Varkala Station (VAK, to friends)
Especially with decent sleeping arrangements, rail is by far my favorite mode of travel. There are many reasons for this. One is simply nostalgia for the days when it was the fastest mode of travel, with the sound of the engine and the uniforms of the conductors giving one’s trip the sort of glamour seen in North by Northwest or Murder on the Orient Express. Perhaps more important, the sense of journey and distance is tangible on a train. You see the land pass by next to you, you feel the constant forward motion and the gentle swaying motion of the car. The views are far superior to the sides of highways or the blankness mostly seen outside airplane portholes. Finally, there is the sense of luxury, in terms of time and space, that it offers. Air travel feels frantic and is filled with much queueing and stress. Train travel offers far greater space, freedom and flexibility than even first class air travel, the ability to get up and walk the length of the train, have a proper meal in a dining car, and interact with other passengers.
Other than perhaps Europe, taken as a whole, or China (see my post of 2008.07.28), India is the greatest country/region in the world to explore by train. The network is extensive, covering almost all parts of the country other than the far north, and service is fairly frequent and reliable (although subject to delays at times). Especially given the relatively greater chaos and danger of Indian roads, the train is definitely the way to see India.
To the bottom tip of the peninsula
That said, Indian trains are far from problem free. Yes, I acknowledge that the Chinese system has its problems, largely in the procurement of tickets (queues can be truly horrendous and the ticket agents impatient and at times surly), but Chinese trains are, largely, clean, fast and punctual. The Indian Railway has its own set of problems with ticket purchasing, and is, in addition, a bit dirty, somewhat slow and often delayed.
Late, late, late, late
Your first step in any Indian rail journey is, of course, buying the ticket.
Ticket office, Calcutta Sealdah Station (SDAH)
Nowadays, most tourists probably opt to buy tickets online, or through an agent that is connected to the online system. Although the system seems to have improved greatly from 2003, when it was something of a joke (we ordered tickets online only to discover when picking them up in the Delhi office that the order had been handwritten into a large ledger), we have had problems getting our credit cards to work on the somewhat confusing multiple “payment gateways” and have at times had to resort to more traditional methods, in particular to access the all-important “tourist quota” (more on this later), which is not available online. That said, online ticketing is generally extremely convenient (and can be done overseas, in advance of an India trip), and it is a service that is not even available in, say, China.
International Tourist Bureau, New Delhi Railway Station (NDLS)
The most traditional method, for a foreign tourist in India, is to use one of the “International Tourist Bureaus” located in the principal Indian railway stations, such as Delhi, Varanasi and Bombay. Now, these ITBs are pretty good, and are able to access the tourist quota, but there are significant queues of foreigners and service can be very slow. Also, the ITBs cannot solve the principal ticketing problem with Indian trains, which is that tickets are often unavailable. The oversubscription of transit in India is a bit of a puzzle to us, having visited many developing countries; Indians, however poor they are statistically, seem to have time and money to travel a great deal. Now, part of that is because people migrate into cities to work, as in China, and also because people travel to go on pilgrimage, an important aspect of Hindu religious culture, but I think the main reason is simply because they can, because tickets on Indian trains can be absurdly cheap. For example, the base fare for a 1000 km trip in Second Class (unreserved) is 175 Rupees (3.50 USD), or 295 Rupees (6 USD) in (non-AC) sleeper class (compare to 2420 Rupees (49 USD) in first class on a fast Rajdhani train).
Another part of the Indian Railways ticketing puzzle is the quota system. There are numerous “quotas” for which spaces are reserved on the Indian train system, not only for foreign tourists but for all sorts of other categories of people (ladies, defense, parliament house, handicapped, etc.). Indeed, guidebooks suggest that there is *always* some sort of space available on an Indian train, if you can just persuade someone to dip into the right quota. Perhaps the most important quota, in addition to the tourist quota, is the tatkal quota, which reserves a block of seats until five days before the travel date for individuals who are purchasing tickets from the origin to the terminus of a given train. Almost as complicated as the quotas are the concessions (discounts) that are available for various classes of people, including people with various different handicaps, patients traveling for treatment, widows of wars and acts of terrorism, artists and athletes traveling to performances and competitions, etc. It is all quite byzantine.
But perhaps the most bewildering aspect of Indian train ticketing for the foreign traveler is the ability to buy tickets without a reservation, in something called RAC (reservation against cancellation, which allows you to board the train and await placement into a berth) or WL (waitlist, which requires you to keep checking your status, up to the point of departure, to see if you’ve been confirmed a seat). Now, given the quota system, and cancellations, a person with a small waitlist number is almost certain to get seat/berth in the end, and we’ve relied on this system with some confidence that we will clear. But waitlist numbers seem to go into the hundreds! How can people buy waitlist tickets numbering into the hundreds for, say, a train trip that will last two days? Are people’s schedules really so flexible that they can just keep checking and show up to the station each day, to see if they’ve cleared?
Checking the list, New Jalpaiguri and Malda Town Stations (NJP and MLDT, respectively)
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The complexity doesn’t stop there. Perhaps indicative of the stratified social structure in India, with huge gaps between poor, middle class and rich, long distance trains can have more than five different classes of travel, including unreserved general seating or Second Class, (non-AC) Sleeper, AC 3 Tier, AC 2 Tier and AC First (compare to Chinese trains, which only have three classes–soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper).
Even the waiting rooms are divided by class (and sometimes gender).
