26 October, 2020

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The ExpoRail Experience

By Emil van der Poorten –

Emil van der Poorten

That the fraud that claims that Public, Private Partnerships (PPP) are the greatest thing since sliced bread lends itself to ready transference across continents and oceans was brought home to me most forcefully recently when we were taken in by the advertising hype of one of these operations and bought (inordinately) expensive rail tickets to the Eastern Coast.

I am referring to the journey on ExpoRail  from Kurunegala to Trincomalee on the 11th April and return on the 14th April 2013.

We bought two return tickets on the ExpoRail website on what seemed like a luxury train, judging by the pictures and description.  To say that we were “taken for a ride” would be to seriously understate the case!

The Kurunegala Station was a ramshackle building – filthy, decrepit and falling apart – with no maintenance having been done for years. The “gardens” were overgrown and garbage was strewn all over.  Commuters, packed like sardines, waited outside the still-to-be-opened ticket counter.

The only body that seemed to belong to the station was stretched out on an armchair, in an otherwise-deserted office, all swathed in cloth suggesting a recent escape from some set of The English Patient!

The train eventually arrived, more than an hour late, and we were informed by the Exporail staff in charge of the cabin that we could not board it with the Exporail printout we had. This printout said that when we produce it at the Kurunegala Station we would be issued a normal CGR ticket so we could board the train.  There was much arguing between the ExpoRail and the CGR reps and by dint of persuasion by my partner, finally, very reluctantly, the ExpoRail rep.s, making us feel that we were the recipients of  a Sri Lankan version of a Papal Dispensation, we were let on board.

Having clambered up a rather rudimentary ladder into our “carriage,” we were greeted by a rivulet of liquid of indeterminate origin emanating from the washroom/toilet on the train and leaving the same portal through which we had just entered.  I suppose the good news in this scenario was that the toilet/washroom was not at the far end of the passage because then we would have had a little stream to negotiate each time we had occasion to leave our seats!

The toilets were a mess – water all over the floor, no running water to the washbasin and the flushes were not working!!  When you had occasion to visit the toilet, the ExpoRail guy, seated at its door, would offer you a bottle of water to be utilized in any manner you wished!

Finally with a series of “leap-stop” lurches, our train seemed to want to leave the station.  Having succeeded in avoiding violent contact with the wall in front of our front-row seats, we then began to experience the pitching, tossing and “shake-rattle-rolling” of our carriage, the like of which NONE of us had ever experienced before, anywhere, in any mode of transport.

This was not like the bone-jarring vibrations experienced on the Kandy/Colombo trains, caused by an unstable rail-bed. This was beyond imagining and threatened, literally, to toss us out of our seats.  The fact that this turbulence subsided significantly once the train gathered speed, suggested that it had something to do with whatever suspension the coach rode on (or didn’t have).  However, that respite was short-lived because it seemed that, for whatever reason, the train stopped at what seemed like the railway equivalent of bus stops to drop off  or pick up goodness knows whom or what, in one instance, dozens of wooden boxes containing ‘day old’ chickens!!  After every such stop, it recommenced its agonising torture to the passengers who had overpaid – grossly – for the “privilege.”

We were served a “buth” packet containing very cold yellow rice, 2 or 3 minute pieces of chicken, a sambol, and green pea curry (which had gone stale) This was beyond description in that any self-respecting “kaday-keeper” would have been embarrassed to serve this mess, leave alone charge you for it.  Thank God we’d had a snack earlier!  Then the “steward” served us with cups of coffee which we could not drink because the train was in a state of turbulence befitting a mid-Atlantic storm and we would have scalded ourselves if we tried.  We sent it back and asked that it be served at the next stop.  This did not work either because no sooner were our cups delivered, than the train’s inimitable motion re-commenced.

Also, as anyone of our age group would appreciate, a six hour journey requires at least one “pit stop.”  At this point, let me suggest to the reader that waiting for a halt in the train’s progress to use the toilet is inappropriate, because, no sooner had I arranged my outer garments to facilitate that necessary bodily function, the train began its routine of lurch-stop and rock and roll.  Suffice it to say that I discovered contortionist skills that I never knew I possessed in my efforts to, successfully, avoid severe embarrassment!

