Indian Railways

The joys and horrors of train journeys in India

Six years have passed since my last overnight rail journey, but time hasn’t deterred my excitement for the chance to embark on several more. While all of my railway adventures in India barely lasted a single night, for some of those trips the end couldn’t come soon enough – but were an experience, nonetheless.

Booking tickets

Travelling via train in India is an experience unlike anywhere else, as I’ll get onto. The trouble is, actually getting a ticket on a train is itself quite an accomplishment. India’s huge population and overburdened train system means that booking tickets needs either lots of advance planning or a huge slice of luck. 

The entire network is run by IRCTC – India’s nationalised railways operator, which heavily subsides tickets and adds to the problem of availability. If I was travelling to India for any meaningful duration again, I would undoubtably open an Indian bank account so I can avoid using the unreliable third-party agent websites, which often refused my UK credit card. I used, but don’t take that as a recommendation – the website was often infuriatingly slow, unresponsive, or unable to accept my credit card. 

My typical last-minute planning meant that my best bet was to book Tatkal tickets, which are a small pool of pricier tickets released for last-minute travel, the day before departure.  This meant refreshing the online booking page incessantly at 11:15AM the day prior, often without luck. In one of these cases from Mangalore to Goa, I found a new, hidden class of ‘premium tatkal’ tickets available at the counter only, which was my reward for begging to pay anything for a seat (albeit at 4x the price of a regular ticket).

AC carriages: Affordable comfort 

Most of my long-distance journeys were in the AC carriages, I was fortunate to get a Second Class (AC) berth to sleep on. These are less crowded than the average sleeper class carriages, cleaner, cooler, less smelly and with actual fresh bed linen.  

I found 2AC travel a pleasure and genuinely good value for money, if not a little less exciting than some of the other modes of travel. I slept well on most nights in these carriages. Taking the upper side berth is the most hygienic berth with the least disruption, albeit without a view outside. 

On a couple of trips, I travelled in 3rd AC class, which is more packed together than 2AC with 3 layers of berths. I wouldn’t advise travelling in this class for long (10 + hour) journeys, but this is still luxury compared to the other classes, as I’ll get onto. 

The toilets are generally in very poor condition even in second class – unfortunately this is often the case with most public toilets in India. They are squat-style toilets and rarely cleaned. Fortunately, I never had a need to use them. 

One of the perks of second-class travel is the variety of dining options on offer. Food can be pre-ordered online from one of many vendors for delivery to the seat at one of the stations or ordered directly from IRCTC. I was wary of the food hygiene so generally steered clear of ordering here, but I couldn’t help myself to the snacks being sold by the vendors traversing up and down the carriage seemingly every minute. The sound of “Chai Chai. Chai, garam chai!” was the trigger to dig out a ten rupee note and exchange it for a small cup of tea from the chai walla. 

Sleeper class: The local class

I don’t have much to share about sleeper class, other than noting it’s a major step down in terms of comfort from second class. Forget about bed linen, windows, and air conditioning here: it’s hot, noisy and hectic. It’s a class of travel that most villagers will choose for long distance travel owing to the relative affordability. With its windows-with-bars, sleeper class looks like a jail cell from outside of the carriage – and it’s probably a fitting description of the interior too.

General class: an experience unlike any other 

If you run out of luck getting a ticket, you’re left with two choices: delay your trip and try again another day, or if you’re really, really desperate to get your destination, you can choose to jump into the General class unreserved carriage – if you dare. 

It was the latter fate that awaited me as I had to make the 19-hour trip to Chandigarh from Ahmedabad. I’ve been on some horrendous train journeys in my time, but surely this stole the ticket as the most unpleasant. Admittedly, there was secretly a part of me that wanted to experience this trip, but very, very quickly this curiosity was satisfied. 

Indian railway stations are a hive of activity even at the best of times, with lots of noise, repetitive announcements and people ferrying between fresh food stalls every few metres along the platform. There can also be masses of passengers attempting to board trains all at once, even while it’s still in motion. 