Second Class is a fairly horrifying prospect to the foreign traveler, at least for distances of any length. If the train is not a particularly popular one, however, Second Class can be quite comfortable, and offers the very best travel companions–friendly, down-to-earth and interactive. (Our very first time in an Indian railway station, we saw an extremely overcrowded Second Class car roll in, and were horrified, until we realized that we had better tickets, that those were the conditions we would have to face.)
Queueing for a seat in Second Class
Sometimes, plenty of room (and can always lay on the luggage rack, if not)
As long as it’s not too hot, Sleeper class is a good way to go, with windows that open and just as much room as AC 3 Tier, at less than half the cost (though do keep in mind that Sleeper class can get dusty, especially on desert runs through Rajasthan). Most of the cars on a long distance Indian train (other than the special Rajdhani trains, which are all AC) are Sleeper class, as this is the way most Indians travel.
If it’s hot, AC 3 Tier is the natural first choice. We think that AC 3 Tier offers great travel companions as well, often middle class Indians traveling with their families or well-educated younger people. Second Class riders may be the most entertaining, but AC 3 Tier riders probably offer the best conversation. AC 3 Tier comes with bedding (clean and comfortable, 2 sheets, a pillow with pillowcase and blanket), unlike Sleeper class, but is otherwise pretty much the same configuration (though with windows that don’t open).
To go a bit more upscale, one can go AC 2 Tier. While AC 2 Tier offers more room (and, sometimes, more privacy in the form of curtains that separate each set of berths), we found that AC 2 Tier is often full of overweight, snoring, middle-aged men traveling for business–our least favorite travel companions.
Finally, AC First, which comes in two- and four-person compartment configurations.
To be honest, AC First is something of a mystery to me. Yes, the first class compartments do offer more room and privacy, but when booking AC First you are not assigned a berth until you show up for the train. This means that you have no control over whether you get a two-person cabin or a four-person cabin, and I’ve even had a three-person party split up between two cabins. I would certainly be willing to pay the >50% premium over AC 2 Tier if I were assured a private cabin for me and my travel companion, but if we end up being stuck with two strangers anyway, what’s the point? Although, I should note, that AC First doesn’t seem to have the problem that AC 2 Tier does–instead of overweight businessmen, you tend to get somewhat wealthier Indians on holiday.
Enough about the various classes.
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New Delhi Railway Station
Indian railway stations really deserve a separate post altogether–many horrible and amusing stories come to mind from our travels, the favorite of which is probably standing, right after having arrived on a redeye flight, on a NDLS platform with all sorts of cargo and sadhus performing morning ablutions while looking across the tracks and seeing a bunch of be-suited Indians on their morning commute–but a few things deserve mention.
First, many Indian railway stations (especially those in the main cities built during the Raj) are architectural wonders.
Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (CST) and Churchgate (CCG) Stations
Second is the availability of cheap porters (get over any shame and give them some work, and tip well).
15 Rs (0.30 USD) for 40 kilograms–not a bad deal!
Rajput porter at Bombay Central Station (BCT)
On left, a porter at New Delhi Railway Station
Third is the sometimes incredible number of people sleeping in stations awaiting their next train. The first picture is from New Delhi Railway Station, while the second is from Calcutta Sealdah.
Indian railway stations have all the modern conveniences, including urinals, lighting, fan and timetable display.
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I already mentioned the different entertainment provided by one’s carmates, but there are many other ways to entertain yourself on an Indian train than conversation, comfortable sleeping and eating the surprisingly quality meals. The first is, of course, enjoying the outside scenery. Not only are there wonderful natural landscapes, but passing through rural and urban areas one sees all sorts of things that are not otherwise visible (including, especially in the early morning, unfortunately, many people’s rears, as people like to defacate near train tracks, facing away).
And, especially in Second Class, there is also the stream of people walking through the cars to sell and beg. As I did with my China train post of 2008.07.28, a selection of these:
Most importantly, chai chai get ’em chai. Every once in a while, you will still see Indian milk tea being sold in disposable clay cups–but plastic is much more common.
Some chaat (snack mix of sorts), freshly assembled
Peanuts, by the weight
Toys and appliances?
Now, I may have just called them beggars, but the way that hijra (traditional Indian transgendereds (see post of 2008.08.29)) operate, they’re hardly begging but rather demanding money as if by right. Fear of their powers made nearly everyone we saw give them money, although they often left us alone.
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Before ending this post, it would be negligent of me not to mention that Indian trains are notorious for theft and sexual harrassment. Lock your bags in the area near you or under the bottom bunk, and keep your most important valuables with you in your bunk (and never leave them unattended). On our very first train ride, we met a Canadian couple with a decade of India experience that had some of their most valuable belongings stolen by a well-dressed, articulate man who was “helping” them. (He tried to “help” us, too, but we were luckier.) Also, from what we hear, ifyou’re a woman traveling alone, there is a chance that you’ll wake up with a man’s hand somewhere you really don’t want it to be. Traveling in a higher class probably reduces this risk, but should you find yourself in this situation, be firm and shove away the hand and yell whatever comes to mind as loud as you can.
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To end this post, some pictures from the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Toy Train. The narrow gauge train that goes up to Darjeeling is one of three famous hill station trains, the others being to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh and Ooty in Tamil Nadu. One of the daily Darjeeling runs is by steam and a charming (if slow) experience. (I should note that I found the second class seats on the Shimla train almost unbearably crowded for the five/six hour ride.)
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Please note that this post focuses mainly on long-distance trains. On shorter daytime routes, such as that from Delhi to Agra, or suburban/commuter trains, there is a different arrangement of classes (generally, any class is fine). I will discuss the chaos of the Bombay suburban rail in a future post.
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Awaiting the train at Delhi Cantonment (DEC)