The three delightful days we spent at our destination were marred by the prospect of what awaited us on our return journey.  And our worst fears were realized.

The same story was repeated on the 14th when we tried to board the train in Trincomalee to get back to Kurunegala. The ExpoRail guys just refused us entry with the internet document we had. My partner was physically prevented from entering the carriage.  An attempt to get the ExpoRail Head Office on the telephone was unsuccessful because they were closed for the holidays!  I am convinced that it was only because of the embarrassment created by our shouting and my threats to expose ExpoRail and their inefficiency by writing to the media that they ultimately let us on board.

To our horror we discovered that the toilet leaking water all over the place and an absence of running water to the taps and the toilets had still not been attended to. Three days later and no repairs had been effected! So much for concerns of even elementary hygiene by this “luxury train-service provider.”

To repeat what we went through on the return journey would be tedious in the extreme.  Suffice it to say that added to the earlier misery was the fact that the stops were of longer duration and more frequent and we arrived in Kurunegala TWO hours late.

I would be remiss in my duty to readers if I didn’t describe the dinner served on our return journey. We, again, requested a “non-vegetarian” meal.  This consisted of some lightly “tempered” rice – nothing more – no curries or even a sambol.  When we asked the steward to identify the “non-vegetarian” element in the styro-box, he told us that since the rice was boiled in “chicken-stock” it met the menu description.  I trust any reader of this column will not be surprised by our incredulity at this response!

To describe what was charged for this “experience” as a rip-off would be a monumental understatement in the circumstances and it would really be more appropriate for ExpoRail to COMPENSATE anyone boarding one of these “special trains” and trying to consume their “non-veg” meal and coffee than to actually CHARGE them for the experience.

While this experience is truly an appropriate metaphor for train travel (and life) in the Debacle of Asia I really wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy unless his last name happened to be ………!

A thought in closing, though, would not be inappropriate I think:  is this yet another of the money-laundering enterprises that have become the rule rather than the exception in the Debacle of Asia, because that could be the only viable explanation for this travesty in travel.

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    SRI LANKA IS ON THE VERGE OF BANKRUPTCY . RAJAPAKSE SAMAGAMA HAS LOST ALL SUPPORT FROM THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE AND SOON , I THINK , EMBARGOES WILL BE PLACED ON SRI LANKA FOR ITS VIOLATIONS OF THE UNHRC RECOMMENDATIONS .

  • 0
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    Emil;
    no matter worries mate. MR and family Inc are proposing a monorail!. That should be a good experience too.
    Thanks muchly for Your essays.

  • 0
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    Thanks for enlightening us on the wonder of asia experience. I was under the impression that this was equivalent to at least economy class on a budget airline. Having travelled on Japanese bullet train and India rail, I would have hoped that our people could at least match the Indian service. Sounds like a rip off.

  • 0
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    What you say is fairly true; i travelled on exporail from colombo to kandy in what was termed “airconditioned luxury” but on the carriage i travelled – there was some lining loose on the front of the carriage and so hot air funnelled into the carriage from there.
    Exporail it is time you get your act together – or else have the Tourism ministry take a look at some of your carriages to ensure that
    travellers get “what they at least pay for”.
    the staff were apologetic – on the return things were a bit better because this was another carriage.

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    While expo-rail’s service leaves much to be desired (the maintenance of the toilet, the quality of the meal, that they don’t serve hot beverages in covered cups (like McDonald’s)) they can hardly be faulted for the shortcomings of the Sri Lankan railways – maintenance of the buildings, non-availability of staff to issue tickets against the reservations, delays and stoppages, maintenance of railway tracks, etc.

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      Sifaan:
      We bought tickets from ExpoRail and I think we, very reasonably, expected them, not the Sri Lanka Government Railway, to deliver on what we paid for and they promised.

