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Indian Railways

The British media has reported often recently on how wonderful Indian Railways are. How we built them, how despite the huge numbers of people using them nowadays they still run on time and are the best way to see the sub-continent. Well, I travelled on them for a while late last year, and this is what I think.

Indian trains are better than Indian buses as a means of getting around, thats for sure. They could hardly be worse though, what with the terrible bumpy roads that wind over hill and through valley for ever, and the bus conductors’ policy of jamming 60 people into a 30 seater bus and then stopping every 10 minutes to let more and more people on. If you’re heading for the mountains, you can get as far as Shimla on the train, or Haridwar, or other minor stations from where buses will take you the rest of the way. These trains can be comfortable, although nowhere near as comfortable as British railway enthusiasts would often like to make out. If you don’t travel first class, and there’s no reason why you should as it costs the same as flying, then you stand a good chance of having some gear stolen whilst you sleep. As for food, the media loves to focus on how you can travel by train in India and get served a decent curry for less than £1. Well, I travelled by train for a month and only ever got offered food once, and that was a rubbish byriani. But in saying all this, the trains are relatively cheap and comfortable and offer a nice way to meet locals, so are by far the best way to see India, so if you go there, I’d recommend using them. Just one thing, whatever you do, never try to book your rail tickets whilst in India. Read on for more details…

I booked most of my Indian rail journeys before I left England, on a website called www.cleartrip.com I was very impressed. They charge you a small booking fee but they present the information so clearly, and make the transaction so easy, it’s worth it. A little tip though, if you use them and you get to the payment page and your credit card type is not listed, just click on the one that sort of sounds like yours. It shouldn’t work, but this is India, so it does. You will really appreciate what Clear Trip does much more after you have actually been to India and experienced what a terribly unpleasant experience buying a train ticket there is. Some travellers would have you think otherwise. I was sitting for an hour in New Delhi railway reservations office, having just run the gauntlet of touts outside who will tell you any amount of lies in order to con you on your way through the station, and next to me was another travellers. He was saying what a pleasant and easy experience buying a train ticket was there. I thought, are you crazy? We’ve been sat here an hour, with no sign of anybody taking any notice of us (except the tourist information man who glared once and then walked off to get his tea), with no idea if we are going to get a ticket (tickets are released for sale 60 days before the date of travel, and most of them sell out within 15 days, so you are very unlikely to get a ticket unless you want to travel far in the future), and that’s supposed to be pleasant? Well, I don’t think so, personally.

With Clear Trip you just select the journey you want, make your booking and then you get a seat number and a booking reference, and when you turn up on the platform you look at a list thats been pinned to a notice board or the train, as the travellers below are doing, and double check your name is there. It always is.

Before I go on, here’s a tip, if you take notice of nothing else I say, you must take notice of this. If you’re planning to travel in India by train, then book your tickets in advance via Clear Trip. Never make the mistake of having to book your tickets in India. Here’s a little piece from my travel diary to show how I felt about booking train tickets in Shimla…

‘Booking a train ticket here in India is a most unpleasant experience. Apart from the system being nonsensical you have to queue for hours whilst the chaps in front of you book handfulls of tickets at a time. Then there are always a few people behind you who have colds, and who sneeze into the back of your head regularly because they have no ideas about covering their faces whilst they do this. Almost everybody also snorts back their snot with an almighty sound, and occasionally gobs. Then you finally get to the front and find out that you cannot just ask the guy for a ticket with words. You have to complete a form. So you do this and then wait for the person who just pushed in the queue to be served, and then you find out that the train you want is sold out. No doubt, wherever you want to go, it will be full. And the guy asks if you want to buy a ticket called a waitlist ticket. This means, he says, that if anybody cancels you get to ride the train. But if nobody does then you get a refund. So, confused, I say yes, as this is what seems normal here, and plus I’m panic-ing as I’ve just got to get that train! Well, I don’t really, I can get a bus, but the train ride is meant to be very scenic, and well worth doing…

Here in India you buy a ticket on the off chance that you might fancy travelling. There is only a 10 rupee penalty for cancellation. Therefore all tickets are snapped up by people who often have little or no intention of taking the journey. Which just makes it all terribly confusing for people who do want to travel. So I buy the waitlist ticket, and go back to the office the next day to check my status. Have I been upgraded, to being allowed to travel?

