After three and a half years in the UK and Europe my husband and I were returning home to New Zealand. We timed our return so we could attend my niece’s wedding to a Punjabi man, in India. We flew into New Delhi in mid-October, travelled north by train to Nangal Dam and at the end of several days of celebrations flew back to New Delhi and began two weeks of visiting the cities of Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur and Jodhpur, before returning to New Delhi for our flights home.
A couple of months earlier, when we’d decided to attend the wedding and shared our decision to travel around the country by train, my niece’s future husband (who was born in India and lived there until he finished high school) indicated it was a risky business and my niece said they’d used an overnight train on one of their earlier trips and she’d never do it again. We’d made our decision based on financial and time considerations – we like to travel on a budget, and with locals, and by travelling on overnight trains we saved money on accommodation, and we simply like travelling by train. We’d found several useful websites, some which included photos of the carriages, and they looked okay, so we continued as planned.
I really didn’t want to be arriving in a destination and spending the next few hours searching and haggling for acommodation – so, having determined our preferred itinerary we focussed on getting the train tickets online, as they can be in short supply, and then found accommodation to fit our train schedule. I recommend you do the same – train tickets are available for sale just a few weeks before the travel date, so it’s best if you get in quick. Some cities have more than one station, so make sure you select the correct one for the area you wish to stay.
Indira Gandhi International airport is no different to most large airports. We walked through to catch the ultra-modern, safe and clean Metro Express to the New Delhi Railway Station. Don’t do what I did and drop your ticket – you’ll have to pay double to get out at the other end! When you do get out of the metro station there appears to be no easy way to get across the busy road to the railway station – we walked, day packs on our backs and rolling our large bags behind us – it’s a short walk, but involves maneuvering your bags around fences, up and down short flights of steps, over curbs, across broken roads and footpaths, and dodging buses, cars and motor-rickshaws. We did the trip twice, the second time trying to make sure we didn’t miss any signs to an under-pass, and still ended up taking the unpleasant above-ground route.
As soon as we exited the Metro we were assailed by locals asking where we were going and offering advice, cars, rickshaws, and porters. They’re trying to make a living – be nice; if you don’t want their services be firm; and try not to be gullible. The latter is difficult as we naturally like to think the best of people, but even after three weeks of ‘experience’ we still got conned twice on our last day in the country!
Where are we?
Especially when travelling at night it can be very difficult to discover where you are on your journey. We always had Google Maps downloaded to our phones, to cover the route of the journey. However, it was rare that we could get a GPS signal, so we were left watching for signs in stations to try to track progress, while our phones told us we were still back at our departure point. If there’s a ‘next time’ I think we’ll get a local SIM card with data so we can get updates – the websites, listed below, are brilliant.
It was rare for a train to be on time – one twelve hour overnight trip had us reaching our destination five hours late. On a couple of trips we had talkative Indians travelling with us who were happy to share their knowledge. Another train started three hours late. On this occasion it was especially frustrating because a friendly local driver-for-hire told us, on arriving at the station, that the train was running late, despite the departure board indicating no delays, and he kept turning up with updates of further delays. He was always correct – the departure board usually updated about half an hour after he’d delivered his update.
We knew to watch out for pick-pockets and thieves. We always placed our large bags under our seats (or under the closest ones available) – they were locked at the zip, and we locked them to each other and to a seat leg for overnight trips using a long, thin cycle lock that we carried on all our travels. Our hand luggage (small day packs), containing our valuables – laptops, backup disks, cameras, lenses, phones and passports – we ‘cuddled’ as we slept, with an arm linked through the straps. I carried cash and credit cards in a money belt, with valuable jewellery pinned to the inside pockets. We felt most secure on our only first-class (AC1) trip when we were lucky to be given a two-berth room to ourselves – these have a locking door. Many trains did not offer AC1, and AC2 offered no doors – just curtains. Having said all that, we never felt threatened or at risk once we were settled in – you’re always surrounded by other travellers, and having shared a smile and maybe a few words with them we felt welcome and safe.
