Don’t Be Baffled By Indian Trains
When you first arrive on your gap year in India it can feel chaotic and overwhelming. But as you spend time in the country, you start to understand its weird quirks, and it becomes clear how nearly 6 million people can function in the madness.
The rail network lies at the heart of it, transporting over 20 million people every day. At any big rail station you’re likely to encounter any of the following; families chilling out on mats waiting for their trains, cows wandering down platforms, and the chaos of crowd when a train arrives.
It can seem prohibitively confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a guide to riding the trains in India without a hitch.
What class should I pick?
Prices are kept at a level that makes train travel accessible to nearly everyone in the population. Classes on trains are pretty representative of Indian society, with people in the AC carriages more likely to be glued onto their smart phones and those in the sleeper classes more likely to want a chat.
General seating is fine for a couple of hours, anything longer than this and you will want to have a bit more space and a padded seat. We used this class for our trip between Agra and Delhi but somehow ended up in a section reserved for the military. Luckily they were happy for us to stay and chat, even offering us rum at 10am because they were on their holiday. This four hour journey cost less than £1 each.
Sleeper class (SL) is open plan, with each section comprised of 6 beds (upper, middle and lower) on two sides and then 2 beds on the aisle side. This was the class that we used most, including on a number of overnight trips.
It was a lot of fun, people were interested in our journey and our perspectives on India, and my partner got to help out with a complicated level of Candy Crush (clearly an international addiction). We met a lot of interesting characters, including a couple of guys playing traditional Rajasthani music at 5am just before we pulled into our station.
Just as we started to get a grasp on the Indian rail network SL class would throw a spanner in the works. Between Ambala and Bikaner all of the passengers on our carriage got up at 2am and were replaced by another group of people. The shouting and pushing erupted again at 4am as that group left the train and were replaced by another set of travellers. Each time everyone fell asleep within minutes leaving us wide awake and confused.
I’m still not sure how everyone knew when to get off, Indian trains like to leave you guessing by not bothering with announcements for each station.
A step up from SL is AC3: it has the same bunk configuration but is blessed with air-con. The open windows of SL do offer better views and easier access for snack buying but they also let in the dust and heat from outside. AC3 will block this out and you will even be provided with bedding, unlike in SL class.
We took an AC3 train between Udaipur and Agra, costing us £10 each and lasting 12 hours. We spent most of the trip in awe of the family sharing our compartment who ate an impressively large amount of food in that time.
AC2 skips out the middle bunk and also offers a bit more privacy. Each bunk along the aisle has a curtain and the 4 bunks have one curtain to separate them from the aisles. Toilets in this class are generally a bit cleaner than in SL.
This was the class that we took our longest journey in, not out of choice but due to ticket availability. The twenty or so hour journey from Varanasi to Haridwar cost less than £20 each. People in this class generally found us a lot less interesting compared with our other journeys. One disadvantage of the air-con classes is that the air does get a bit rotten with so many people trapped in a small space for a long period of time.
First class was beyond our budget but we did spend part of a journey there by mistake. After a lack of announcements for our train we were rushed onto an already moving train. We walked down a number of compartments hoping to find ours before we ended up in first class.
Indian trains often have metal shutters in between classes, which kept us from reaching our SL berths. Instead we got to pretend we were fancy and enjoyed the rather nice toilets that featured both loo roll and soap! If you’re considering first class then you should look at the cost of flights as these are usually comparable.
India Rail Pass
You can buy a rail pass that’ll give you access to the entire Indian rail network from 1 day up to 90 days. You can use it flexibly, or make specific reservations in advance. The pass is valid in AC Executive class, AC2, and AC3 tiers.
Are tickets even available?
Indian trains are popular, so on some of the busier routes you’re competing with lots of people for that seat. Tickets go on sale 120 days in advance. Sometimes this varies so check before your trip
This means that they are not always available. If they are, there will be a big green sign on your chosen train and you can go ahead and book your seat.
If tickets are not available you have a few options. You can be reserved against cancellation (RAC), meaning you have a place on the train in the class you requested but not necessarily to yourself. It could be a bit cramped but at least you’ll get to your destination.
Wait listed (WL) is the other option. With this you do not have a place on the train and will need to wait for other passengers to cancel. You can monitor this online; hopefully enough people will drop out that you can make the journey.
So what happens when you have left it too late to book a ticket? Luckily the IRCTC have thought of this and introduced TATKAL tickets. These last minute tickets (with added £3 or so premium) are sold at stations 10am on the day before the train leaves. I would advise double checking this as we were told 8am in Varanasi and there was a pretty big queue after this time.
The foreign ticket quota (FT) may also save you if you’re completely stuck, with some seats on popular journeys being saved for foreigners. We found that these were nearly always already reserved by more organised people and are not something we could rely on.
If you really can’t get a ticket…
Never fear! The famous saying in India is that ‘the only thing that is impossible is that something is not possible.’ You will reach your destination: you can opt for a bus journey where you will be crammed in like a sardine for a few hours. Or you can opt for luxury and pay for a private car, which will probably only cost you the same as a short train journey in the UK if you bargain hard!
Whatever happens, if you try hard enough, India will make sure you get where you need to go.