      Surely, someone paying for a service from ExpoRail can’t, in addition, be expected to sort out any problems they have with the Government Railway!

      Unfortunately, this kind of excuse for abominable service is constantly trotted out when the current holder of a position claims that every crime and misdemeanour from that POSITION be forgiven because he/she had not occupied it since its inception!

      This appears to be an accepted part of “Sri Lankan Service Culture” and, I am sure is appreciated by such as tourists who are expected to recommend Sri Lanka to others and return to it themselves!

  • 0
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    Thanks Emil! Enlightening!
    This is a sign of the Rajapassa DEVELOPMENT PRIORITIES!
    ZERO spending on public transport, whether train services or bus for the common people, but lots on racing cars and tax free SUVs for the politicians and their half-witted sons.

    How the Sinhalaya modayas are fooled by the Rajapassa rhetoric about doing development for the people when the county has been bankrupt by white elephant Hambantota airports and sea ports sans planes and ships.
    A fraction of the funds spent on the Hambantota white elephants would have been enough to completely over haul the island’s public transport system and ensure air conditioned buses, trains and bus and train stations for ALL the citizens of Lanka to use.
    With an uneducated moron called Basil Rajapassa who knows only to operate petrol pumps in LA and is HIGHWAY MAN as minister of Economic development – the Banana Republic of Asia is truely a MIRACLE!

  • 0
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    These are carriages that belong to the CGR and they have been given a so called facelift.Expo Rail and the other operator Minister Earl Gunesekera are only using them on lease .These carriages are over 30 years old and the suspension and under carriage repairs are long overdue….

  • 0
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    Thanks Emil for the enlightening piece.
    I almost got my parents to use their services to head towards B’wela. Thank God, sanity prevailed and my dad insisted on std. observation carriage tickets instead… :)

    So long as the appropriate parts of the ‘machinery’ are oiled, any crook can get away with any sorta crap- who are you gonna complain to anyways?!

    The new-rich types have no shame. They just need to keep piling up the dosh, so they could diversify into other such ventures and make even more dosh… ;)

    Cheers!

  • 0
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    shaking and jumping is the specialty of Sri Lankan trains in general. People like Emil cannot enjoy their life in Sri Lanka. They better live in concrete jungles with more stable life and more lixury. Few of these pople don’t know the life beyond luxury. I don’t know how these guys will enjoy a trip/hiking like this: http://trips.lakdasun.org/memorable-journey-to-ohiya.htm

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      Polo:
      It might help to read what is written before you leap to the “defence” of goodness knows what.

      I really don’t know what you mean when you say, “Few of these pople don’t know the life beyond luxury” but if it is meant to mean that all I expect is “luxury” in this country, it might help to know that I do have a bit of experience spending time in the less-inhabited parts of more than one continent: I suspect a little more than you! In this instance, good money was paid to someone advertising a train journey to Trincomalee in a special carriage – not for an experience in outdoor living -and they simply did NOT deliver on that undertaking.

      The journey was simply a rip-off by an unscrupulous operator, no less, and to try to bury that fact under a bunch of irrelevancies speaks for itself.

  • 0
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    Emil van der Poorten

    I’m so glad this happened to you.

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    I don’t think it’s fair to blame all ills on expo rail. I have travelled to trinco, badulla and kandy many times on expo.
    Once I ve travelled on rajhdhani express to kandy. Trinco has been my worst experience and kandy the best.

    What Emil says of his experience in trinco was somewhat like this even 6 months or more ago. However it is not expo rail which can control all the problems this journey has, as u mention this is a lease and my understanding is the maintenance is the responsibility of CGR . . The wifi on the carriage does not work. This is also something expo rail could fix in my opinion. Meals can improve in terms of variety, richness, quality (no bad food, no cold, soggy food) for the price we pay. And as advertised “unlimited” coffee should give us unlimited coffee!

    About them not accepting the Internet reservation then again I’m inclined to think this is once again a CGR formality.
    And blaming exporail fir that is not fair.

