No More Riding on the Roof: A Guide to Train Travel in India

At this very moment, I am packing for a return to India where my wife Carrie has been studying Yoga since January 1. While seeing her is obviously #1 on my list of things I can’t wait to do, I also am looking forward to riding the Indian rail system again.

While going through my drafts folder, I came across this post, which I wrote almost three years ago to the date, just after leaving India. Can’t wait to see what my 2012 update looks like…

An Indian Train stopped in a station - taken with a 10.5mm Fisheye
An Indian Train stopped in a station – taken with a 10.5mm Fisheye

“If it hasn’t been obvious from all my posts about them, let me say that I LOVE TRAINS! Something about the idea of train travel just fascinates me and I have completely romanticized the idea in my head. This works out well in India, where train travel is the easiest way to go.

Inside of an Indian Train Car
Inside of an Indian Train Car

Sleeper Class

Carrie and I always travel in sleeper class trains, which is one step above general class where you have no assigned seats and passengers often are hanging out the doors due to overcrowding. Sleeper class holds 72 people with reservations in one of 8 – 9 different types of berths (aka, seat positions).

As you can see from the photo to the right, in each section there are opposite rows of three beds. The top one is always out for sleeping or resting and the bottom one is used for all people in that row to sit on during the day. The middle berth folds up at night and if it is out and people are still sitting below it is impossible to sit all the way up. There is also a set of 2 – 3 berths on the aisle across from each row of normal berths. In total, there are 9 rows per train car.

For those wishing a bit more comfort, the next class levels each cost a doubling amount of rupees and give you things like AC, blankets and pillows and less people crammed into your car. However, according to those who use them, the AC gets freezing at night and you have no choice about what time you go to bed as the staff comes around and turns the beds down at 9pm and back up at 6am. If you wondered, we have never gone higher than sleeper.

There’s Always Delicious Food!

Indian Train Station Food Vendor
Indian Train Station Food Vendor

Regardless of what class you are traveling in, there is a nonstop flow of vendors coming through the aisles selling everything from chai tea to coffee to newspapers, meals, water and fried snacks. It doesn’t matter if it is the middle of the afternoon or night, they will be there loudly announcing their product at all times.

Masala peanuts, one of the many snacks sold on the train platform
Masala peanuts, one of the many snacks sold on the train platform

Another great place to get a quick snack or drink is at any of the train stations where your train will for sure stop for an extended period of time for reasons unknown to all. The platforms of India hold a wide variety of foods: omelettes, peanuts, chips, chai, samosas, rice dishes, potato products and roasted chickpeas are just some of the things we have found along the way. Prices are, just like everywhere, incredibly cheap by Western standards and the food is a Godsend in the middle of a 12 hour ride when you didn’t have enough time to grab a snack beforehand.

Frustrations Galore

Despite all the food and being the largest rail network in the world, train travel in India is often maddeningly frustrating. Trains are rarely on time and there is little communication between stations so if your train is late it is common for none of the staff to know why. I won’t even go into the severe lack of English spoken in stations, as that is to be expected traveling, but is still worth mentioning as it is one of the national languages.

Should your travels take you into the south of India, don’t even look to the trains to help you get around as the British seem to have forgotten to populate much of that region with rails. Sure, trains take you to some of the most popular places, but the schedules are few and far between: as are the stations. It is bus travel that keeps the south moving, whether it be the local or tourist persuasion.

Late Nite Crowded Varanasi Train Station
Late Nite Crowded Varanasi Train Station

Still, despite the positives traveling by train is still often a frustrating experience as they are almost never on time and usually quite crowded. Another issue with the rail system is that in the mountainous south stations are few and far between. Often multiple trains are needed to get anywhere and often times.

Even with all the problems, I still love everything about the Indian train system. Sure, it’s a pain at times and we have spent days to get places it would take a few hours to fly to. But it’s all a part of the experience and it keeps many places undiscovered due to the lack of proximity of an airport. I truly do find it sad that we have taken our final Indian train of this trip and I half want to stay here just to take more trains. Well, not quite…”

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