India is tipped to be a hot destination for 2013, so we bring you an article from the Wanderlust archives on travelling India's trains... Here we help you join the railway bazaar
Please note, this article was originally written and published in March 2009.
A train rattles over a long girder bridge; the riverbank is covered in a rainbow of clothes left to dry on the khaki earth. Machetes glint in the sun as they slice into fields of sugar cane, and armies of men load carts hauled by white oxen. Everywhere there is colour: a splash of bougainvillaea; the vivid yellow of an immaculate sari.
There is nothing to match the views of India seen from a train window. I have travelled tens of thousands of miles across India by rail and enjoyed some of my most magical moments, catching fleeting vignettes of daily life.
India’s railways have long been the lifeblood of the nation and are arguably the most important legacy of the Raj. The subcontinent’s first passenger train left Mumbai – then Bombay – on 16 April 1853 to travel 33km to Thane. Over the following half-century many private railway companies built most of today’s network under a government guarantee system.
A mix of track gauges was used: ‘standard’ or ‘broad’ gauge (1,676mm); metre gauge for secondary lines, many of which have now been converted to broad; and narrow gauge (usually 762mm) for minor lines. You may still find yourself having to hop trains where the gauge changes – particularly when travelling up to hill stations, which were invariably connected by narrow-gauge lines to minimise costs.
Construction entailed some extraordinary feats of engineering. Perhaps the most singular accomplishment was the construction of 88km of metre-gauge railway from the left bank of the River Ganges at Godspeed to Darbhanga in 1874. In just 65 days Major Stanton surveyed the line, acquired the land, ordered materials and moved them across the river, built the formation, laid the track and commissioned the locomotives.
Until the late 20th century the railways had minimal competition from road or air. Though that has changed over the past decade, the sheer volume of India’s passenger and freight traffic can only be handled by train, unless there’s an environmentally suicidal change of direction. So state-owned Indian Railways remains vital to the country’s economy. It is the world’s third-largest network, encompassing over 63,000km of tracks and employing 1.54 million staff members to operate around 9,000 passenger trains each day.
The changes to the railway system over the past 20 years have been astonishing. The much-loved steam locomotive has disappeared except on heritage lines or special trains, computers have transformed the booking system, and air-conditioned carriages have become the norm on faster inter-city trains.
Indian Railways has recently announced that 26 major stations are to be rebuilt by international architects; UK-based Terry Farrell & Partners has already been chosen to redevelop New Delhi station.
No visit to India is complete without travelling by train. Quite apart from being the most eco-friendly way to travel, it is also much safer: accidents on the railways are now very rare, while more people are killed on the roads of India than any other country.
But best of all, you will see and learn far more about the country than you would by any other means. On overnight trains in particular it is almost de rigueur to chat to your carriage-mates – which often leads to sharing the contents of your tiffin tins or gossiping over a cup of chai (spiced milky tea). And a visit to India just isn’t complete without at least one night during which the strident note of the locomotive horn and the hubbub of station sounds infuse your sleep.
The Indian rail network is so extensive that you can assume that most towns of substance will be on the railway. Only Kashmir is poorly connected, though a track is under construction to Srinagar.
Trains vary enormously. There are eight classes, covering the various permutations of day and overnight trains. The most deluxe are the overnight, air-conditioned Rajdhani Express trains, which link the regional capitals and include an at-seat service of food (‘veg’ or ‘non-veg’) in the fare. The equivalent day trains are called Shatabdi Express; fares on these also include food.
Some may find the experience on these trains rather anodyne, if comfortable. Unfortunately Indian Railways seems intent on making its trains feel like planes by using airline seating rather than compartments or seats around a table, and heavily tinted glass can spoil views of the passing countryside. However, the toilets are likely to be useable, in contrast to the often unsavoury facilities in Sleeper or Second Class.
At the other end of the comfort scale are the commuter trains. These are so packed that the doors are rarely closed and the least fortunate travel outside the coaches, hanging on to handrails or even the open window surrounds. Roof travel is strongly discouraged, especially on electrified lines, but has not been eliminated.
Non-air-conditioned coaches are less comfortable than those with air-con but for daytime journeys they offer better views through open windows – older air-conditioned carriages have heavily tinted, almost opaque windows. There are no restaurant or buffet cars, but many longer-distance trains have a kitchen car and an attendant who will take your order and return with rice and curry in foil containers on a tray.
Stations are heaving souqs of humanity. They have booking offices but it is preferable to avoid using them unless you enjoy queues and crowds. Stations are also places where the poor seek alms – some of the more disabled are a distressing sight. But unless you want a hermetically sealed visit, there is no better way of seeing Indian society in all its guises and richness than travelling by timetabled trains.
There are eight classes of travel on Indian Railways, though only a selection will be available on any particular train, so you need to check the timetable. Carriages can be divided into two types: those with air-conditioning and those without. The classes of non-air-conditioned coaches have changed recently; non-AC first class is now rare, so the most common non-AC is Sleeper Class – this is how the majority of people
travel on Indian Railways.
A category of top day trains called Shatabdi Express run between a limited number of principal cities, eg. New Delhi to Amritsar/Bhopal/Kalka/Lucknow/Varanasi and Kolkata to Ranchi.
