Trains in India

Indian Railways is the world's largest employer - with over a million workers and billions of passenger journeys every year, you won't ever lack company.

Despite its ongoing modernisation IR stilll retains the feel of a proper railway - this is what BR was like in the 1950's. Here there are still bookstalls on the platform, ladies and gentleman's waiting rooms and a station buffet where you can drink tea or lemonade and watch the the world go by while you wait for your train.

station

A quiet moment between trains

To travellers used to trains in the UK and Europe, train travel in India can seem a little daunting at first but it's without doubt the best way to see the country and meet people. The railways in India still retain a romance that has been lost in the west. Waiting in a warm breeze in the small hours for the Rajdhani Express or the Brahmaputra Mail to an exotic destination half a thousand miles away is an experience fnot to be missed.

If you're travelling any distance, 2AC (second class air conditioned) is recommended, this is fairly clean* and consists mainly of 4 berth cabins which offer a degree of privacy but are not lockable. They have a small table and bunks which hinge down for use at night. Food is available on long trips - someone will take your order and a freshly prepared curry will be brought to your berth an hour or so later. I can vouch for the veggie curries as excellent!

* Drifting off to sleep on the lower berth of an AC2 sleeper en route from Delhi to Varanasi, I watched with great interest as a cockroach hoovered up the crumbs from the Naan bread we had enjoyed earlier. No sooner had it finished than it was jumped on and eaten by a mouse that had been hiding behind my rucksack...

permanent way dept at work

Permanent way dept at work - Hi-viz is for wimps!

The gauge is wider than the European and American standard at 5' 6" - it looks just a little strange to British eyes.

The wide network of metre and narrow gauge lines that existed in India up to the end of the last century has now all but vanished.

india rail second class

Inside a non air conditioned second class carriage.

Compared to Britain, the trains are bigger all round, the wider gauge making for bigger carriages or "bogies" and as the train is still unrivalled for long distance trips, there are generally a lot more of them, 14 coach trains are not uncommon on an express or mail service.

The wooden seats and barred windows are typical of Indian railways non - airconditioned stock although some non a/c stock does have vinyl seats. Second class isn't so bad when the train is moving but it does get a bit warm if the train stops in the sun for too long. It can get crowded too as it's much cheaper than AC2.

I met a guy who had made a long distance trip in non ac second and found his carriage to be so packed that when the elderly hindu man sitting next to him died in mid journey, it wasn't noticed for some time as the body could not slump to either side.

When eventually noticed, the corpse was tied up in a sheet and laid on the floor of the compartment untill journeys end some hours later.

 

Varanasi - Holy City on the Ganges

The endless search for the elusive 'jeep in a case' took me and the memsahib to all corners of the globe. In 2002 we got fed up with normality and decided to take a month out for a wander around the subcontinent looking for spiritual enlightenment and obsolete machinery. The first thing you learn about India is that nothing you've read, heard or watched on the TV can possibly prepare you for the real thing...The second thing is always agree the taxi fare before you get in.

If the real essence of India can be found in any single place it is Varanasi. A walk along the ghats or steps down to the sacred river Ganges is an experience never to be forgotten.

ghats at varanasi

Ghats

The ghats lead up from the river to a maze of narrow streets where sacred cows jostle for space in the alleyways with pilgrims, tourists, backpackers, holy men, hippies, travellers, monkeys, handcarts, taxis, bicycles and funeral processions.

Stepping down from the Kashi Express into the predawn of India at 5.25 am - from Varanasi cantonment station, a short taxi ride takes you to the ghats.

Enjoy sunrise over the Ganges - sit and watch the sun creep over the horizon as the city comes to life behind you.

ghats at varanasi

We spent a week or so in Varanasi then I met an Israeli guy in a rooftop bar overlooking the river who tapped me for a beer and told me that Darjeeling was just the ticket for seeing good quality jeeps.

As the plains were hitting 40 degrees centigrade at this time, it seemed like a good idea to head for the hills and see if he was right. They turned out to be series one landrovers but at least we got a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway out of it.

We flagged a taxi and left sunny Benares for Mughal Serai, a railway junction about an hour away on the other side of the Ganges.

The thought of missing the one daily train to NJP/ Siliguri, the end of the line several hundred miles away, had encouraged us to start early for the station so we had an couple of hours to kill before the train was due.

There was a little stall near the station that sold bananas. You gave your money to the shopkeeper then his monkey, who sat on a stool next to him, would hand you the bananas. We took them into the station and sat in the shade on our bags eating and reading untill the train came.

5622 North East Express as I recall, Non air conditioned is OK for short runs but we opted to go 2 a/c to NJP - change for Darjeeling and a mere eight hours later we were contemplating the Himalayas.

16 Bogies

Out and about on Indian Railways

second class

loco

Varkala Station

 

 

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