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Choo Choo: How to travel India by train

Before I left England on my adventure it was all set in stone. Five and a half weeks around India started with a 30day rail pass full of overnight sleeper trains and efficient use of our limited time. Now I’m done with that I was thinking, “do I have any regrets”?

Hell no!

Travelling by train has become my favourite form of people watching, it’s like the best screen saver you could ever wish and the best form of documentary, watching everyday life in a completely different culture unfolding before your eyes, mere little glimpses into someone elses reality, plus the ‘chai guy’ literally bringing you tea to you bed for 3rupees(?!), wahhh hello heaven!

Of course when you’re on a train for over 12 hours you do at times have to find your own entertainment, our fun game of ‘spot the squatter’ quickly developed as Trudi’s favourite pastime. Waiting for our arrival at the next destination in the early morning coincided perfectly with Indian mens favourite morning pastime of ‘sh*t by the railways lines’, I think it’s the new train spotting although I’m not sure it’ll catch on.
One thing I am sure of though is that I have seen far too many naked bums and poorly concealed penises in India to last me a lifetime!

So all dreaminess and fun aside I thought I’d compile a post about the Indian Railways as I know them, I’m by no means an expert but I’ve included little links to useful sites I used to help plan and research along the way. 

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Booking Your Train

I’m putting this out there from the start, we got an IndRail pass. We used the UK based branch we gave them our rough itinerary and they sorted it out for us for free(!). They provide different length passes and you have the freedom to add and change trains/routes within the pass according to availability for no extra cost. Something not always possible on the book as you go approach.
The pass cost around £170 and we booked around 13 trains. At first I approached the idea with scepticism thinking I was missing out on experiencing first hand the rail network of India and all the chaos that entailed, but I compromised because the girls I was travelling with felt more comfortable with it. I’m glad I did!

India is chaotic enough without having to deal with a busy train station on top of the culture shock… for me at least.

My very well worn IndRail Pass

My very well worn IndRail Pass

I know for some this process won’t work out, people with months to play with exploring this amazing country have the luxury of time and I met plenty of those people along the way.
If you’re a booking trains as you go, most (big) stations have a tourist centre where they can book/check trains etc. without you needing to get an IRCTC number. There is a ‘tourist quota’ of tickets for just this purpose. You’ll also find travel agents in the towns able to help you with onward travel, this generally comes at a increased fee, but that’s the price of convenience. Be sure to be flexible with your dates or book well in advance if you need to be somewhere though.

If you have the foresight of where you want to travel and don’t want to go get the pass, online booking is available on sites such as makemytrip.com and cleartrip.com. Be warned though booking through these sites requires an IRCTC number* which can be a bit of a pain to get if you don’t have an Indian mobile number. Train tickets are released 3 months before the day of travel and can sell out quickly on popular routes.

*to sign up for this they will send you two ‘OTP’ codes, one to your email and the other to your indian phone number, if you don’t have an indian phone number either find a friend that does or enter any number (but remember it) and send a copy of your passport photo page and your user ID to care@irctc.co.in and explain that you need the mobile OTP. They will verify and send this through but be warned it can take a few days.

Important information

Toy trains are amazing! Always remember this and if you ever get the chance to go to Darjeeling or Shimla take one!… Seriously they serve you food!

Food with a view on the Shimla toy train!

Food with a view on the Shimla toy train!

But seriously…

Have your Train number and name to hand- the number is usually on the side of the train but also on the electronic overhead boards in the train station entrance and sometimes on the platforms. They’re also useful to show non english speaking train assistants/friendly passers by if you get a little lost of confused. Take note of your carriage number if you have it, these are also sometimes displayed on the platform so you know where you’ll be getting on. They can change or be wrong so just bear that in mind.

Reservations are sometimes listed on the boards at the station, but also on the side of the train, these will sometimes go up last minute… or as I experienced not at all, another reason it’s good to know your carriage number. You should also be given your seat/berth number as well as a PNR number.

PNR numbers are generally given close to the time when seats are allocated, so if you’ve booked in advance don’t freak out if you don’t have these. But definitely have these printed out or written down as this is generally what the ticket guy will want to see when he checks… and he will check.

No one will announce your stop! Yes my friends it’s good old use an offline map (I use maps.me), or ask someone else on the train (not always possible at 3am). Sometimes I do both, sometimes for reassurance, sometimes for the good old fun of foreign charades.

Finding the right train class for you

1AC, 2AC, 3AC, AC CHAIR, SLEEPER, 2ND CLASS so many options, but which one is the right amount of adventure and comfort? I’m going to say this, you are in India, it’s all kind of an adventure!

