If you want to explore India you’ll eventually end up clashing with Indian trains. How pleasing can this experience be for a European tourist, accustomed to comfortable traveling? As far as I see it, it depends both on your budget and your desire to see the “real” India.
When people who have never been to India hear the word “train” the image likely to pop up in their head is: horse-and-buggy loco overcrowded so much that people hang on its doors or even ride on the wagons’ roofs. The real situation is quite far from this image. You should not forget that India is a country of devastating contrasts and trains are a spectacular example of this matter. Depending on your finances and expectations, you can travel either as a beggar or as a real rajah.
The Indian railway system is one of the longest and the branchiest in the entire world; it is also the country’s main employer. Around 8.5 billion people interrail annually, this industry is so important for the country, that there even is a railway minister in the parliament. A train can take you almost anywhere on the Indian subcontinent so it is no surprise that this is the tourists’ favorite means of transportation. However travelers usually face many problems caused by the Indian railway system complexities. In this article I will try to clarify all the ambiguous points and will suggest some handy tricks for the first-time travelers to India.
So, first things first.
Purchasing the tickets
Naturally, like all respectable companies do, Indian railway has its own website, where you can buy tickets on-line. The only problem is that you can only do it if you have a debit or credit card issued by an Indian bank. However there is a website cleartrip.com where you can freely register and purchase tickets with your own bank card, paying 2% of the ticket cost to the site. Yet you have to get the access to purchasing the railway tickets on the website, which will take some time and effort. Here you may find a detailed instruction how to do it. Cheaptrip.com is quite useful while traveling across India, there you can also buy bus and plane tickets or even book a hotel in almost any town in India with a small, yet pleasing, discount.
If you plan your trip beforehand and do not want to make any stop overs you have to purchase the ticket in advance because train tickets usually get sold out in a blink of an eye. Most Indians frequently go on journeys within the country so you should take care of this in good time if you do not want to be left with nothing. If you like to travel freely, you can also buy tickets at the railway station – it is always possible to find a way to get to your destination, the point is how pleasant the ride will be.
How to find out which class suits your needs and budget best?
The wagon class system in India is rather complicated but once you study out this chaos, you will never have problems with purchasing the tickets in the future (or almost never). First of all, in India there are long and short distance trains.
In the short distance trains the class stratification system is rather simple: general-type sitting carriages in the 2nd class and AC Chair Car in the 1st class. The 2nd class is something between commuter trains and sleeping cars. There is no limit for 2nd class tickets and they do not correspond to a certain place either. The early bird gets the worm. And there is no chance someone offers you a place even if you are an exhausted white girl with an enormous backpack – even the elderly passengers would not be given a place to sit. In such conditions up to 8 people fit onto sleeping racks, the Indians might even occupy luggage racks right over your head and your other neighbor might turn out to be a goat. It is obvious that tickets like that are extremely cheap, about a dollar for 150-200 km. The certain thing is if you dare to take this extreme ride you will never forget it and possibly even will not regret it. An Indian sitting carriage will be impressive enough.
The 1st class carriages differ from the 2nd class ones a lot and they are much more expensive – about 10 dollars for 100 km. The windows in such carriages are soundproof, the pushback seats are extremely soft and you will be even given a plain breakfast or dinner.
Now let’s proceed to the long distance trains. They are far more complicated. There are five carriage classes in overall: general, sleeper, AC 3 Tier , AC 2 Tier and First AC. Similar to short distance trains, the amount of tickets to general carriages is unlimited, the only difference is that you will have to keep standing for 23 hours instead of 3 which is not quite a pleasing thing to experience. Some of my friends ended up standing for 25 hours on their way to Goa. The only bright side is that you can take this ride without paying anything, because controllers usually avoid going to these overcrowded carriages which are almost impossible to get through. However, if you do not mind spending a day or two to get somewhere and you could not manage to book a ticket to a carriage of a higher class, general carriages are always open for extra passengers.
