Indian trains: a survival guide

India’s railway is sprawling and complicated, but navigating it is worth the effort

Features

22 Jun 2017

Indian trains are one of the wonders of the world. 75,000 miles of track weave through Himalayan mountains, dense jungle, Rajasthani deserts, Goan beaches and booming cities.

Travelling on them is an incredible way to see the subcontinent, just don’t expect it to be easy. Whether it be boarding a packed night train from Delhi to the holy city of Varanasi or steaming through the Himalayan foothills to Shimla, the old British summer capital, you’re guaranteed adventure, stunning landscapes, and fascinating cultural experiences. The distances are simply immense and the average train between cities will take 10 hours, longer haul trips can take several days.

There is a wonderful romance to it all. What’s more, it’s safe and cheap. So, after several times around India and more than 5,000 miles on the tracks, here’s my advice…

Classes

The key thing to understand about Indian trains is the carriages system. Like Indian society, the trains are broken up in a wealth of classes.

On standard long haul journeys, this means 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, SLEEPER, (AC = Air conditioning).

You’ll get a bunk in all of them. They have varying degrees of luxury, ie. fewer bunks in your section, curtains, power plugs, blankets and pillows, meal included etc. The price varies per mile travelled.

A standard train from Delhi to Mumbai (1384km) taking 22 hours will cost…

1AC: Rs 3,880 = £46
2AC: Rs 2,265 = £27
3AC: Rs 1,560 = £19
Sleeper Rs 595 = £7

Don’t bother with 1AC class – you might as well fly on one of India’s many cheap airlines for the price. The ones you should be considering at the start are 2AC and 3AC. The open windows in sleeper class offer the best views and generally it is far more fun and cost effective. However, only do Sleeper when you’re comfortable with your environment as it’s a bit more full on, crowded and dirty. On shorter journeys you get AC chair class and 2S, seater class.

A train passes by the Dudhsagar Waterfall in Goa (iStock)

Some amazing routes…

– Mandovi Express: From Mumbai’s famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station to Madgaon in Goa. It takes around 12 hours via a small slice of paradise as you pass between the Arabian Sea and the Sahyadari hills. (Mumbai CST to Goa, Madagaon, 12.5 hours)

– The Goa Express: This trip offers spectacular views, as the train curves around the Western Ghats and comes within a stone’s throw of the Dudhsagar Waterfalls. (Vasco Da Gama to Londa, three hours.)

– Himalayan Queen: One of India’s most famous railway routes – built by the British to connect the capital Delhi to the cool summer capital, Shimla, this route twists and turns through 87 bridges and 900 curves. A wonderful feat of engineering with spectacular views. (Kalka, Haryana to Shimla, Himachal Pradesh,  five hours).

– The Desert Queen: This route powers through the bare desert, past Rajasthani mud huts and herds of camels to arrive at the fantastic fort, Jaisalmer. (Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, semi-luxury tourist train).

– The Toy Train — much like the Himalayan Queen, the slow Toy Train connects the burning plains of India to the cool heights of Darjeeling. (New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, West Bengal, seven hours)

– Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey – a train for the more affluent traveler. This ultra-luxurious train is part of a seven-day tour from Mumbai to Delhi across the royal state of Rajasthan. Tickets start at around £4,700 a person.

Booking

This is by far the most complicated and stressful part of your journey. Tickets sell out fast and without proper preparation, you can be left stranded in a backend town. My advice would be to book weeks in advance, especially for popular routes. (Note that this can be complicated to do outside India.) Rules are tougher now, and the days where you could jump on any train and slip the conductor a few rupees for a berth are largely gone.

There are various ways to buy a ticket…

– In person at the counter of the station: You’ll generally get the flat rate with no added commission. However, money makes the world go around and be prepared to sometimes grease the system with a few rupees notes to get your ticket promptly. Of course, as always in India, be prepared to deal with crowds with bad queuing techniques. (Scam note: If plain clothed men with dodgy looking IDs tell you can’t go into a station without buying a ticket from a travel agent it’s most probably a scam – laugh at them and walk on.)

– Book Online: This can be infuriating and you’ll need to be quick. You’ll need an Indian Mobile Phone number and sometimes international cards can play up on the system. You can Book directly through the IRTC website or through Cleartrip or Makemytrip – you’ll still need an IRTC account, but the layout is infinitely clearer.

– Book a ticket in a travel agents: This can be the easiest option. You can remove some of the hassles for a little extra money. They’re generally dotted everywhere around key traveller areas. But be savvy – this cannot be stressed enough. Like everything in India, if it feels like a scam it probably is. It’s not uncommon for travel agents to try and make you pay double the price. So look up the original price of the train and how many seats there are left before you go. A key rule in India is that you shouldn’t be scared to be rude if you think someone is having you on. Demand to see the computer screen if they’re using one and to know how much they’re charging you in commission. 50 – 100 rupees (£1 – 1.50) extra per ticket is more than enough. If they’re conning you just leave, more often than not they’ll be loads of other agents to choose from.

A quiet moment (Pic by Natalie Lever)

– Tourist Quota Tickets: If you book in person at the station you can get on the blessed Tourist Quota on popular routes. The government knows it can be stressful for travellers so they reserve a number of tickets for tourists. However, you can only get these in person at the railway and there’s only a small number of these tickets available.