1AC, 2AC, 3AC and Exec Chair all have windows albeit sometimes not the cleanest and sometimes a little blocked out so with a greyish tinge, but keeps the warm/cold out as well as the bugs and wind!

1AC. Not all trains offer this class, it’s saved for the elite, both trains and people… or as elite as Indian trains get. You generally get your own little cabin a 2 or 4 berth, it’s aircon, there’s bedding included as well as food… oo la la. The 1AC sleeper even has a door, it may be one of the only  places in India you can get privacy! This and Executive AC Chair are the best you can travel sleeper or day trip.

2AC. No doors on this one sorry folks but this is the class most middle class indian families will take, leatherette seating (in blue or red…ish) and a curtain to pull across, generally laid out with 4 beds on one side of the corridor and two on the other, set out like your normal bunks that convert into seats in the day time. You may be sharing with anyone, as a female I tend to try and get an upper bunk or a side bunk, more privacy and harder for someone to sneak in in the night… yes it’s happened, no thankfully not to me. Bedding is provided. Food may be offered if boarded before 8pm and breakfast if you’re arriving late morning but you do have to pay. There are little lights above each bed and 1 power socket feeding the 4 beds so you’ll have to learn to share and be prepared for it to be faulty.

Sleeping in 2AC

Sleeping in 2AC

3AC. I would usually say no curtain but that hasn’t been the case on a few I’ve heard of. They’re similar to 2AC but with 3 bunks up, so 6 people in a little cabin, not as roomy but still with air-con. Food is still an option and you’re still offered chai (fear not) and water.

Sleeper. No curtains, no windows, still in theory reserved but a lot more crowded than other the previous classes. No windows mean be sure to have something warm, like a jacket or sleeping bag, especially if you are on a night journey as it’s bound to get pretty chilly. Not offered cooked food but may still get the chai sellers and snacks coming around. There are fans but no air-con and no bedding is provided. For the slightly more adventurous of the group, more likely to get up close and personal with the locals, best for girls to travel with others or be well versed in train travel in India. This is the economy way to travel long distance in India.

Tips and advice for a safe journey

Ladies – keep covered, close curtains if you have them. I made it a routine to change into comfy clothes before the train journey, something I could stay in all night. The girls and I had a few guys that liked to do ‘walk bys’ and stare into our little cubicle, believe me sometimes covered head to toe you can feel you’re not wearing enough. It’s generally harmless but if you feel uncomfortable say something or make it a point to obstruct their view or hide yourself. I took a scarf and made a private curtain for my bunk so it felt a little more private when I slept… more for the fact I’m not an attractive sleeper.

You can get away with swapping seats sometimes if you ask nicely, I was travelling mostly as a group of three and we managed to be together on all our journeys even when our allocated seats were apart.

Snacks and water are available and still cheap on most sleeper classes and chair cabins, if your overnight train leaves before 8pm they may come around offering cooked food, it’s ok but not great. Take your own supply or eat before you board to ensure you’re well fed and satisfied.

Chai guy = legend. Remember your small change guys, it’s important.

Chai and biscuits... staples of any sleeper train journey

Chai and biscuits… staples of any sleeper train journey

Useful things to remember:
Wipes – if you’ve been walking around all day its the best shower you’re going to get.
Sleeping bag/liner – while some classes provide bedding it can sometimes be damp or itchy and I found it nice to have a little comfort.
Toilet paper – need I say more?
A good book/ headphones/ cards
Earplugs/facemask – 
phones going off, people talking, general train noise, horn, children, lights, doors – all experienced, imagine being in a really big, moving dorm room.

Keeping your possessions safe: There are always the horror stories about peoples bags being raided through or even stolen while they sleep, while these are undoubtedly true, they are more the exception than the rule! Store all your valuables with you in your bunk and padlock your zips on your main bag, you’re also able to padlock it to the underneath of the lower bunk for extra safety.

On sleeper trains other passengers may sit on the lower bunks during the day and early evening, at night after a certain time you are within your rights to ask someone to move off your bunk if you want to sleep.

Good sites, good info

Go straight to the source, the Indian Railway site has up to date times and train information and you can look at the schedule too which will tell you how long the train stops in each station and when it’s due (trains often arrive a little late in my experience so take it with a pinch of salt).

The Man in seat 61 is my hero, his site is so invaluable and is overflowing with information (and reassuring pictures) about Indian train travel.

(As I continue to learn I hope to update this post, also with the help of you guys,  so see something I’ve missed or could maybe add, let me know!)

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