AC Executive Chair Found on a few plush trains (eg Shatabdi Express); can be used by holders of an AC1 Indrail Pass (see overleaf).
AC1 (air-conditioned first class) The most comfortable and expensive. Carriages are made up of lockable, carpeted two- and four-berth compartments with washbasin; bedding is provided. Couples may request two-berth coupes, but it is not guaranteed.
AC 2-tier Seats by day convert to bunks at night in an open layout without compartments – four-berth transverse bays and longitudinal two-berth bays. Some privacy is provided by curtains. Bedding is provided. There is greater demand for this category than AC1. Perfectly satisfactory for most people.
AC 3-tier More crowded than AC 2-tier as transverse bays have three tiers of bunks. These are also curtained on some trains. An attendant supplies bedding.
AC Chair Less luxurious than AC Executive Chair, with three plus two seating rather than the two plus two of the more-costly class; fine for day journeys of four to five hours.
Non-AC1 Coaches have lockable four-berth and two-berth compartments. Bedding is not included in the fare, but may be available for a small extra charge if booked in advance. Because the windows are not sealed they are usually grubbier than air-conditioned carriages.
Sleeper class (non-AC2) Carriages have the same configuration of berths as AC3 but bedding is not provided. Roof-mounted fans circulate the air, and the train’s motion provides some breeze; can be cold in winter. The glassless, barred windows give a better view of the surrounding countryside. Theoretically everyone in Sleeper should have a reservation, so there is a limit to capacity.
Unreserved 2 No reservation needed; carriages contain wooden or plastic seats. Not to be recommended for anything other than a short daytime journey made at short notice.
Unless you are willing to join the scrum for a seat in non-AC2, you can’t expect to turn up at a booking office, buy a ticket and travel. In India the ‘turn up and go’ railway only exists for Unreserved 2 – nearly all trains are full and reservations are necessary for all other classes.
This does limit your flexibility. The shorter the interval between reservation and travel the less likely you are to obtain a seat/berth on your preferred train. Booking opens 90 days before departure, and there is usually a ‘tourist quota’, giving foreigners and Indrail passholders preferential treatment.
Reservations can be made on Indrail passes up to a year in advance. When you consider that, and the time spent queuing at ticket office windows – not to mention the frustration of getting to the front to find all the seats gone – it’s clear that planning well ahead is key.
There are two ways to do this: either online (www.irctc.co.in) – though anecdotal evidence suggests many find this a challenging procedure – or via the oracle in Britain for Indian rail travel, Dr Dandapani at SD Enterprises (020 8903 3411, www.indiarail.co.uk). Besides decades of experience advising on Indian railway travel, Dr Dandapani has the concession to issue Indrail passes, and can also book hotels. Passes should be booked at least 30 days in advance, though there may be some availability two to three weeks before travel.
If you don’t book in advance you can avoid the normal queues at main stations in big cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi by using the International Tourist Bureau, where foreign travellers can book trains. There is also a 24-hour rail booking office at Delhi International Airport.
Indrail Passes The benefit of an Indrail Pass is that it allows pre-booking through SD Enterprises, giving you peace of mind and saving time either on the website before departure or queuing in India.
It does not obviate the need to reserve a seat or berth, and it is not a device for saving you money; in fact, it is likely to cost you a little more on short-duration passes compared with buying a ticket. Savings come with longer-duration passes if you are travelling frequently. Also, if you want to remain flexible and make reservations as you go, an Indrail Pass may be of little benefit.
Indrail passes come in three classes – AC1, First Class (covers AC 2-tier, AC 3-tier, non-AC1 and AC Chair) and Second Class – and last from half a day to 90 days. You can use half-day, one-day or two-day passes to book a single one-off train trip (though there may be exceptions on some Rajdhani Express trains) or you can arrange a complete pre-booked itinerary on a longer pass. Advantages include a waiving of the reservation fee for berths or seats, no sleeper-berth surcharge and no additional fee for use of the fastest trains.
If you need to stay close to a train station, for an early morning connection, for example, you can save money by using Railway Retiring Rooms. At important railway stations (including major junctions where the community may be small), Indian Railways provides rooms with one, two or four beds and sometimes dormitories for single-night stays. They are basic but generally clean, if not the quietest of places.
The Great Railway Bazaar (Penguin, 2008; originally published 1975) by Paul Theroux. A little dated now, but a great read, with nine chapters on Indian journeys.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (Penguin, 2009; originally published in 2008) Theroux returns to Asia to re-trace the route of his earlier adventure.
An Indian Summer (Penguin, 2000) by James Cameron. A doyen of Indian correspondents distils his memories of the country.
India Handbook 2011 (Footprint, 2011) – a particularly detailed guidebook (there are regional guides to India, too), though specific information about train travel is scant.
Into India (John Murray, 1999) by John Keay. Excellent short guide to the country’s regional character.
No Full Stops in India (Penguin, 1992) and India: The Road Ahead (Penguin, 2012) by Mark Tully. The voice of the BBC in India for so many years, Tully provides an unrivalled introduction to modern India.
Two train-specific books are available from some specialist travel bookshops in the UK: Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable, a summary of principal trains; and A Guide to India Railways (TTK Healthcare Ltd). Trains at a Glance is available in India from station bookstalls.