Since the days when it was developed to link the commercial and military centres of the Indian Empire, and ambitious young officers fanned out to take up their posts across India, the Indian Railways system has expanded considerably. By the close of the 19th century, there were 40 000 miles of track, stretching to the remotest parts of the country. Today, Indian Railways is the largest system in Asia, and the second largest in the world. Each day, over 11 million people travel to and from a total of 7021 railway stations. Included in every passenger list are a number of foreign travellers, most of them convinced that the Indian train is the only way to travel round the subcontinent.
A separate book could be written about India’s rail service. The network itself is extremely extensive, always a madhouse and yet (after a fashion) amazingly efficient, although few trains leave on time.
If you’re going to be spending any length of time on trains in India, invest in a copy of the Indian Bradshaw, the complete timetable of every rail service in India, which costs about Rs20. Smaller, and easier to decipher, is the Trains at a Glance booklet, sold for Rs6 at most large rail stations.
There are five basic classes of passenger rail travel: air-conditioned first class (operates on certain trains and routes only); two-tier air-conditioned sleeper; air-conditioned chair-car; 1st-class non air-conditioned and 2nd-class reserved. The most cost-effective method of travel is air-conditioned chair-car. This guarantees you a seat of your own, which no one can pinch, squat in or otherwise usurp. For long journeys (say, anything over a day) a two-tier air-con sleeper is half the price of the over-rated 1st-class AC sleeper, far more private and comfortable.
Always travel with a reservation, and always in the quicker mail, express or superfast trains. Never catch a local passenger train (takes ages), or travel in crowded 2nd-class unreserved carriages.
Mahatma Gandhi, newly arrived in India after his sojourn in South Africa, chose to explore the country in 3rd-class train accommodation. Travelling many thousands of miles, he shared heat, dust, overcrowding and general discomfort with untouchables, beggars and pilgrims, and pronounced it the most authentic way of discovering India. Certainly, Indian trains capture the essence of the country: a vast, sprawling and diverse organism chugging along, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always managing to function in one way or another.
Rail travel is a leisurely way of taking in the varied scenery—mountains, lakes, rivers, forests and (except when the doors and windows are bolted against bandit
attacks) dense jungles and hill terrains. You’ll also meet a great many people. And
time passes very quickly when you’re sharing food, jokes, gifts and conversation. Whenever the train pulls into a station, platforms are an explosion of noise and
colour: cries of ‘chai-ya!’ and ‘om-elette!’ float invitingly over the general hubbub.
Here you can buy fresh(ish) fruit and vegetables, a hot samosa or a ‘chaaK’ snack,
chapatis and parathas for next to nothing. Or you can wait until the daily shipment of Khali suppers is loaded onto the train, and dine in civilised fashion later on. Train food is cheap (e.g. omelette and chapatis for Rs5), though rather bland. If on a marathon journey, it’s a good idea to bring along supplies of your own—chocolate, biscuits and mandarin oranges. They help break the monotony of dhal and rice, peanuts, cucumbers and chips. Drinks are never a problem. At practically every station you come to, a man with an aluminium teapot will be beetling up and down the platform doling out chain. This often comes in little earthenware pots, which you are expected to lob out of the window when empty.
Perhaps the most economical mode of rail travel is the night sleeper. A Rs12
2nd-class sleeper reservation is a very cheap night’s accommodation. And they save you time (while you are asleep, you are often covering a lot of ground). If you can stretch out, there’s a good chance that you’ll get a comfortable night’s sleep. The middle bunks are often best: top bunks can be too hot or too draughty; the bottom ones can be dusty, and are favourite resting places of all-night squatters. Lights generally go out at 10.30 pm, but passengers can take a long time to settle down.
Because of the enormous volume of traffic, you can’t just buy a ticket and get on a train, and you may really have to fight for a ticket. The reservations queue, winding out of a station concourse onto the street like a long, meandering snake, is the special dread of the foreign tourist. If you meet one, you’ve four choices: a) get a travel agent to reserve your ticket for you; b) hire a boy for a rupee or two to wait in the queue while you relax elsewhere; c) if you are male, find a woman tourist to buy your ticket for you—women are always allowed to the front queues in India; d) queue up yourself. If you have to do this, you’ll need to get a reservation slip and fill it out first. At better organised stations, there is a system of number stamping, whereby a platform official (usually a ticket collector) writes your number in the queue on your ticket. This means that you can wander off and barge to the front of the queue when (often hours later) your number is called.
Sometimes, you’ll get the doleful shake of the head and the apologetic words, ‘So sorry, all full’. This means you’ll have to apply for the tourist quota of tickets, usually issued by the District Commercial Superintendent of the railway department. His office is often miles away from the station, but you’ll be surprised how easily he’ll supply you with a ticket. Other ‘quotas’ are hidden away in all sorts of subterranean places in and out of the station complex. If you are really stuck, ask the nearest tourist office if there’s a ‘tourist quota’ on the train you want. Or approach the stationmaster and try and break into his VIP quota. If nothing works, it’s worth paying a few rupees baksheesh to a station porter to get a seat in an unreserved compartment.
