Sri Lankan ‘train culture’

Tamara Nissanka
Everyday thousands of people travel to Colombo for work from different parts of Sri Lanka. Public transport, essentially busses and trains, are the main carriers of these scores of working men and women. Let us focus more on commuter trains. If you have taken an ‘office train’, as it is called, on a weekday you might have noticed that people travel in little groups or circles. Although the term ‘public transport’ quickly reminds us of a bunch of strangers in some random vehicle, commuter trains in Sri Lanka are sure to challenge this conventional notion. Daily rail users are a community within the train. They have a distinct culture and share norms and values pertaining to train travel.

Cards, the train commuter's favourite game

Train commuters know the exact compartment or carriage in which they travel everyday, and they make sure to get into the relevant compartment. They find their group of friends and sit with them, or hand their bags to a friend if seats are not available. Sometimes they take turns to have the seat. Each group has its informally reserved area within a particular compartment. These are public trains; people can sit wherever they chose to, right? Wrong. Suppose one group occupies the area which belongs to another group, there would be some hostility between the two groups, but if someone who is new to the compartment and unaware of these boundaries happens to occupy the same seats, there would be no problem. Hostility is only followed by the transgression of mutually understood laws, and laws about the division of seats fully apply only to daily commuters who travel in groups.
Although the majority of these people are office-goers, sometimes students who go to higher educational institutions in Colombo become part of the train culture. Daily train commuters engage in different activities which keep them busy before it is their station to get off. They share food, jokes, stories, and everything they could possibly swap inside a train. They play cards on a briefcase propped up on someone’s lap. Songs they sing merge with the rhythm of friction between track and wheel to create a music which could be produced nowhere but in a train. Their good humor is not restricted within the group, but spreads to other passengers as well. The group behavior of these commuters is sometimes beneficial to all passengers. For instance, before the war ended in Sri Lanka, commuters as a group were more inclined to speak up against whoever failed to comply with restrictions on keeping parcels on luggage racks, and they were motivated to inquire about unattended luggage. This ensured the security of all passengers, since bombs had often been left in public places in the guise of parcels. However, some inappropriate group behavior may bother other passengers at times. Also, not all train commuters find themselves in a group or integrated into the culture.

Trade amongst friends

What draws train commuters to each other in this way? There are three essential preconditions which help form a close association among passengers in trains; people, space, and time. Unlike the numerous busses to and from Colombo, there are not many trains during rush hour on a particular railway line, but a handful of them. Therefore people are invariably made to take the same train and they see pretty much the same faces everyday on the way to work and on the way back home. Thus, people meet each other in a regular spatial setting. As for the requisite of time, a commuter who travels the full length back and forth from Puttalam to Colombo on an express train spends approximately eight hours of his/her day in the train. Such a person is more likely to become integrated into the train culture than someone who takes the train between, say Dematagoda and Maradana (two successive railway stations). Habitual rail users not only have close interactions inside trains, but sometimes form useful networks and lifelong relationships. They organize parties and trips and arrange other social gatherings. For some, the relationships built in trains have led to marriage and strong friendships.

Colombo Fort railway station on a weekday morning

As these observations have been made on trains in Sri Lanka I am not sure whether commuters elsewhere in the world are part of a ‘train culture’ (Perhaps you can tell us). There is, in fact, more to train travel besides the enormous crowds during rush hour and the occasional train delays. It is worth taking a commuter train in the morning or evening to actually experience what it feels like to use public transport where more or less everyone knows everyone.
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