Posted by: adventuressetravels | February 21, 2012

Riding the Rails

It was as if an entire city had been dumped haphazardly into the train station.  A cow ambled by, monkeys swung from the ceilings, food vendors peddled their wares, and huge groups of people sat on the floor waiting to pile into the unreserved seating, pushing and shoving to get a place.  Colors, noise, scents – it was an assault on the senses – utter chaos.

Train stations in India are intimidating at best, a hectic bustling flow of passengers, livestock, and beggars.  Certainly stations in larger cities like Kolkata, Delhi, and Varanasi, are unquestionably worse, but even smaller stations can be difficult to navigate. Once you get on the train, push past the people standing in the isles, and take your seat, it does calm down. Well, a little.

India is an enormous country so most train trips are overnight, and sometimes longer.  Because of this, almost all of the seats convert into bunk beds for passengers to be able to stretch out and get a good night’s sleep.  It’s easier to take night trains – you don’t lose your day in travel, have the long journey to get some rest, and you save money on hotels.

Train rides may not be the most comfortable way of sleeping, or give passengers a sound night’s sleep, but being able to lay down in a flat bed is 100 times better than sleeping on even the cushiest reclining bus or plane seats.

Train rides are also a wonderful way to see the countryside, especially riding sleeper class.  One can open the window and see India’s countryside rolling past. This, combined with comfort, cost, and quality make trains unquestionably my favorite form of inexpensive transport in India.

But not all seating is created equally.

AC 2T – 2T, or 2 tier, is the nicest way I have traveled.  These cars are air conditioned, and each wall has bunk beds, so each car has 4 beds.  Curtains can be drawn to block off the hallway.  The railway provides sheets, pillows, and blankets for each passenger.

AC 3T – 3T is a lot like 2T.  The cars are air conditioned, bedding is provided, and curtains may be drawn.  The one difference is that there are 3 beds rather than 2.

Sleeper – Sleeper is set up a lot like 3T.  However it is the bare-bones version.  There aren’t curtains, no bedding is provided, but the biggest difference is that there isn’t any air conditioning in these cars.  Sure, they’re fine to ride in some parts of the year, but at others they are unbearably hot.  I recommend bringing a blanket or sleeping bag if you ride sleeper class in the north.  Nights on the train can get cold!

Unreserved – If you want to save money and have no concern for comfort or want to know how the half lives in India then you can try your luck, but beware.  There is always a fight to get a seat in these cars, and you won’t have a bed.  It’s definitely an adventure and certainly the cheapest way to travel, but unreserved is one experience I’m going to pass on.  I may like adventure, but I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Wait-listed – I go to great lengths by getting my tickets at the tourist quota

office not to get wait-listed.  If you are, it isn’t certain sure whether or not there will be a seat for you.  From friends who have gone the wait-list route it is possible to find an empty place on the train.  Personally I like to play it safe, especially
when I am traveling with luggage in a foreign country.  After all, if

AC 1T –  I haven’t ridden 1T, or first class, or even thought about it.  Traveling on a budget, I don’t see a reason to spend the extra rupees.   Plane fares are so low it seems worth it just to fly if you want to pay to buy a train can’t find a bed, you’ll have to stand or sit on the floor for the entire train ride.

Ticket price double with class increase.  For example, if a sleeper ticket is 250 rupees, 3T would be 500, 2T 1000, and 1T 2000.  In my comfort vs. cost assessment, I go with AC3T in the summer and stick with sleeper in the winter.


–          Tourist Quota tickets – Indian Railways sets aside a certain number of tickets for tourists.  You have to buy them in person from the tourist quota office or at a special counter in certain cities. Be sure to bring your passport because they will need it to sell you the tickets. In my humble opinion, it’s well worth the hassle.

–          Upper Berth – For a more comfortable and safer ride ask for UB, or upper berth, or bunk.  This may not be appropriate for older or less agile passengers because you do have to climb up into the upper bed, but it is more than worth it.  The lower beds are used as benches until passengers want to go to sleep.  If you choose the upper bunk then you can crawl up to your fortress of safety and read, eat, or just relax any time you want.  Also it is a safer – thieves, pickpockets, molesters, or any other miscreant is more likely to be deterred by the bunk height.  Simply curl up with your valuables tucked down under the covers and bunk down for the night.

–          Get someone to help you on your first train ride.   My wonderful couchsurfing host, Antarin, held my hand through the mayhem at the train station and led me into the safety of the train for my first ride.  Even for my third trip Ranjit, Antarin’s father took me to the train station and made sure I got on the right train.

–          Take a sleeping bag or blanket if you are riding sleeper class

–          Do not accept food or drink from fellow passengers.  Unscrupulous passengers have been known to drug and rob or even kidnap tourists.

Trains are a huge part of the India experience, especially if you want to see more of the country.

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