    Can Emil be sure and have read the ppp agreement between CGR and expo to be saying “when one buys a ticket from expo rail , expecting the carriage maintenance and track maintenance is there responsibility”?
    To me, having travelled expo rail from its inception, I do see the service deteriorating. I almost wonder whether CGR is wanting the concept to fail.

    To be honest although I can relate to the trinco train journey as I experienced similar tiring journey on the trip, emils account here seems a bit overstated and dramatized beyond reality. ( then again reality is subjective too)

    Expo rail is certainly better than the rest of the compartments other than the observation car. And really if u want to compare rail service of the “developed” world with expo rail I don’t think u will ever complain about “luxury” pricing of expo rail. Please don’t compare the charges with the other classes of tickets on CGR . It’s good to remember that rail tickets in Sri Lanka are heavily

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      Dileepa:
      I really don’t know what kind of point you are seeking to make. WE BOUGHT TICKETS FROM EXPORAIL NOT FROM THE SRI LANKA GOVERNMENT RAILWAY. Are you suggesting that we should be dealing with the government railway authorities and NOT the entity who took our money? Or are you simply suggesting “Caveat emptor” as the response to every breach of contract?

      Incidentally, the account that I placed on record DOES NOT mention the fact that a female passenger who had paid for her ticket (and had proof of it) was physically pushed out of the carriage. Perhaps, that “detail” should have been included for your edification and in an effort to REALLY “dramatise” the entire incident, don’t you think?

      I don’t whether the obvious need be stated, but yours is a very obvious effort to cloud the issue for reasons best known to you.

      As a footnote, may I add that ExpoRail at least has had the good sense to admit to the shortcomings in its service and wishes to meet with me to resolve the serious problems I have documented. That is certainly an improvement over those who seek to obfuscate and conceal fact.

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    Talking of the Old Railway Dept run by the British then on coal had First class, second class and third class. There were no Diesel Engines then as all were steam engines and prone to a lot of dust and soot. Yet the carriages were clean and so the Rail Track without a blade of grass, all maintained with a Staff mostly Tamils under five thousand Labour Force. After ’56 Banda’s Socialist govt wanting to wipe off class to make all equal, did away with 1st and 2nd class, little realising the loss of revenue to the Railway, that it became a burden to the State, as even those who could afford, were made to suffer in jam packed compartments. So much for Golden Brains we had and now once again Class is being introduced. Mind you today there are over Sixty thousand employees in the Railway, with hardly any expansion of the net work other than what the British laid then, yet the Compartments are filthy and in some places the track is covered with weeds that the Track can not be seen. So much for efficiency for the work done by less than five thousand workers, today there are over sixty thousand and the conditions are deplorable. Certainly those Tamil Labourers then deserves the Nations appreciation, which they never got, but were kicked out and replaced with the LAZY Sinhalese.

    Railway next to the Lands Ministry, owns land in this country. They have the prime properties within cities that are highly under utilised. The Railway could be run at profit, but they do not know how to earn their money. No wonder when the vision of the country has been made dull by the early Socialist policies that have ruined this country.

  • 0
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    We had a similar experience with Expo Rail in February 2012 – from Peradeniya to Badulla. Upon boarding the compartment, we noted that the diesel engine powering the air conditioning unit was malfunctioning and hence the compartment was without air conditioning. There was a mechanic they had brought along, but the problems were too much for him to fix. The whole journey, from Peradeniya to Badulla was without air conditioning and it was very uncomfortable. To add insult to injury, they had not brought the required number of meal packs, and the packs were way too small.
    It was only when we threatened to take legal action that the management started to listen to our complaints. To their credit, however, they refunded the full amount for the upward journey. We returned the next morning, and by then the diesel engine had been fixed.
    The compartment is generally not well maintained. We were surprised to see that the window glasses were so dirty that it was difficult to see outside. By comparison the compartment of the other private operator, Rajadhani Express, in the Colombo-Kandy intercity express train is much better. The prices of their snacks (optional) are very reasonable.

