At the point of writing this post, Brad and I had been in India for almost 3 months. We only have 4 weeks left in this crazy country. One topic I haven’t touched on yet is how we’ve been getting from A to B. When ‘A’ and ‘B’ are sometimes 900 kilometres apart (our longest journey to date!!!), but you are on a limited budget, the best way to get around is by train.
India is very well connected by railway and it’s the go-to mode of transport for most locals moving from state to state. I have to admit, despite the horror stories I had been told about prior to arriving in the country, I was pretty excited to get on the trains. What better way to witness the rural landscapes of such a big country than by whizzing past on a train? Yet I still had concerns. It seemed everyone we spoke to before coming to India had something negative to say about their railways. For some reason it has this bad reputation and everyone has this immediate dislike to the thought of being on an Indian train. If it wasn’t concerns for hygiene, it was concerns for safety. I had heard horrific stories of unsanitary toilets, groups of men groping women and being squished into the carriages like cattle.
So, as part of this blog I decided to de-bug some myths, based off of our many railway experiences. I asked a few people what comes to mind when they imagine the Indian railways. This is what I was told:
“A hot sticky smelly mess”
“Hot with nowhere to sleep even if you’ve reserved seats/a bed. Can’t imagine anything worse”
“Crowded, noisy, smelly, hot, uncomfortable”
Before I delve into our personal experience it’s important to explain how the train system works, since it has a huge impact on your experience. There are several classes of train carriage and picking the correct one ensures you have a more pleasant journey. The classes available on most train journeys will be:
- General Seating: the lowest class possible, unreserved and super cheap/free. There are no beds or air conditioning, only seats. This is the carriage you see people literally climbing through the windows to get on. Every man for themselves. We would never EVER put ourselves through the stress of this class.
- Sleeper: Still super cheap tickets, but these are reserved and you do get a bed (but no sheets). There is no air conditioning, only windows.
- AC3: These reserved tickets are for an air conditioned carriage, you have beds with sheets and blankets and can be sure there will be no overcrowding. There are 8 beds in one section but the whole carriage is open (no doors). The price doubles from Sleeper.
- AC2: Again, an air conditioned carriage very much similar to AC3. The main differences are that there are only 6 beds in one section (more head space) and you get curtains for some privacy. The carriages are also smaller. Then, small things such as you get a lamp next to your bed. The prices doubles from AC3.
- AC1/First Class: The most expensive ticket, we never travelled this class however I have read that you are in 4 bed sections that have doors for privacy.
For the most part we travelled AC3. For the first 6 weeks the reason for this was mostly, we were scared how bad sleeper class would be. But also, after our first journey, we agreed we felt very comfortable with this class of ticket. Contrast to what everyone says, it was not an unpleasant experience at all. In fact, the open carriage actually added to the feeling of safety (think Neighbourhood Watch). Since the tickets are not the most expensive but are also far more expensive than sleeper, it attracts more families than solo, male travellers. You are not overheating due to the air-con and actually it gets a little cold at night (for me). Yes, it’s not as comfortable as a bed but if you’re expecting that from a train you seriously need a reality check. People snoring around you and turning lights on in the middle of the night can mean you don’t get all that much sleep. Especially since we kept most of our luggage on the beds with us to avoid thieves. But on the whole they are not bad at all. As for the toilets, due to the fact less people are using them than the lower classes, they’re OK. They smell, but take my word for it, they are actually WAY better than the toilets you’d use on a Great Western Railway train between Reading and Paddington.
When we were travelling between Jaipur and Sawai Madahpur (Ranthambore) we decided to test out sleeper class. It was only a 2 hour train, during the day and we were keen to see what it was like for ourselves. To our pleasant surprise, it was totally fine! It is warm, but just sit by the windows and use the breeze to cool you down whilst you watch the Indian countryside pass you by. It even had perks that you don’t see as much on AC3 such as more traders selling chai. After this journey we decided it wasn’t so bad and booked onto 2 more trains (only short ones). On the train between Jaipur and Pushkar we were sat on our reserved beds when we pulled into this station. Suddenly all of these people clambered into our carriage, it was rammed. Without a doubt none of these people had tickets and I was watching my bag like a hawk. Though, no one even tried to sit on our bunks (they did to the other commuters) and they were only on for a few stops before they started clearing out again. This type of freeloading would never happen on the upper classes and I’m sure this is a risk if you’re travelling sleeper overnight. For us though, it didn’t cause us any issues.
The final class that we’ve experienced is AC2 and this is only because it was the only option that hadn’t sold out. This was our longest journey yet (16 hours to Mumbai) and we were pretty thankful for the extra room you’re given. We spoke to the lovely Jain couple on the bunks below us, who offered us some of their delicious home made chai. It was a comfortable night. For the extra money you pay for this class though, I don’t think it’s worth it (especially for backpackers like us).
One last myth I’d like to bust is on the trains being late. We had been told that no trains are on time and the delays can be awful! In reality, out of all the trains we have boarded, probably only 2 or 3 have been delayed and even then, by no more than 30-45 minutes. Most of the time the delay is 5-10 minutes. We arrive at our destinations mostly when we are supposed to. The worst delay we had was 2 hours late arriving into Khajuraho, but it meant we actually arrived at a more sociable hour than we were meant to – no complaints. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen because I did over hear on a tannoy one train was delayed by something ridiculous like 30 hours. What I am saying is that it’s no where near as common as it’s made out to be!
So there you have it! Travelling on an Indian train is NOT as bad as you think.
To be honest with you, the biggest stress with the Indian Railway is just booking your ticket. As we have done our whole journey, we book all our tickets ourselves, never using third parties that charge extra for the convenience. Without going into too much detail (I could write an essay) on the problems with the Railway’s booking website, I’ll just give you an idea of how backwards it is.
For certain trains, if the tickets sell out, you can still buy tickets. That’s right, no tickets left but you can buy one. Doesn’t make sense right? They give you a ‘confirmation probability’ which tells you what the chances of you being given an actual reserved ticket is. If you book one of these tickets you have to bank of the fact one of 2 things will happen.
- Enough people will cancel their ticket to allow you to get on the train
- Tickets held back for tourist/elderly/disabled are not used up and released to people on the waiting list
You ONLY find this out when the carriage is prepared a couple of hours before it’s due to leave.
We had no choice but to book onto a train that had no tickets left (we only did it once due to how stressful it was). It was an extremely anxious wait to see if we would get beds and we were checking the website frequently to see if our waiting list number changed. When the final seats were handed out we were notified of a partial refund. Our minds started reeling wondering why we had been given some of our money back – what did this mean?! Brad had been given a seat, but I had not. We had no idea if this meant I could board the train or not and Google was giving us mixed answers. Ultimately, there was no chance in hell I wasn’t getting on that train.
What ended up happening is that Brad had been given HALF a berth, along with another man. I had been given no birth but had boarded anyway. So there were 10 of us in one 8 person section of the train. Eventually Brad and I were lucky enough to be given a bed to share between us (as opposed to sharing one bed among 3). It was a horrendously uncomfortable night all because of the RIDICULOUS ticket system of the Indian Railway.
After travelling on so many trains I’ve lost count, I would like to think I know the Indian Railways fairly well now. They are a fantastic way to travel huge distances for a small price. You get to see so much of the country you’d simply miss out on if you’d taken a plane.
I’d love to answer any questions you have about Indian Railways. Maybe you’ve heard something about them and want to know if it’s true? Leave a comment below!