, cycle computers, etc. And then you must abandon your trusty steed to the (hopefully) careful hands of the employees of Sri Lankan Railways.
When we arrived at our destination, we headed straight to the baggage office to see that our bikes had made it and were still in one piece. We had had a fairly worrisome few hours while we were seperated from them as we couldn’t find any detailed previous reports of anyone having done this. They were the first thing we saw when we poked our heads in the office and so we breathed a sigh of relief and handed over our receipt in exchange for the bikes. We did insist on giving them a once over before signing a registration book to say we had received them. If here had been an issue and we had already given our signatures, I’m sure we would have had no comeback at all. I’m unsure if we would have had much recourse if they had been damaged but I certainly wasn’ going to sign the book until we had checked.
And so we had transported our bikes in Sri Lanka, pretty much hassle free. The biggest headache is trying to figure out which train your bike can go on. Once you know that much, you should be armed with the right information to get all the paperwork sorted out. One important point to note is that you can not currently bring a bike on the train from Jaffna station. Even though the trains have begun running again to the city, they will not take goods on any of the trains from the station due to fear of terrorist activity. Hopefully this will all change in the near future along with the need for a permit to visit the Northern Province. If you do wish to transport a bike from Jaffna, you will have to cycle 6km east to Navatkuli station where it will be no problem at all!
An additional tip if you’re travelling in the highlands: If you’re like us, forking out the extra cash for first class is a waste of time. You can’t open the windows and there are massive tv screens throughout the carriage blaring out nonsense. Much more fun, we think, to enjoy second class with everyone else and hang out the windows and enjoy the scenery.
For more information on general train tavel in Sri Lanka, The Man in Seat 61 is a great source of information.
If you have any questions about taking a bike on the train in Sri Lanka, or if there’s anything that I haven’t covered, please feel free to comment below.