Sri Lanka Railways runs the nation's railways, and trains are a great way to cross the country. Although they are slow, there are few overnight or all-day ordeals to contend with. A train ride is almost always more relaxed than a bus ride. Costs are in line with buses: even 1st class doesn’t exceed Rs 1000. Most stations have helpful information windows where English is spoken.
In addition, a couple of companies run private air-con train cars, which are attached onto regular trains. Although more expensive and less atmospheric than the 1st-class observation cars on Sri Lanka Railways, these private cars offer air-con and snacks and may have seats available when regular classes are already fully booked. Rajadhani Express runs to Kandy, Badulla, Galle and Matara, while Expo Rail serves Kandy and the Hill Country.
There are three main rail lines in Sri Lanka.
South from Colombo A scenic delight. Recently renovated, runs past Aluthgama and Hikkaduwa to Galle and Matara.
East from Colombo To the Hill Country, through Kandy, Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) and Ella to Badulla. A beautiful route, the portion from Haputale to Ella is one of the world’s most scenic train rides.
North from Colombo Through Anuradhapura to Mannar and also to Jaffna. One branch reaches Trincomalee on the east coast, while another serves Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa.
Other Lines The Puttalam line runs along the coast north from Colombo, although rail buses run between Chilaw and Puttalam. The Kelani Valley line winds 60km from Colombo to Avissawella.
Trains are often late. As traffic surges and efforts at upgrading the system struggle, long delays of an hour or more are not uncommon.
Two good independent references for Sri Lanka trains:
www.seat61.com/SriLanka A good overview.
http://slr.malindaprasad.com Schedules and some fares.
There are three classes on Sri Lankan trains (although many have no 1st class):
1st class Comes in three varieties: coaches, sleeping berths and observation saloons (with large windows). The latter are used on some trains east and north from Colombo and are the preferred means of travelling these scenic lines. Some have large rear-facing windows and vintage interiors.
2nd class Seats have padding and there are fans. On some trains (but not to Galle) these seats can be reserved in advance.
3rd class Seats have little padding and there are no reservations. The cars accommodate as many as can squeeze in and conditions can be grim.
The air-con train cars run by private companies are slightly more expensive than regular 1st class; fares average around US$12.