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Experience India with Indian Railways

Updated on June 12, 2013
Iammattdoran profile image

Matt is an avid traveller and self-confessed 'man of the world'. He is passionate about his home city, Manchester, and about travelling.

New Delhi
New Delhi

Travelling in India

If you’re thinking of travelling to India you’ll no doubt be aware of the huge size of the country and the enormous distances you’re likely to travel from A to B. For some journeys you may need to fly, especially if you have little time or if you’re planning on going from the far north to the far south (you’ll need a few days for this if taking the train). If you only have the time to take one train journey, then you must. Travelling by train in India is an amazing way to see and experience India. People will often talk about experiencing ‘sensory overload’ when travelling by train, but most people will tell you how extremely rewarding the experience is.

For some excellent reading...

The Great Railway Bazaar
The Great Railway Bazaar

First published more than thirty years ago, Paul Theroux's strange, unique, and hugely entertaining railway odyssey has become a modern classic of travel literature. Here Theroux recounts his early adventures on an unusual grand continental tour. Asia's fabled trains -- the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Frontier Mail, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, the Mandalay Express, the Trans-Siberian Express -- are the stars of a journey that takes him on a loop eastbound from London's Victoria Station to Tokyo Central, then back from Japan on the Trans-Siberian. Brimming with Theroux's signature humor and wry observations, this engrossing chronicle is essential reading for both the ardent adventurer and the armchair traveler.

 

Buying Train Tickets

Train travel in India is incredibly cheap and therefore no one is really excluded from travelling by train as they are in other countries where the prices can be out of reach to most locals. In a country with a population at around 1.2 billion, this inevitably means that the trains are often over-crowded and some journeys booked up well in advance. However, fear not as it is possible to book your train tickets on-line through the Cleartrip website.

You’re likely to be puzzled however by the myriad of ‘classes’. Rather than a simple 1st, 2nd and 3rd class there are actually seven different classes on Indian trains yet only three or four of these class options will be available on any given train. If you want to travel in the best possible class then you’ll likely find that you have to look very hard for the one or two trains that offer this class. Generally the class by which most travellers travel on is called Sleeper Class.

Resident station monkeys
Resident station monkeys
Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws: A Journey through Modern India
Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws: A Journey through Modern India

Part travelogue, part history, and part cultural reflection, Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws provides an intimate glimpse of a nation at its turning point. It is a must-read for those who want to understand India beyond the headlines.

 

The Train Stations

Through my own experiences I noticed that there is no real uniformity or consistency to layout and presentation of Indian train stations. It seems every state, or even every city, has their own idea as to what a train station should look like. Generally expect a massively over-crowded place with people sitting on the floor with all their luggage kind of like how a temporary shelter in a sports hall following some natural disaster is depicted in a movie.

Some stations have a clear digital information board that displays all departures and the corresponding platforms just like at a western station or at an airport. This is easy. However, some stations will have no such information and you’ll be scratching you’re head wondering where you train is leaving from. It’s often the case that the platform isn't known until the last minute. It can be difficult to get help as there’s usually no one around on the platforms to help you and the queues at the ticket / information offices will likely be very long. If you’re really stuck though, every station has an office for the Station Master so you can always ask him, just don’t count on him being very friendly. As Station Master he has elevated himself above having to deal with petty queries from tourists.

It’s generally safe in the stations, just stay with your luggage and maybe sit in an open area rather than in a dark corner somewhere. Petty crime is present as you would expect with such large crowds of people around. Just stay alert and keep your wits about you and you’ll be fine.

Around India in 80 Trains
Around India in 80 Trains

Monisha Rajesh turns to a map of the Indian Railways and takes a page out of Jules Verne's classic tale, embarking on an adventure around India in 80 trains, covering 40,000km the circumference of the Earth. Indian trains carry over twenty million passengers every day, plowing through cities, crawling past villages, climbing up mountains and skimming along coasts. Monisha hopes that 80 train journeys up, down and across India will lift the veil on a country that has become a stranger to her.

 

Food and Drink for the Journey

If you’re going on a long train journey then you will probably want to take some snacks and water with you. Finding some appropriate food can be difficult as you’re not likely to find the items you’d normally take aboard a train ie there’ll be no sandwiches, salads, sushi etc. You’ll be able to buy biscuits, nuts and fruit pretty much anywhere though (just be sure to peel the fruit). Be cautious about eating food at the station. Conditions are unsanitary and it’s likely that whoever serves you will handle your food with bare hands. This is a common way in which you can develop Giardiasis, a common bacterial infection that causes sickness and diarrhoea in travellers.

If you haven’t had time to buy anything before the journey, fear not. The trains employ people to run back and forth along the corridors almost constantly selling drinks and snacks. The tea and coffee guys will astound you with their levels of energy!

