The ins and outs of the Indian railway system
There is no doubt in my mind that the single best way to see the wonder of India is by train. Passing landscapes can be appreciated much more when you’re whizzing through them, rather than over them by plane, when you see absolutely nothing other than an airport. Personally, I think you can say you’ve ‘done’ India to a degree if you’ve crossed it by train.
The only problem with this idea is that you have to actually use the public rail network, and if you’ve watched old films on TV then you must have seen the packed trains, with people hanging out of the windows and sat on the roof – this is a fallacy, it simply doesn’t happen on longer length journeys anymore, so don’t panic!
The Indian railway network is the third largest in the world, and more than 20 million passengers use it in some way or form every single day – that’s a lot of people and a lot of miles! I’m not going to lie, the trains can get crowded, especially in and around major cities, but not overly so, and if you’re heading off across the country or from major city to major city, then you will experience a comfortable journey. One tip I would give however is to try and cut down on the amount of luggage you’re taking, because it’s just going to make life difficult if you’re dragging half your worldly belongings around with you.
Trains in India go pretty much everywhere, and although it’s not unusual for them to run late, they are cheap, making it the most authentic and easiest way to travel. Sleeper trains are comfortable and include meals, and the commonly booked AC2 class of train, which is more than adequate for a general traveller, gives you comfort and privacy for the duration of your journey, with curtained off bays to relax in.
I’m guessing you’re thinking this all sounds great in theory, but how do you use the Indian rail network?
Well basically you book as far ahead as you possibly can online, because this is the cheapest way, and also means you’re guaranteed a seat on journeys which book up sometimes months beforehand. Reservations for journeys are usually bookable online about 120 days in advance, so if you know you’re heading off, do it before if you can. I know that sometimes you’ll want to be a bit more spontaneous however, and in that case you need to wait until 10am the day before you’re wanting to travel and keep your fingers crossed for Tatkal tickets, which are tickets held back for last minute travellers. The large cities generally have booking bureaus too, so if you are a spontaneous soul and didn’t manage to get tickets online, then this is your next best bet.
I can imagine it might be a little daunting to think about travelling around India by train, especially when you cast your mind back to the images you might falsely believe to be true about the Indian rail network, but this is simply the best way to see a country that is vast, totally varied, and really quite beautiful.
Photo Credit: Simon Mortimer