travelling on indian trains

An Essay On Indian Trains – Tales of Running Late and Toilets

I don’t believe there is a better exercise for the thighs than squatting over a toilet on an Indian train that is trying to make up time.  There’s no point of course in going to the western style toilet because who’s going to sit on the seat anyways?  There’s a lot to be said on Indian trains, entire books have been written about this.


Back to the toilets though.  This is not the land of paper seat covers.  Neither is it the land of provided toilet paper.  And that’s just as a whole, not just in trains, despite what the signage in the 2AC compartment says outside the toilet.

A couple of railway employees might perhaps push a brush along the floor every now and then, but their usual MO is to push the dirt towards your backpack which is stored on the floor under the seats.  They’ll slop some water around and then move that around with a dirty rag on the end of a brush.  There may be some disinfectant in the water, but I doubt it, that probably was appropriated earlier and sold to someone else.

We’re on the late running train number 14659, which started in Delhi at 1735 yesterday and picked us up in Jaipur 25 minutes late at midnight.  Our arrival in Jaisalmer will, according to the Indian Trains Enquiry site, be 1 hour and 14 minutes late at 12:29.  Right now, at 10.05 we are running 1 hour and 46 minutes late.

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Hence the jarring, rattling feeling that this train is going at above safe speeds in an attempt to make up time.  But this isn’t like Russia, where a large percentage of the train driver’s salary is made up of on time performance-related pay.  Thank God.  I can’t begin to imagine the carnage that would occur if drivers got paid if they ran on time.  It would, be rolling stops in stations, with no time for passengers to detrain or entrain, but at least they would get their performance bonus.

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On Indian Trains History

Indian Trains are the world’s largest employer, with around 1.5 million folks employed to make this behemoth the late running, passenger unfriendly, romantic notion some of the world appears to have of it.

When the British left India in 1947, there was 55,000 kilometres of railway track.  Today in India there are an additional 12,000 kilometres of track.  There are narrow gauge tracks that run to hill stations, used as summer retreats from the heat even now.  If there is new rolling stock, I haven’t (in two months in the country) seen any of it.    And the concept of service feels completely missing.

Indian Trains On a Daily Basis

Indian trains run more than 12,600 passenger and 7,400 freight trains a day.  They transport more than 23 million people every single day.  It’s a massive organization.  And it feels scarily inefficient.  From finding out which train to take, to buying a ticket, to getting into a station, to being on the train and finally making it to your destination with a sense of relief you’ve both arrived and you’re there in one piece.  We’ll leave the question of whether your sanity is intact for a later discussion.

Through Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan (oh, Japan, where are your trains and your JR Pass when I need them?) we’ve used trains.  But there is nothing to compare to the Indian train.

There, honestly is nothing to compare to the romantic idea of the Indian train.  Even now after the worst series of experiences on Indian Trains in a row.  I still want to go back and travel on more Indian trains.

But.  Also.

There is nothing to compare to the acrid stink of piss as you get off a train in the early morning and try to navigate the platform and then the station to get to your next destination.   There might be toilets here, but its not the done thing.  It seems much easier for many Indian males just to use any available wall to relieve himself.  But, then you know, it was the spitting in China that made my toes curl.  And the girl clipping her toe nails in my carriage onto the floor in Mongolia that got me there.

There’s nothing that compares to having to share a platform with cows, foraging through trash bins for their next feed.  Why, though they believe there would be trash in the bins when most people just chuck it on the floor or the train tracks is beyond me.  My guess is they won’t forage on the train tracks because the rats have that territory and they’re big, fat and fierce.    I wouldn’t sit on the platform with my children like so many families do, as the rats venture there too.  I did sit on a platform in Myanmar for 9 hours though, when we we heading to the Gokteik viaduct on a late running Burmese train.

There’s nothing to compare to the service you get here from Indian trains.  From buying your ticket at a reservation desk, where the phrase “computer says no” was invented.  To when you do succeed in buying your ticket, having the seller throw your ticket and any change back at you.

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There’s nothing to compare to the ticket checking and conductors, who seemingly irritated that you’re the one in a 2AC compartment, with the curtains closed, attempting to sleep, decide that the best way to check your ticket is to turn on all lights in the area, rip open the curtains and yell “Ticket”.   There’s little wonder I’m becoming constantly bad tempered and aggressive enough to want to punch these people.  This isn’t China.  No one announces stations.  Or wakes you up when its your time to get off.  You’re on your own.  Without a phone with GPS, I don’t know what we’d do.

There’s nothing to compare to the late running of Indian trains.  I was half convinced some mysterious being was checking the charts for each train we were on, seeing Carter – Dockerty.  Then throwing a big brake on that train.  But the more trains we take, the more I see it’s not just us.  They all seem to run late, it’s just about degrees of lateness.  We feel incapable of taking connecting trains without a window of at least 4 hours.  Ok so that late running train to the Gokteik Viaduct in Myanmar compares.  Ah, yeah, and the one we took from Naypyidaw to Yangon, where part of the train (like a carriage) fell off.  Yeah they compare

We’ve stuck to the air conditioned carriages so far.  We won’t be changing if we want to retain any element of our sanity.  Mainly we’re in 2AC, where each “bay” has two side seats/bunks.   There’s one upper and one lower, and two main upper and two main lower ones.  There are also curtains.  Not, that it makes much difference.  Ear plugs and an eye mask are a requirement on Indian trains, if you want to pretend to sleep anyways.

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In 3AC there are no curtains and one further level of bunks in the main area.  We haven’t had a bad experience in there, there’s just a lot more people and noise.

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The sleeper carriages are like 3AC without AC.  The second class carriages are like every photo you’ve ever seen of Indian trains.  They seem to be crammed to the outside steps with a mass of writhing humanity.

This is a vast country and flying everywhere isn’t possible or affordable on our budget.  Trains are for us our primary method of traveling.  We take overnight trains, to maximize the places we can get to and keep the costs low.  And face it, I feel a damn site safer on a train than I do on an overnight bus.

We are two months in and four months to go.  I’m sure there will be many more Indian trains in our near future, if, of course, this now running even later one ever arrives in and allows us to discover Jaisalmer.

On Indian Trains was written after a particularly bad run of experiences on Indian trains.  Most of the time we do enjoy them!  There is, after all, a certain romance to the Indian train experience.  We are currently planning our return to India, where, of course, we will be traveling around the country on Indian trains.

Travel Tips for Exploring India

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