The veins of the beast – Indian Rail Network

The Indian Railway Network may as well be its own country with a constitution, its own culture and its very own quirky characters.  Accordingly it deserves a blog of its own, dedicated to trying to convey my snippet of an experience aboard this monolithic beast that is the pulsating life veins of India.

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The train stations are like refugee camps, clogged with litter, inhabited round the clock by sleeping families, limbless beggars dragging across the stone floors, the obligatory cow crunching crisp packets and cackling macaques clambering the wires above.

The trains themselves are alive with action: the aisles paced by calling Chai Wallahs, men hopping on at stops with hot snacks wrapped in newspapers and the stoical ticket conductors with their reams of A3 lists.

Local trains

There are two types of train in India.  Local trains which obviously get you from A to not-so-far-away B.  I only experienced these once (in Mumbai) when I boarded the mixed sex carriage with all the men (women have their own carriage, so they can temporarily avoid suffering stares and sly gropes. I wish I was joking).  I escaped unscathed, with only a few lingering glances.  To be fair, they would probably think I was asking for the attention – having grown sick of shawls in the 35 degree heat, I’d decided to go wild and bare my shoulders that day.

The local trains are great fun; they barely pause at the platform so you have to be adept at jumping off a moving train Bond-style or jumping onto a moving train which is already bursting at the seams.  They leave the doors wide open to assist this stunt (and also because hundreds of men casually hang out of each carriage anyway).  Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, they don’t ride the roofs though.  Shame.  Would’ve been a great picture.

The best thing about these trains is the price – for my journey in Mumbai of 4 stops, it cost a mind-bogglingly-cheap 3 pence!  I suppose there were about 6 million people on the train, so they probably made a profit at that price.

Long distance

What I really want to talk about is the utterly unmissable Indian experience aboard the long distance Indian Rail Network.  Let’s talk figures.  (And superlatives.) Covering this whopping subcontinent with 70 thousand miles of track, served by the largest number of employees in the world (a staggering 1.5 million people) and catering for a phenomenal 30 million passengers per day…this is a conglomerate of dizzying proportions.  The most astounding thing is how efficiently it’s run (take note UK!) and how few trains arrive late, given the sheer distance these engines have to cover.  It is possible to board a train at one of the compass points of the country and stay on board to the polar opposite for 2 whole days. With more time, I would love to give that a go!

The journey begins before you even set foot in India.  You can book all your trains online, if you have a degree in advanced railway technology, or a lot of time to research.  This is highly advisable: trains are booked up weeks, sometimes months, in advance.  I started booking two months before arrival and for popular dates, I wasn’t able to get anywhere near my chosen destinations and actually had to change my itinerary.  So unless you’re one of those lucky sods who has heaps of time to spare and a flexible plan, then book well in advance.  This also saves you having to brave the queues* at the station with the convoluted procedures and maddening array of options.  (*For “queues” read: general melee of swarming masses all facing towards the ticket counter, shoving, shouting and sticking sweaty rupees in the air.)

“Book in advance” sounds easy.  It isn’t.  You need to be well researched and know your own mind.  There are 8 classes of train to choose from.  There are also several types of train. If your train is booked up, you can also choose to go onto a “waitlist” or “reservation against cancellation list” which is even more complicated, but is worth giving it a shot as you only lose a few pennies if you miss out.  There’s even “taktal” or tourist quota seats available on a lot of trains but you have to pay for the entire journey.  The options are endless.  And unlike the UK, the trains run 24/7, meaning you may well be poked out into deepest Delhi at 3am or have to board a Shatabagddi sleeper train at midnight.

I wanted to experience as many classes of train as possible.  On paper, there isn’t a right lot of difference between the classes, even though the prices are very different – for example, first class is double its closest counterpart, 2ndAC, but the only difference is that your compartment has a door and you’ll be sharing with wealthier passengers.  So the temptation is naturally to go for the best you can afford and being a westerner, this is First Class or 2nd AC.  But you’ll get a more realistic experience in 3rd class or sleeper or chair class.  In summary, it takes a lot of careful consideration but it is eventually worth it…

My train time…

We started off in ‘sleeper’ class but on a day train.  As it’s cheaper, it’s always packed with an array of colourful and loud people from all walks of life.  You don’t tend to see other foreigners in here and it’s the perfect place to people watch.  It’s not a great place to be if you value your personal space either, but then again, this isn’t the country for elbow room.

Sleeper by day is a long row of carriages with sets of two bunks down one side and then perpendicular to the length of the train, an open pod of two facing benches which convert into 6 bunks at night.  Therefore it technically seats and sleeps 8 people in one small space.  However, you often find people have brought the whole family to share their bunk.

