In India, trains are the best way to get around. Sadly, the great puffing steam engines that pulled the trains even 20 years ago have been retired out of service, but the vibrancy, colour, and chaos of the Great Railway Bazaar is not diminished. Train travel is cheap, reasonably comfortable, and still fairly safe, though the safety record has been tarnished lately with a few needless accidents, and several political bombings.
As in Europe, night trains offer an excellent way of moving between cities while saving on hotel costs. There are many trains that run overnight between major centers. A traveler can hop a train one evening, enjoy a (usually) peaceful night on the train, and alight early the next morning, ready for a new day in a new city.
Luxury to Basic
Which class you travel depends on the distance, your budget, and the comfort level you need. Also, since train travel is such a cultural experience, the class you choose affects the level of Indian society you have contact with. Ideally, to balance your trip you should try and experience at least several of the different classes of service available. Here is a primer on what you can expect:
At the top is A/C Class, offering chilled, dark, but comfortable compartments at pretty fancy prices. There are two to four upholstered berths in each compartment and an air of faded elegance. Linen and blankets are provided. Not too many trains run with these carriages, though, and the fares are quite steep. Your fellow passengers are most likely to be wealthy tourists or politicians who are afraid to fly.
Next is First Class Here you travel in a fairly comfortable four-berth, or sometimes two-berth, compartment with vinyl upholstery. They don't seem to be building new carriages, possibly because they are planning to phase out first class, so carriages may seem a bit shabby. Not linen or blankets. Your fellow passengers are often mid-level bureaucrats or retired military.
Around the same price as First Class, is Second Class A/C Sleeper, offering seats in the day, and berths at night in a dormitory style air conditioned carriage. These come in two-tier, and a new, slightly cheaper, three-tier configuration. The Railways provide bedding, but be warned that this is collected pretty early each morning. This class is very popular with the India's growing middle class, and is a God-send during the hot Summer months. Unfortunately, it isn't the best way to see the countryside, as the heavily tinted windows block much of the view.
The budget service is Second Class Sleeper, where you get a place to sit during the day, and the carriage converts into three-tier bunks at night. The bunks are lightly padded and comfortable enough unless you're over six foot tall. No bedding is provided. Second Class Sleeper is extremely cheap. An overnight trip (10-12 hours and about 3-400 miles) will cost you less than $ 5.00. It is not overly crowded and since the bulk of carriages on most trains are Second Class Sleeper it is fairly easy to get a reservation. Because the economy and availability appeals to so many people it's also a great way to meet Indian fellow travelers from various strata of society. Students, business people, families, and yuppies can all be found in Sleeper Class. It's usually quite pleasant, but be prepared for a bit of noise and inconvenience at times.
The lowest class on Indian trains is Unreserved. An unreserved ticket gives you the right to be on the train, in the general carriages. How you fit in to it is your problem. You could end up standing, squatting in the aisle, or lying on a luggage rack. Few actually get seats in the carriage. Travelling unreserved on the trains is certainly an experience. If you have a short day trip somewhere, you might check it out. Your fellow passengers will most likely be country folk, colorful and gregarious, but unlikely to speak too much English. Guaranteed to be an experience.
You need a ticket, and you cannot buy it on the train. Ordinary second class tickets are usually near the entrance to the platform, but reserved tickets are purchased at special reservation counters in, or next to, the station. (Just ask for the "Booking Office".) Look for specially designated ticket windows in the Booking Office that are for the use of foreign tourists. In a few places, like Central Station in Madras, there is a whole department that helps foreign tourists book tickets.
Reserved tickets are in great demand and are often sold out days or weeks in advance. This doesn't help a fast moving tourist, so the Railways allow foreign tourists to get reservations off a special Emergency Quota (EQ) that blocks a number of seats and berths on most train. (This quota allows Railway personnel to accommodate any last minute requests for seats from various VIPs who may demand them.) Tourists can often draw on this quota by buying a wait-listed ticket at the reservation counter, and then going to a special office (often in another building or across town) to apply for the EQ. You will then be charged the reservation fee (about Rs. 30 by the Ticket Examiner on the train. In smaller places you may have to contact the Station Master for assistance in getting onto the special quota.
Keep track of your belongings. Travel light, and with as few pieces of luggage as possible. Keep things you'll need on the train handy in your day bag and chain your pack under the bunk.. You won't need much. A bedspread, toothbrush, soap, and a small towel are some simple basics. You can use the day bag as a pillow. Many things you'll need you can buy on the platform - bottled water, snacks, coffee, newspapers, or magazines. With your pack securely locked under the bunk you can feel quite comfortable stepping out of the carriage to find things on the platform.