The next class is a so-called sleeper. It has three sleeping racks (there are no luggage racks, the lower seat’s back folds back into the middle rack). Most Indians choose this way of transportation –those who have enough money not to take the general carriage or modest people from the middle class. The sleeper is a great option if you want to save money and travel with relative comfort. 7-8 hours on the way will cost you 5 dollars. There are cheaper options as well as the ones that are more expensive. You might get lucky and take a ride in a clean new train. However you should also be ready for a situation when mice will play tag on the floor, cockroaches will climb up the walls and a delicate smell will float from the toilet, even though its doors are always shut. I had a chance to take such a train only once, but still…When you take a ticket to the upper rack, you must not forget that half of the wall between you and your neighbor will be made of grid. That is why all the way long you will be thoroughly observed by a pair of curious eyes (or maybe more).
If you take tickets to a night sleeper, you should take care of your sleeping utensils beforehand, because no one will give you any mattresses or pillows. If you travel in winter a sleeping bag will be the best option, because windows are not shut tight, there is no heating and you can imagine how warm you will feel if it is 8 C outdoors. To tell the truth, the coldest time in my entire life was when I took a night sleeper ticket to Varanasi, when the temperature outside was about 4 C and the only sleeping utensil I had was a sheet. I wore jeans and a hoodie that did not help at all and the Indians made fun of a Russian getting so cold in the “hot” India. If you travel in summer you should take a couple of bed sheets, because it will be unimaginably hot even if you open the windows and turn on all the fans that are hanging above the rack.
You should also be extremely attentive about all you belongings: never leave anything out of your sight. Use your bags as pillows, put your shoes under your bags (even shoes can be stolen; we had this trouble once). Different people walk around the train all the time. Those can be tea butchers who scream “TEA-TEA-TEA” all day and night long, some random people, hijras (the caste of hermaphrodites and transvestites) and beggars. Of course most Indians are descent people; even some well-heeled people take sleepers. You should only take into account that you are spotted by everyone around you and your personal belongings become must-haves for local thieves. If you are going in a group of people and small difficulties do not seem so challenging, it is all right to take a sleeper. There you can meet new interesting people who might like to tell you something about their lives. And, of course, it is really cheap, you can as well save some money on hotels if you take a night train.
The AC 3 Tier does not differ that much from the sleeper, but it is twice more expensive. These wagons are fitted with leak-proof windows, they are heated in winter and air conditioning works. Moreover, you will have a couple of sheets and a pillow. Basically, these are the only differences from the sleeper, the question is if you are ready to pay twice as more money for these conveniences.
The AC 2 Tier is 50% more expensive than the third one. These carriages have compartments with four racks each. They are soft and upholstered with a velvety material instead of blue leather cloth. In addition to that you are separated from the passage with red curtains instead of doors. You can also get sleeping utensils and should not worry about getting too cold in winter or too hot in summer.
The first class is luxurious; it will usually cost you more than a plane. Not all trains have this type of carriages because they are not really in great demand. There are usually only one or two first class carriages in the entire 25- or 30-carriage train. There are compartments with only two lower sleeping racks where you will be treated as kings: you will get bed clothing and dinner or supper. Most of the people who choose this class are usually extremely reach and arrogant. Considering the fact that foreigners are outside the caste system and thus are even less important than the untouchables, your first class companion might not want to engage in a conversation.
If you want to travel across India like a rajah or a British subject of the 19th century, you can choose one of the tourist high-class trains, that shuttle between the most popular destinations, like “Palace on wheels”, “Royal Rajahsthan on wheels”, “Maharaja Express” or “The Golden Chariot”.
Most of them make a one-week tour around the central part of India and the state of Rajahsthan. The interior and ticket prices are as fancy as their names. It is basically a five-star hotel that will take you to the most remarkable cities of India. The prices for one night in such trains start from around 150 dollars. You can book a room in such a train either for a few nights or for the whole trip. Some of these trains are the authentic and restored rajahs’ and most significant British persons’ trains. If you take a ride on one of those you will experience the British India and feel the romance and luxury of its’ refined past.
Oh those strange Indians!