This accorded with my first train ride.  Having researched by socks off, I was ready to take the challenge. When you witness the sheer scale of the train stations (like cities in themselves) and the length of the trains, which stretch further than the eye can see, you’ll understand how this is no mean feat.   I knew which platform I had to be at, at what time, which carriage to look out for and what seat number to go for.  Boarding the Varanasi train from Lucknow, carriage S5, I got onto the grimy metallic compartment and shuffled through the narrow aisle to our seats: 33 and 34… only to find 10 people sat on the benches – 5 members of a family and 5 official looking men in khaki uniform.  There must be some mistake.

“Hello, erm…those are our seats” I smiled apologetically at the most official looking man.

“No, no.” he grinned, unapologetically.

“Sorry, er….yes, it’s carriage S5, seats 33 and 34.” I glanced back and forth from my ticket to the seat numbers.  This was definitely it; this statesman must be mistaken.

“No Madam, this is carriage Esss SEVEN” he hissed. “Your seats down there.”  He waved his hand in the direction of the next carriage, nodding sternly to assert his authority.

I know when I’m right.   I had seen S5 on the outside of this carriage and with months of pre-India planning behind me, I was going to stand my ground.  Luckily, one of the other bewildered looking carriage companions was departing and boldly willing to defend me.  “This is S FIVE,” he confirmed, then scarpered.

I exchanged glances with the khaki officer, waiting for him to realise his mistake but instead, he patted the leather bench next to him and smiled, “Well, sit down then Madam.”

I later learnt that these men were in fact, the police.  They don’t buy tickets, they don’t need tickets, they weren’t even working that day.  They wear their uniform and they rule the roost.  If they want to take your seat, they can and they will.  They were actually quite friendly once we were sandwiched together for 6 hours, although it is slightly disconcerting (but wholly symptomatic of India) that my first encounter with a police man was one where he blatantly lied to me!  If a police man is disingenuous, you’ve got no hope for anyone else!

So there were then 12 of us, pressed together on two facing leather benches, burgeoning into the desolate countryside, glancing out of the barred windows rather than stare at each others faces.  And surprisingly, it was a wonderful experience!  This was how I discovered that Indians don’t really do privacy.  If you’re reading a book or looking at your pictures, they are looking too, breathing onto your shoulder and chuckling at snaps of you with your first holy cow.   But they also share their food and their stories, quite unprompted.  I discovered amazing homemade cauliflower parathas on this journey and learnt about different Hindu festivals and body painting rituals.  My Rough Guide was passed round the carriage for everyone to discover what it thought of their home town or their favourite festival.  The fact that this huge 1,000+ page tome doesn’t even touch on some of the events that they deem sacrosanct is testament to how much there is to see in India and how you could never sum it all up.

My first overnight train was in 3AC class which looks just like sleeper but it allegedly has air conditioning, plus you get a blanket and pillow.   It’s not for the fainthearted.  Going to sleep in a darkened carriage with two men in bunks above you and three strange men on the opposite side, just inches away from your pillow, makes it a tad hard to sleep!  I got used to it though and the rocking train lulled me into a snooze.

Be sure to keep your bags locked up on the night trains, because there’s nothing stopping people coming on and off at station stops and nabbing your valuables.  I was really careful with my belongings, but shocked to find I had fallen prey to a theft during my long sleep – someone had strangely taken my free train blanket, my pashmina and Mr MancDay’s crap old headphones.  All these things were next to our bodies, so take care!

Sleeping on trains is so much fun, it brings out the child adventurer in you (the one who wanted to build a den under the stairs or sleep in the tent in the back garden!)  After the sun sets, they come round to see who wants dinner – usually a veggie curry and chapati for about £1.  An hour later it is served, fresh from the dining carriage and with all the excitement of airplane food!  Then they bring round freshly laundered white sheets, blankets and pillows, everyone pulls the bunks down and gets tucked up.  If you’re in 2AC or 1st, you have a little reading light too, but in 3AC or sleeper, a torch will suffice if your cabin mates want to turn the glaring strip light off.  I slept surprisingly soundly on these trains.

I suppose my advice would be to give lower classes a try during the day, because you will meet some remarkable people and experience real society.  But at night, you’re looking to rest, so I would choose something decent if you can.  2AC on paper only seemed to have the advantage of 2 bunks each side, but it is also a bit cleaner and you travel with foreign travellers or middle-class Indians.  The first time we met any other westerners was on this class and whilst you don’t come to India to meet fellow Brits, it can be a welcome break to compare and share some of the madness you’ve witnessed, and laugh in disbelief at the wonder of the trains.  All in all, train travel is a quintessential Indian experience and is very much part of the adventure itself.


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