One of the last two remaining services of the once important Madagascar railways, the Fianar–Côte Est, first opened in 1936, runs a steadily reducing passenger service (now twice weekly) in each direction between Fianarantsoa and Manakara on the coast. In theory trains depart from Fianar at 7am on Tuesday and Saturday and from Manakara at 6.45am on Wednesday and Sunday. In practice, the only sure way of knowing when the train is departing is to be on it when it leaves. You may get information about the current state of readiness at the station at either end, but their guess will more than likely be just as good as yours. Seats in the decrepit first-class compartment (second class is not recommended) cost 25,000ar, with a compulsory 15,000ar reservation fee, and can be bought at the station ticket offices. If the train is delayed and you have to cancel, you can get a full refund: but get a proper written receipt to that effect when paying.
In theory, the train should arrive on the evening of the same day. In practice, it rarely reaches the other end until late at night or early the next morning (the scheduled departures from Manakara are optimistic given the usual arrival time from Fianar). Go prepared with food and drinks, mosquito repellent, and a well-charged flashlight or head torch. You can buy snacks along the way (indeed sampling the various items for sale at every one of the sixteen remote village stops en route is one of the highlights) but many villages are far from the roads and have little infrastructure, so don’t expect to find cold drinks.
The 170km route takes you through dense rainforest past waterfalls, and the photographic opportunities in the villages can be excellent if you’re well positioned. However, frequent breakdowns, unexplained stops, lack of lighting, inadequate toilets, and the fact that more passengers seem to get on than get off at every stop, means that even if you managed to depart in the morning more or less on time, by late afternoon you’re likely to be facing a long and dauntingly uncomfortable night.