– Tatkal / Super Tatkal Tickets: A certain amount of tickets are sold as in the 24 hours before the train leaves as emergency tickets. These will cost you around 30 per cent more. This is often a good option as you generally only pay a few pounds more but you’ll have to be quick. Aim to get these tickets as soon as they’re released.

– Reservation Against Cancellation (RAC) And Waiting List tickets (WL). Indian trains operate on a unique system given the vast numbers of passengers. This can be befuddling at first but it quickly makes sense after a journey or two. After all the normal tickets are sold, a certain amount of tickets are sold as ‘Reservation Against Cancellation’ (RAC). After all those are sold, you can buy waiting list tickets. If you have an RAC ticket you’re allowed to board the train. However, you won’t have an assigned bunk. It will be up to the conductor to find you one when someone cancels or leaves the train. If you’re a low RAC ticket number (ie. RAC, 5) you’re pretty much guaranteed a berth. If you’re a low waiting list number (ie. WL, 2) you’ll most likely be given a place on RAC. The problem is you probably won’t know until several hours before. If the only tickets available are high waiting lists, you probably don’t have a chance – don’t worry your money should be refunded.

For more information on booking Indian trains, go here.

What to pack

Don’t be a fool – pack light. Wheelie bags are a completely out of the question. India’s roads simply don’t allow for one and you’ll most probably feel incredibly uncomfortable dragging all your worldly belongings across broken roads through crowds of people, many of them in dire poverty. Get a good traveling ruck sack and don’t put too much in it. Less is certainly more – you don’t want 15kg on your back for several hours in the monsoon season.

Some key thing you’ll need for a journey…

– Toilet paper—always pack it, that’s the cardinal rule of travelling in India.
– A sturdy lock to tie your bags up under the bunk. Sleep with your valuables on you in a small backpack.
– A first aid kit equipped with enough Imodium to plug an elephant.
– Enough hand sanitiser to perform heart surgery.
– Ear plugs/eye patch and sleeping pills if necessary.
– A sleeping bag liner.
– Notebooks are essential. Indian train journeys are generally long enough to sketch out your life story on.
– Motion sickness pills can be especially useful for endless winding trains chugging through the mountains.
– A bunch of small denomination notes for refreshments.
– Blankets and a neck pillow if you’re in Sleeper class.
– An iPod filled to the brim with Indian classics
– A computer with several films downloaded.

Getting on the train

Be sure to have a printed copy of your ticket or a digital version on your phone before you go to the station.

Be there at least 30 – 45 minutes early. Key Indian train stations such as New Delhi or Mumbai CST are huge and it can be hard to find your platform. At smaller stations, the train will often stop for only five minutes so you’ve got to be ready.

Join the throng (iStock)

Safety

Indian stations and railways are generally incredibly safe. But as always be savvy. Women should dress conservatively to avoid too much attention. India is modernising at an incredible rate but its still a very patriarchal society. A light scarf is always useful for quickly covering up. Don’t get too stressed out if people are staring at you for a bit. 99 per cent of the time people are just curious.

As a precaution, be sure to lock your bags underneath the seats. If you can aim to be assigned the top bunks as you stand out less. And of course, keep your valuables with you at all times.

Food and drink

Railway food is great and for the most part very hygienic, although some of the more feint hearted among you may find the spice levels slightly troubling. Whether its complementary or not depends on what train line and class you’re in. If you have to pay for some grub, you needn’t worry it’ll be a several pounds at most. Get chatting to the people sharing your section and more often than not they’ll offer you some of their dinners and tell you about their lives.

You’ll get railway workers endlessly walking up and down the aisles with everything you could want. Once I had the same guy walking past me for four hours shouting out ‘Chicken Lollipop, spicy, spicy’. Speaking of meat, as always in India, if you want to be safe, go for the vegetarian option. The pain of ‘Delhi Belly’ is best saved for the safety of your hotel, a moving squat toilet can be tricky even for the most experienced India adventurer.

Commuters stand in the doorways of a crowded train in Mubai (Getty)

What to read

Indian trains give you a whole new perspective on travel. While in the UK many of us will be left fuming if our train is 10 minutes late, in India it’s not unheard of for a train to pull into the station a full day behind schedule.

Try not to get angry, instead use your time to delve into fascinating literature surrounding the subcontinent and let the mystical landscape roll on past. Some books I’d recommend…

– V.S. Naipaul’s India trilogy. Travelogues from a Nobel prize winner are always going to good but the cutting cynicism of a depressed young man in search of his homeland really is something.

– R. K. Narayan’s The Guide and his wider Malgudi series really will inspire you. Some see Narayan as the subcontinent’s answer to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism.

– Khushwant Singh’s A Train to Pakistan is a chilling short novel about a society tearing itself apart during the 1947 partition.

– William Dalrymple is probably to best known British travel writer on India. His books vary from his wonderful earlier adventurous works to his more recent and more serious studies of the Mughals.

– Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazar is the all-time classic of global railway travel — a must read for the rails.

Arriving

Indian trains are often delayed by several hours and most of them don’t have an announcement system for the upcoming station. Try to stay aware of where you are on the map and how far you are behind schedule. If possible write down a list of the stations before yours. Of course, if your destination is a larger station you’ll probably have a while to get off the train. If in doubt don’t hesitate to ask people around you, they always seem to have a sixth sense about where exactly you are and are more than willing to help.

Once you’re at the station don’t get rushed by the endless taxi men and drivers. Just hold your ground and work out what you need to do in your own time. Uber or the OLA taxi app are highly recommended but only work in major cities.


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