I queue for half hour again. Same problems in front of me, not correct forms filled in, no change to offer, problems, made-up problems…

‘Can you give me my status?’ I say. The clerk takes my ticket, looks at it and says something I can’t understand.

‘What did he say?’ I ask the Indian guy behind me.

‘He says you are waitlisted, number 15.’

‘Ok, can I cancel it please,’ I say. The clerk waggles his head. I look behind me again for guidance.

‘No need,’ he says, ‘it will be confirmed by the time you get to the station tomorrow.’

‘This for certain? I absolutely need to be in Kalka tomorrow.’ The clerk looks as though I have told him some shocking fact about his mother. Confused, wide eyed. I’m not sure if this is because I dare question the railway system, or that he just cannot grasp the concept of having to travel on a set day.

‘You have to be in Kalka?’ The clerk waggles his head. He is sure it will be ok, he says. I look sceptical. He promises once more that my ticket will be ok and I will be allowed on the train. Ok, I decide to trust him, even though I’ve been in India long enough to realise that his promise means nothing at all, and that more than likely I shall have to queue for hours at the station tomorrow only to be told there are no tickets and then have to make a run for the bus.

The Next Day…

I walk to the train station with a sense of foreboding. I know the ticket clerk lied to me, but feel compelled to act this little saga out. Maybe I am wrong, and the Indians have a strange way of doing things that works. I go to the reservations counter, wait 15 minutes, then present my ticket and ask for my status.

‘Waitlist 11,’ he says.

‘Does this mean I can travel?’ He looks confused. ‘Can I travel?’ I repeat.

‘Yes, you can travel.’

‘Sitting down or standing up?’

‘Up to you.’

‘Is the train full.’

‘Yes.’

‘So there are no seats left.’

‘No.’

‘So I cannot sit down.’ He looks at his computer and says

‘Up to you.’

He has no idea that he is actually not making any sense, saying I can travel when he has no idea if I can travel or not.

‘Go downstairs to the platform, ask them.’ So I go. But it is chaos down there, so I walk into the tourist onfiormation office instead and say

‘Excuse me, can you explain what waitlisted means please? Can I travel or not?’

‘Sorry, I can book hotels, not anything with trains.’

‘I don’t want to book anything, I just want you to explain what the term waitlisted means.’

‘Best ask upstairs.’

‘They couldn’t explain to me. They told me to come downstairs.’

‘Ok, go to room number 15.’ So I go there, but it is empty. Outside is a list of names. I am on it, right at the end. I go back to the tourist office.

‘Nobody there,’ I say. He does not look surprised. He tells me to go upstairs and ask again.

‘But they don’t know anything.’ He takes my ticket and scours it.

‘It’s the right date,’ he says. ‘That means you can travel.’

‘But what does waitlisted mean?’ He can’t answer me, I take back the ticket and go upstairs. I try a different counter. I wait 20 minutes this time. I push my way to keep my place, men are barging from all sides. The clerk finally tells me

‘Go downstairs to room 14, the man there will get you on the train.’ So I do. The man in room 14 shakes his head. Its all full. There’s no way I can get on the train.

‘So there are no spaces?’

‘None at all.’

‘So what does waitlisted mean?’ He cannot answer me.

I throw my ticket on the floor and walk out of the station, muttering ‘the rotten bastards’ as I go. Some tourists see me. They probably think I am jaded, or rude, or racist. I am not any of these things, just very annoyed that railway staff here are incapable of telling the truth. You will come across many liars in many countries. But the difference between them and the majority of Indians officials is the Indian officials have no idea that they are lying. It is so frustrating to have this googled eyed automaton in front of you, enforcing rules that he just cannot understand.