Your reservation ticket will have the numbers of your carriage and berth written on it. Your sleeper reservation ticket (yes, probably another queue) will have your bunk number on it. If you arrive at your berth to find someone already sleeping in it, you may have to track down the reservation ticket officer (always somewhere on the train) to remove him. Alternatively, remind the offending person that ‘Ticketless travel is a social evil’ (a priceless sign at Kanwar rail station) and remove him yourself.
Arriving on a crowded, seething series of platforms looking for your train can be a problem. If you ask for directions from passengers or even station officials you may not be given the correct information. One couple arrived at Delhi station for the 4.20 pm train to Madras. They arrived an hour early to be sure of catching it. They were told by the station master, the platform guards, the ticket collector and half-adozen assorted railway officials that their train would certainly depart from platform 13. But it didn’t; it left from platform 12, and they missed it.
And newly-arrived tourists may find themselves pestered by spurious ‘guides’ who will see you to the train and then try to extort as much money as possible out of you. A couple of rupees will get you a porter. He will not only carry your bags through the maelstrom, but will locate the right train for you.
A good way of checking that your reservation is all right, and that you’ve got the right train, is to look at the ‘reservation sheet’ posted on the sides of each carriage. This—a wonderfully efficient Indian device—will have your name and berth number scrawled on it.
Indian railway stations themselves are fascinating. They often have a collection
of interesting old steam engines huffing and puffing in and out—a gricer’s dream—and they often have very good waiting-rooms, with a decent restaurant
and sometimes a bathroom. Tourists can use both 1st- and 2nd-class waitingrooms, and even sleep free in them, provided they have a valid train ticket. Most stations also have a left-luggage room, where you can leave your bags for just Rsl per day—very useful if you’re only spending a few hours in a town, and don’t want to book into a hotel.
Luxury Train Travel
The Palace on Wheels attempts to recreate the lifestyle of the old colonial rulers and their princely Indian counterparts. Offering an ‘unparalleled luxurious mode of travel’ through Rajasthan—Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur—and Bharatpur, Fatehpur Sikri and Agra, it leaves Delhi every Wednesday between October and March. The one-week tour costs £1200/US$2375 for two persons, £890/US$1750 for single persons in twin-bedded cabins. The Palace on Wheels is now marketed abroad, at the Indrail branch offices given overleaf.
A similar train has recently been launched in south India linking Bangalore, Mysore, Hassan, Hospet, Badami, Bijapur and Goa. Cheaper, and by all accounts more satisfactory, is the Indian Rail Rover ticket sold by Trailfinders (see p.5).Facilities are much more basic, but it is valid for 18-32 days, allowing the bearer to cover a lot more territory.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of rail travel, the Indrail Pass can be very good value. Valid for one year from purchase date, it gives unlimited travel on Indian trains, and allows you to go where and when you like without ever (if travelling unreserved) having to join a ticket queue. If you do want a reservation, you’ll still have to queue but the Indrail Pass carries a bit of weight and often produces quotas denied to other ordinary rail travellers. It is also very useful for gaining access to 1st-class station waiting-rooms and retiringrooms. To make the best use of your Indrail Pass, pick up a copy of Indrail India Rail Rovers booklet, issued free at general sales agents (e.g. the foreigners’ booking office in New Delhi rail station). It lists all trains, discusses all rail travel options, and generally helps you plan your itinerary.
The main offices which handle Indrail passes are located at:
New Delhi: Railway Tourist Guide, New Delhi Railway Station; and Central
Reservation Office, Northern Railway, Connaught Place.
Bombay: Railway Tourist Guide, Western Railway, Churchgate, and Railway
Tourist Guide, Central Railway, Victoria Terminus.
Calcutta: Railway Tourist Guide, Eastern Railway, Fairlie Place, and Central Reservation Office, South-Eastern Railway, Esplanade Mansion.
Madras: Central Reservation Office, Southern Railway, Madras Central.
Children aged between 5 and 12 years are charged only half the adult Indrail fare. In India, Indrail Passes are sold by many travel agents or Central Reservations Offices at major railway stations (New Delhi, Madras, Calcutta and Bombay). Payment in India must always be in UK£ or US$ cash, or travellers’ cheques. In the UK, you can now buy the Indrail Pass from S.D. Enterprises Limited, 103 Wembley Park Drive, Wembley, Middlesex HA9 8HG (tel 081-903 3411); in France, from Carrefour, 15 Rue Des Ecoles, Paris; in the USA, from Hari World Travels, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, shop No. 21, Mezzanine North, New York; in Australia, from Penthouse Travel, Suite 5, Level 13, Commercial Union House, 109 Pitt St, Sydney.
You can work out the approximate cost of your journey by using the table of fares listed on p31. For example, the overnight sleeper from Delhi to Shimla—a journey of 221 miles (354 km) would cost Rs52 in 2nd-class (plus a Rs15 sleeper reservation) and Rs183 in 1st-class. There tend to be regular increases in fares, so bear this in mind when estimating the cost.