Don't expect much in the way of H&S
Don't expect much in the way of H&S

On the Train

Your carriage and seat numbers will be on your ticket so they should be a problem to find, although try to guess where along the platform your carriage is likely to stop as these trains can be incredibly long and you could end up walking a long way to find your carriage. Try and board the train as quickly as possible, especially if you have big bags. I say this because people travelling by train in India often carry what seems like their entire worldly possessions with them. Getting on early means you have some place to put your bags. When the train fills up some people will have to put their bags in the aisle on their seats/beds with them which can be uncomfortable and cause you some security worries.

It’s possible that some people will board the train without a seat allocation. Getting on early helps to ensure that you get to your seat before some chancer takes it. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back but you may have to wait for the conductor to show up to resolve the situation and it can be a little tedious. Also be warned that people without a seat allocation will end up sleeping on the floor of your compartment and in the aisles.

Try striking up a conversation with the people in your compartment. Most people can speak some English and will likely be very amiable, even if they seem withdrawn at first. However, be prepared for some questions, however innocent they may be to them, that may make you uncomfortable. Questions such as how much money do you make; how much money do you need for a trip like this; do your family have money; will you visit my village; can I see your phone etc.

Once the train gets going a guard will come and visit you at some point asking you to read a statement in English on a laminated card. It says something along the lines of you being responsible for the security of your luggage. It says there’s a risk of theft and that you should lock your luggage up. It’s best to store your luggage under the lower seats and lock it to the metal loops. If you have a Pacsafe then this is even better. I would definitely recommend investing in one of these for peace of mind.

The toilet facilities are basic to say the least. There may be a western-style toilet on board somewhere but generally you’re going to find that they’re squat toilets and there’s not likely to be any running water.

You have to read this book!

The White Tiger: A Novel
The White Tiger: A Novel

The white tiger of this novel is Balram Halwai, a poor Indian villager whose great ambition leads him to the zenith of Indian business culture, the world of the Bangalore entrepreneur. On the occasion of the president of China’s impending trip to Bangalore, Balram writes a letter to him describing his transformation and his experience as driver and servant to a wealthy Indian family, which he thinks exemplifies the contradictions and complications of Indian society.

The White Tiger recalls The Death of Vishnu and Bangkok 8 in ambition, scope, and narrative genius, with a mischief and personality all its own. Amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, this novel is an international publishing sensation—and a startling, provocative debut.

 
Top bunk
Top bunk

Sleeping

If you’re on the top bed of a compartment then you can climb up and go to sleep pretty much whenever you like. If you have a middle or lower bed then you have to wait until a reasonable time to go to bed – as you’ll be displacing people from their seats. You get no bedding in this Sleeper Class so make sure you take a jacket or something out of your bag to throw over you or use as a pillow. There’s no air-conditioning, only ceiling fans and open windows. The outside temperature will generally stay hot all night but the draft may cause you to feel a little chill late at night and especially just before dawn. Don’t count on a lie in though. The other people in your compartment will likely be up at dawn.

Reflect on the trip you've just taken. I think you’ll agree, there’s nothing quite like taking a trip on an Indian train.

Guidebooks for India

Lonely Planet Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra (Travel Guide)
Lonely Planet Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra (Travel Guide)

This book offers everything you expect from a Lonely Planet travel guide - background infos you need to know about the country (Do's, Don'ts, how to get by in India on your own, etc.), sights, restaurant and hotel listings and much more for your trip to Rajasthan.

 
Lonely Planet South India & Kerala (Regional Travel Guide)
Lonely Planet South India & Kerala (Regional Travel Guide)

Each person who is travelling to Kerala or dreaming of making the journey someday must own this book.

 
South India (Lonely Planet Regional Guide)
South India (Lonely Planet Regional Guide)

South India is distinct from the north and Lonely Planet knows how. We've explored the lush waterways of Kerala, bartered in Mumbai's bazaars, taken tea in charming hill stations and sampled seafood in Goa's beach shacks. Of these, we've picked only the best and our 5th edition takes you to them.

 

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    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I have taken the train to Agra from New Delhi and it was alright as it is not that far. Thanks for the description and the tips. What an experience you had.

    • Iammattdoran profile image
      Author

      Matt Doran 4 years ago from Manchester, UK

      Thanks for the comment Sunil. I did go to Kerala. I went to Kottayam, Allapuzha and Fort Kochi. I had a great time and really enjoyed talking to people in Kerala. The people were mostly very friendly and interesting. I look forward to reading your hubs.

    • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

      Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 4 years ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

      Good observation and well presented. I am glad that you loved Indian railway journey. May I request you to visit my land also by name Kerala and I have done a couple of hubs on the topic. Thank you for sharing your knowledge here.