  • 0
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    With an uneducated moron called Basil Rajapassa who knows only to operate petrol pumps in LA and is HIGHWAY MAN as minister of Economic development – the Banana Republic of Asia is truely a MIRACLE!

  • 0
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    Bloody diaspora bastard trying to show of his wordsmithing skills.
    You better higher a limo you dole bludger, overseas coolies trying to show off here.

    • 0
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      Psycho:
      What delightful language! Truly reflective of those who have difficulty with the truth. Incidentally, I learned my “wordsmithing skills” in Sri Lanka. Under what piece of granite did you find yours?
      P.S.
      I am certain who my father was. You…?

  • 0
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    Our family and friends went on a tour from colombo to trinco and had the experience of uncomfortable journey. As this writer says my food tray went flying and luckily manage to save my food pack. Actually staff were good and they were helpless of the conditions of the carriage anyway we will not use this transport.

  • 0
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    Dear Emil,

    I think you need to be corrected. Expo Rail DOES NOT run on the Kurunegala-Trincomalee route. Expo-Rail connects one to Trinco from Colombo DIRECT, so if you bought a ticket from Kurunegala to Trinco it would have definitely been on a normal route with the CGR. Naturally, the CGR would not have boarded you on the paper you had. Expo and CGR, though plying the same routes, do not have an administrative connection. Of course the cleanliness of ordinary trains are much to desired and garbage issues are there, these are not new to the average traveller in SL. However, the whole article smacks of condescension and frankly it sucks especially because you are a former Sri Lankan. We in SL are trying to get out of a thirty year situation where our lives were hijacked in many ways and your MISINFORMATION is not helpful or constructive criticism. I travelled to Australia on Qantas recently and having fallen asleep, upon waking was told that they had run out of food! You complain about our poor country not getting her act together but the airline of your rich country, ran out of food which was unbelievable. On a 8 hour flight, how is that possible?? I was offered Dove ice cream instead!!!!!! Things happen but do not be vindictive or smack of superiority when you write about what was your motherland. We all know that SL has to get many things right and hopefully she will. Our people are strong and resilient in the face of adversity. While we are trying to recover from a development and emotional drought, let your criticisms be constructive rather than condescending. Expo Rail is in its infancy. It will get better. Next time, make sure Expo Rail runs on the route you purchase tickets! That might help. And tell Qantas not to fly without adequate food for its passengers!

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    Emil
    It is unfortunate that you had such a bad experience but I would like to set the record straight, at least as far as the inter-city Colombo-Kandy train is concerned. We had quite a good experience in an Exporail carriage on January 4. We booked our tickets online from Brisbane and had no trouble exchanging the printouts for the paper tickets at the Fort Railway Station. The train left on the stroke of 7am and the journey was far from bone-jarring – it was in fact quite exotic to ride a “rattler” again in comparison to the boring electric trains in Brissy. The meal, while not likely to win culinary awards, was good enough to satisfy the early-morning hunger. The steward on board was very efficient and courteous, and reminded us, with a smile, when he had to leave the train in Peradeniya. We checked out the train on the internet and it lived up to our expectations – the seats were comfortable and the air-conditioning was working. We were also pleasantly surprised when the steward welcomed us back for the return journey in the afternoon. We did not have any dramas either and we were at peace to enjoy the glorious scenery on the way back to Colombo. I also found the ExpoRail reservations officer very helpful as he answered all my emailed queries very promptly. The only motive I have of writing this is to give ExpoRail a fair go as we got what we paid for; for $17 return we were not expecting luxury, only comfort. In fact, I did not have any hesitation in recommending to friends to take the Colombo-Kandy trip, which they have done. Although I am resident in Oz, my heart belongs to mother Lanka and I can only wish people can forgive all her shortcomings and help her back on her feet after 30 years of such a cruel war. We’ll all be losers if we choose to remain bitter and twisted.
    Regards

  • 0
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    Emil,

    You seem quiet after the 2nd May…..did Exporail meet and “PAY” you for silence or what ?

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