Now we shall proceed to the most interesting part, the main highlight of India – its railways. First of all, its main difference (e.g. from the Russian one) is that any type of ticket there is sold unlimitedely. This leads to the excess of tickets over available seats. And then a so-called waiting list is formed which often leaves the beginning travellers confused. So why such a list even exists? We can hardly answer this question as Western people find this system really tangled but probably only it can regulate the unbelievable passenger traffic. How does it work? Suppose the train has 300 seats in the sleepers and they are sold out (this is possible even a month before the train departure) but people don't stop buying tickets for this train so they get into the waiting list. In the field where you can usually see your seat number it will be written "waiting list" with a serial number which indicates your position in the list (sometimes really absurd numbers appear, the biggest one I saw was 324). People often return their tickets and their tickets are transferred to people in the waiting list. Usually per any 300 second-class seats there are 25-40 returned tickets, so if your serial number is around 30, you will get into the train. There are times a hundred tickets get passed to the waiting list, it's all up to luck. The thing is you can find out whether you got the seat only by looking at the special boards right before the departure of the train (if the rail terminal is big and this is the place of the departure) or even in the train itself. Every car of the train has a piece of paper which lists the passengers and their seats. So the moment the train arrives you have to run from car to car looking for your name in the lists. Well, it can turn out that the list will fly away, get stained and you will have to jump aboard praying for luck as the cars don't have conductors.
The whole train has only ticket checker (the Indians will say that you need a "tickichicki" so be prepared) who will come an hour after you get into the train at best (sometimes he doesn't come at all). So before you ride the train make sure 3-4 times that this is your train and you won't find yourself in the morning in a thousand kilometers from your destination. There are times that despite the information on the displays the train arrives at the wrong platform (although that happens very rarely). However this is not a problem for Indians as every few meters a display is placed which shows the number of the train and the number of the car which will be near this display. That is really convenient as Indian trains stop only for 5-10 minutes (once I had to wait for 8 hours to get on some "express train"). I do not recommend you to leave the train to grab a snack or something. And remember, you will not arrive at your town in time, so ask and ask and ask Indians when you should get off.
Now back to the waiting list. Actually, the rules dictate that everyone who couldn't get on the train must go and return their tickets and get the money but not everyone would buy the 200th place in the waiting list if he didn't need it. So most of the Indians don't return their tickets and just get on the train, lie down on the floor or ask complete strangers to share their seats. This works only in sleepers, you are prohibited from sleeping on the floor in cars of other classes. You can get 15 neighbors instead of 7, people will be everywhere, you won't be able to step aside. The conductors take a small fee from these travelers for letting them stay inside the train. I also had seen a purchase of the ticket from the conductor, an illegal one, of course. Thus Indian railways are used by much more passengers than it's stated officially. It's easy to guess that they also get more money from the purchases.
You could think that one couldn't make this more complicated but it doesn't end there. There is a percentage of seats for the so-called RAC. These places are shared by some happy fellows (well, the «happy» is questionable for European travelers) who didn't get a whole seat in the sleepers, so the seat is shared by two people from the waiting list. Of course, a man and a woman won't be placed together, but nevertheless I have always feared being in the RAC whenever I bought a ticket to the waiting list.
IThere are some special seats for different categories of people. For elderly women, for students and (what's important!) for travelers. This means that they leave a few tickets for the foreigners (only on the popular routes) – it's often 2-4 tickets to sleepers and 2 per other classes. You can buy such tickets only in the big cities and big rail terminals or special railway centers. And it is not enough being a foreigner, you must have a tourist visa. If tourist-oriented seats is your last resort but you have a different type of visa, my advise is to try anyway. Maybe the railway worker will pay no attention to that being all charmed by your photo in the passport.
On the day of the departure you can count on the last resort of last resorts – tatcal. The sales of these tickets start at 8 a.m. both online and at the rail terminals. There are not many reserved seats but they will cost 1,5 times more than regular ones. If you decided on getting this ticket, I would advise to storm the website exactly at 8 a.m. But if your train is popular, the site will be lagging heavily during the purchase attempts.
My final advice would be this: if your sleeper turned out to be unbearable, you can go to the higher-class cars (your best shot is not higher than the third class) and stay there (if there are seats) and pay the difference of prices to the conductor, or act as if you are a goofy foreigner and sit there for some time until the conductor comes as he may not even send you away if you will tear up and whine about how bad your previous car was (and you won't pay one rupee).
But in general, dare yourselves! You should not be afraid of Indian trains – this will be one of the most exciting impressions from your time in India. You can try everything at once, feel all the sides of Indian life. The most silly adventures happen in the trains and the rail terminals, so I guarantee you will get a drop of adrenaline and a tonne of fun.
Translated by Sofya Lysenko and Dmitrii Dremanovich