So I walk to the bus stand. It is chaos. There are no queues, no ticket desk, you just ask around and jump on a bus as it slows down. I get directed to 2 buses but the conductors say no, this is not the bus to Kalka, even though it goes through there, they are looking for fares all the way to Chandigarh. Finally I push my way onto a bus, asking the passengers if it goes to Kalka instead of the conductor. What a mess. I am very homesick, for people who can tell the truth…

The Tatkal Quota System

Guide books say that this system is a way of getting on a train when the train is full. Apparently you approach the station master and ask if there are any ‘Tatkal’ tourist places available on the train, and they’re meant to check a list and sort it out for you. It costs a bit more, the guide books say, but it works. Well, here’s the news. There is no Tatkal System in place in India. If the train is full then it is full. If you are lucky, the conductor might be dishonest and you can bribe him to get you a seat, but that’s it. There is no alternative to booking your seat way in advance. Do it on Clear Trip and you can do it in comfort, and not have to deal with liars or fools for an unnaceptable period of your vacation.

An Explanation of 2A/C

Most tourist travel 2 A/C class. This carriage is air conditioned and has 4 bunks on one side of the aisle and 2 on the other. The 2 bunks each have their own curtain for privacy, but the 4 bunks do not, they just have a curtain that seperates them from the aisle. Guidebooks say that the bunks are only to be slept in from 9pm to 6am, but in reality you can sleep in them whenever you want, and people do. Your bunk is your bunk, if you find somebody sitting on it, clear them out. A normal scene looks like this, the 4 bunk compartment is on the left, the 2 bunks are on the right. When you are booking them, the 2 bunk section is known as ‘side lower’ and ‘side upper’.

 

If you sleep in the 4 bunk section you are prone to be woken by local snorers, or their kids. But, these bunks are slightly wider than the side bunks, so if you need space, they are the best option. Bearing in mind that you store your bags under the bunks, so if you are on your own, book a lower bunk so you can keep an eye on your bag. The side lower bunk is a good option for the solo travellers, except that it folds in half just where your lower back is and the halves rarely match up, so they’re not very comfortable. The side upper bunk is the most private and comfortable, but you can’t take care of your bag from there, so it’s only really good for somebody travelling in a pair.

3A/C class is just the same really, except instead of 4 bunks in the compartment, there are 6, so it’s a little more crowded.

Be Brutal

You will get given bed sheets at the start of your journey. Sometimes you will not be given any and you have to ask. Sometimes local travellers will take more than their quota and leave you with nothing. Remember, in India you are what you take. Be forceful and take what you need and don’t think about giving up your sheets or blanket to that little old lady who’s already got her fair share but is complaining about her rheumatism. Once the officials turn on the air conditioning, which they do around midnight, just as its getting cool enough not to need it, you’ll need the sheets and blankets to ensure you get a bit of sleep.

What ‘Waitlisted’ Actually Means

If you try to book a ticket for a train that is officially full, you have the option of buying a ‘waitlisted’ ticket. This means you can board the train, but you do not have a seat. If you can find one, or maybe somebody is prepared to squash up and let you share theirs, then you can sit, otherwise you stand. But you can board the train. Unless the conductor decides not. Or if there are too many ‘waitlisted’ people, which you won’t know until you get there. In other words, never buy a ‘waitlisted’ ticket. There, Indian officials, that was easy to explain, wasn’t it…

 

The Train Toilets

Don’t be worried about them, they’re almost always pretty clean and they have running water for the entire trip. I never once entered one and thought, I can’t be in here, it’s too dirty. You wouldn’t want to sit down in any of them though, so be prepared to perfect your ‘going to toilet whilst squatting’ technique. The doors are lockable and there are mirrors outside to help you get cleaned up in the morning.

Food and Drink

As I have said, the food I have been served on the trains is woefully bad, and more often than not none will be offered. Take some snacks, which you can always buy on the platforms. Soft drinks and water is always available on the platforms too, often at a cheaper price than at stalls outside. Many stations have a resturant on the platform, out of those I experienced the best were at Agra and Kalka. The food served at Varansi, New Delhi and Jansi was appalling, whilst the omelettes at Jaisalmer were pretty good and very cheap.

 

If you want to book Indian rail tickets then plan your journeys well in advance and check out Clear Trip before you leave home. www.cleartrip.com

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