I was dumbstruck as I boarded this train at what laid ahead of me. No wonder people force themselves onto the carriage in a rush: everyone’s hoping to quickly carve out a space for themselves in what little space there is. There’s absolutely no seat allocation here: take as much or as little as you can get away with. I stepped my way carefully through the people lying along the floor to the conductor at the back of the carriage, unsuccessfully begging and bribing him to give me the spare seat in his cabin.

It’s dog-eat-dog in this class: there are those stretching out on the berths enjoying reasonable comfort, while others perch in the gaps. Eventually I carved out a tiny, postcard sized part of a seat. While I was perched on the edge of the seat, if someone gave an inch, I took it, and a bit more.  It’s not like the seats were comfortable, though: my backside quickly went numb, and I went in search of somewhere I could lie down. 

My presence didn’t go unnoticed from my fellow passengers who clearly identified me as a tourist by endlessly staring at me (a common trait in India). I was offered some words of wisdom by two young men, who advised me never to keep my belongings out of sight to avoid them getting stolen. I was encouraged to be more forceful and not too kind.

One baba (elderly, religious man) was seated on the floor and for the duration of his trip was shouting at all the other passengers, presumably frustrated that he wasn’t offered a seat. 

Someone threw water at him to get him to be quiet which really set him off. Later on in the trip, his phone charger snapped after hanging his phone from a plug, and I saw him attempting to solder the wire together using matchsticks. I was half tempted to give up what little seat I had but was told by the two young men not to be humble. I was conflicted here as the baba’s appearance reminded me of my own grandfather, and I felt a bit helpless.

As the night wore on, I felt increasingly ill. The carriage was genuinely filthy and extremely smelly. I was also on the rear-most carriage, so I was probably ingesting fumes, bodily fluids and God knows what else coming out of the windows ahead. 

I forced my way to sit on the top berth beside a man who had conveniently spread himself across the whole berth. With my legs dangling into the corridor and my feet near the faces of those unfortunate to be below me, I tried to use the bag strap of the person sat opposite me to rest my legs in. I eventually got the berth to myself a few hours after – not that I managed any sleep though. 

How anyone remotely managed to sleep – on the floor or on a berth, is beyond me. The booming voice of passengers, screeching of the train and most annoyingly, the orchestra of mobile phone audio gameshows tested my patience. Also testing my sanity was the constant throat clearing and spitting, and the long waits outside the stations. It became very frustrating. 

There are practically no dining options in this class simply because there’s no room for anyone to walk up or down the carriage, and no one would dare sacrifice their seat at the station to fetch food from the platform. There was one solitary man serving samosas, but they looked a bit run down by the time it got to me, and I’m sure I saw a few feet go into his bowl. 

Fortunately, the following morning the train emptied out and the guard let me sleep in the 3AC carriage for the remainder of my journey to Chandigarh. At over 1000km and 60p trip, this was surely the best value trip I’ve ever taken. But it’s not one I’m likely to take again in a hurry. 

An assault on the senses 

Despite my experiences, I’d still rather forego luxuries and travel with local passengers. Where’s the fun in sitting in a compartment by yourself?

Travelling by train in India reminded my most of my time on Chinese trains: severely overcrowded and an assault on all the senses. But in terms of an experience, travelling by train is what you make of it. In my case: not just a means of transport, but also a way of learning about the culture.

It was probably a good thing that most of the berths I slept in didn’t have windows: while the Indian countryside is picturesque, the chance to people-watch inside the carriage was equally fascinating. Often, I had no idea what people were saying to one another, but what people are doing and how they express themselves I found intriguing. There’s rarely a dull moment, and this was amplified through each lower class I travelled in as the villagers replaced the more well-off city travellers.

I do miss the buzz travelling on Indian trains. Despite the relative pleasure these days of travelling to London twice a week on a punctual, clean, and quiet Avanti West Coast service, a part of me would trade that for a train in India: provided I had a seat, of course!


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