It’s past bed-time, all the lights are out, and all passengers are tucked up in bed. That doesn’t mean that passengers getting on at subsequent stations will be considerate. We had thought we were lucky when we went to bed in our bunks and our room-mates hadn’t arrived. We had thought they were no-shows. But a couple of hours later, when the train came to a halt, our four room-mates came aboard, turned on the lights, managed to shove me in the back (on the top bunk), talked at the top of their voices, and eventually went to bed, with the light on. I turned it off and attempted to sleep. In the morning they were no less noisy, but they were friendly and happy to chat.
Two-tier air-conditioned sleeper carriages (AC2) offer one European-style and one Indian-style toilet in each carriage. While these tend to be clean at the beginning of a journey, that doesn’t last long. On one trip I was disappointed to walk in the unlocked door of the European-style toilet to discover an elderly Indian gentleman standing up to urinate into the toilet with the seat down. The train was moving – it was difficult enough to just to stand. Ugh! The first-class (AC1) toilets are the same, but are cleaned more often. Bring your own toilet paper and soap.
Each berth has a sealed paper bag with freshly laundered top and bottom sheets and pillowcase. They looked clean enough, however they were often so ‘freshly laundered’ that they were still damp! We always carry a pillowcase and sleeping bag liner on our travels, and have rarely used them, but they came in useful on this trip. We do not know how often the supplied blankets are laundered or even aired – being dark grey they looked ok, though I didn’t look too closely! The pillows definitely look well used.
I don’t usually enjoy what’s on offer as ‘Indian’ food in Western countries. However, I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the food in India, and that includes on the trains. We were expecting at least a touch of ‘Delhi belly’, but had no problems at all. We didn’t drink the chai offered from urns on the trains as we didn’t trust how long the milk had been in it. And we only had one meal prepared on a train, and it was ‘ok’. The highlight was the meals you can order online for delivery to your seat at your chosen station. When you pull into the station, no matter how much the trip is delayed, a man turns up with your ordered meal, it’s piping hot in a plastic, foiled covered tray, and you pay him on the spot – or you can pay online when you order. The site asks that you don’t tip the ‘delivery boy’. We always tried to have the correct money available, but the once when we did not, the delivery man didn’t bat an eyelid and immediately handed over the correct change. The food was always superb! Note that not all stations offer food delivered in this way and you may need to search using various online sites as they seem to use different restaurants to fulfill the orders.
Travelling by train
There are pros and cons to travelling by train. Compared to a car, you can’t stop and you can’t take a short detour if you feel like it. But you can get up and wander around. You’re sitting higher than a car, if not a bus, so your view is improved – and on Indian trains you can pull the door open, if it’s not already open, and enjoy a better view, though not without risk! Despite the occasionally accident where hundreds of people might be injured or killed, I felt safer than I ever did travelling by car in India.
We have friends who actually enjoyed the Indian train experience – and I know they were not referring to the absolute-luxury trips that are available, for a price. I can’t help but wonder how they enjoyed it, or if perhaps their memories have faded over time. I’m pleased I’ve had the experience – I did the research and found the wonderful websites that made it achievable; and we did it despite a local recommending that we reconsider. It added a level of challenge outside my comfort-zone and we were successful. But, I didn’t enjoy it and if I had the funds to travel more comfortably and reliably, I wouldn’t choose to do it again.
seat61.com – the most useful resource I found for Indian train travel beginners
cleartrip.com – this site is easier to use for your bookings than the official site, below
indianrail.gov.in – the Indian government’s official rail site. Other than it being a bit complicated to navigate, it’s a busy site and is often unavailable. However, don’t miss the train mapping page, to find your train’s location.
erail.in – a privately run alternative to the official site
indiarailinfo.com – another privately run site. Encourages traveller participation.
travelkhana.com – Meal order and delivery to your seat. Easy process and excellent food.
It took me a lot of time to find the above sites – there are a lot of others that I eventually discarded. I do hope you’ll find my article helpful when planning your train travel in India.