Chains for securing your baggage are readily available. Get a good one. If you can cut it with a simple pair of pliers, it won't do you much good. Also, your pack or suitcase should lock. Some packs do, a few don't, and some have side pouches without locks. You may have to improvise. Chaining up a pack that someone can slip a hand into is inviting trouble.
Left Luggage (also called a Cloak Room) is available for short-term storage of luggage (up to a week or two) at all major and mid sized stations. It costs about Rs. 6 - 8 per piece per day and they are usually reliable. Your bags must be locked and there should be no indication on the contents.
Left Luggage is really handy when you get in to a new city. You can grab a shower in the waiting room at the station (there are separate ones for men and women - usually not too dirty), change, and check your main bag. Then head out into town for breakfast, a look about, and to find a hotel. If you're not hauling a heavy bag you're much less likely to be hassled by taxi drivers and you won't take a mediocre hotel because you're too hot and tired to look further. Also, most hotels work on a 24 hour stay and a later checkout time is an advantage since most trains arrive in the mornings and the connection out is in the evening.
All manner of food is served on station platforms and on the trains. Like the world over it tends to be over priced and of poorer quality than you get outside. Sometimes it's of really terrible quality. (Possible exceptions are the meals that come free with your ticket on special super-fast trains. Those are cooked enroute and can be pretty good.)
A lot of Indians won't eat train food at all. At mealtimes you'll see many of your fellow passengers produce little packages of home cooked delicacies. If you're hungry the aroma is enough to send you scouring the platforms for something similar. Good luck.
The safest things to eat that are sold on railway platforms are peelable fruit and packaged biscuits. Sometimes you can find someone cooking fresh food on the platform - perhaps an omelet served with bread. You should make sure you see the food being cooked. Stay away from meat dishes of any kind, and avoid the coconut chutney served with south Indian foods. It's not cooked, and is often diluted with a bit of water to stretch out the servings.
It doesn't mean you have to starve on the trains. Just plan ahead. If it's an overnight train, try and eat before you leave. Or you can get take-out food from almost any restaurant. Try and order curries on the dry side, or you'll have leaky little bags of curry to deal with. If it's a long ride - days on the train - put together a picnic hamper as best you can. Bottled water on the platform is usually okay, though cheaper out of the station. In the old days, trains stopped long enough at "meal stops" that you could go to the station restaurant and have a sit down meal, or do some quick shopping outside the station, but not anymore.
The toilet on most trains is an experience. They are cleaner these days than in the past, but the floors are often wet (and slippery) from leaking water. Most toilets are squat type and are preferable to the western style ones because you don't want to sit down on anything in a train bathroom. However, be careful, because with all the lurching and shaking, if you drop anything it's gone down that little hole in the floor. Toothbrushes and soap dishes are easily replaceable, but your passport, watch, or wallets are not. Contact lenses are particularly a problem. Take them out at your seat, or better yet, wear your glasses on the train.
Actually using the toilet on the train is an acquired art. The floor is slippery and the train is lurching. Hang on to something. For many it will prove the biggest challenge they have faced since early childhood potty training.
Personal safety on trains is not a serious problem but it's worth keeping in mind. There are a few dangers you won't encounter in Western trains where most ways of harming oneself have been eliminated for the benefit of the foolish. Not in India. If you want to hang out the train door, no one will stop you. If you want to race down the platform and swing aboard at the last minute, you can. In the absence of restrictions, you must learn to operate with a lot of common sense.
Some visitors discover the pleasure of sitting in the open doorway of the carriage watching the country side go by, smelling the wood smoke from village fires, and listening to the bird calls over the clatter of the train. It can be dangerous, and is not recommended, but if you do it, these are things to consider.
Sit, rather than stand in the doorway. It's more secure. Always hang on. There are nice heavy handrails outside each door. Have a good grip on them. Watch the door. It's quite heavy and could swing shut, pushing you out. Sit well into the car, closest to the door hinges and use your back to hold the door open. Keep your feet up - no lower than the top step. The lower steps are below the platform level. When the train races through small stations, you'll find your toes being ground shorter. Don't hang out of the train. Some of the poles near the track are very close.
Don't jump from a moving train. That's straightforward enough when the train is moving at a good clip, but as it slows in a station you'll see the most eager of the passengers swing onto the platform and run along side. It can be done, but there is a form to it. If you do decide to try it, always jump forward. With even a very slow moving train, if you jump back toward the banana cart you just passed on the platform, your legs will try and go forward, forgetting that the ground is in an opposite relative motion to you and the train. Chances are you'll end up on your butt. There'll be a lot of on-lookers, the platform will be filthy, and your interest in those bananas will have evaporated.
If you have a more serious problem, try and contact either the Ticket Collector or a member of the Railway Police who may be posted on the train. Otherwise, enlist help from fellow passengers. Many will be interested in assisting you.