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Indian Railways | The Giant Lifeline Of India

Indian Railways Train Approaching Chandigarh Railways Station At Dusk | Chandigarh | Punjab | India | Australian Cricket Tours

INDIAN RAILWAYS | The Giant Lifeline Of India

As cliche as it is, no visit to India is complete without a journey on this ever-growing network that breaks record after world-record.

Experience the mania of the stations through which the population of small nations ebb and flow unapologetically, day and night.

Carts of freight being pulled & pushed with determination through masses standing patiently, if not rushing platforms, passages, staircases, and ticket halls.

The mayhem within the colossal Mumbai (Bombay) or New Delhi Railway Stations can instil enough worry without the panic at not seeing your train listed, or wondering if the train just departing was yours.

This along with waiting for the ‘seating charts’ to know if you’ve received your ‘Reservation against Cancellation’ (RAC). Station announcements. Food sellers. Chai Wallahs. Dogs. Lights. Noise. A wild, vibrant existence of the world’s 8th largest employer and 4th largest rail network.

It is phenomenal.

On our first Australian Cricket Tour to India in 1996 there wasn’t a trainline between Mumbai and Goa, and only 3 domestic airlines. Now 15 trains per day trundle from Mumbai to Goa along with 7 domestic airlines operating thousands of cheap flights per day across India, so ‘enticement’ to fly and save a day or two on the railways is strong.

In recent years I'm guilty of taking a $50 flight through nothing more than laziness, and not wanting to ‘waste time’ on the rails. If you are not time sensitive, or sensitive, Indian Railways is an incredible way to experience this amazing nation, even on overnight trains, no matter which class of travel.

When you consider First Class AC (1A) include steward, TV, food, and bedding, and often less than the cost of a flight, why fly? 1A New Delhi – Mumbai by train is just A$90.

No matter what your reason for travel, you should take at least one Indian Railways journey, and save 1-2 nights in a hotel too. The most popular is the very grubby Sleeper Class (SL) as defined on this great page:

Each SL carriage has 72 berths with at least 10 carriages per train rake and is oriented to most Indian travellers and frugal backpackers with (or without) a sleeping bag. 17-hours between Mumbai and New Delhi is A$12. Been there, done that, and saved not a lot now I think back!

The good 'ole SL was my default seat until 2012 when I decided A$3+ dollars more for a 2nd class 'AC' was worth it. Since then, A$10+ for First Class AC is the norm along with the wondering of why on earth I opted for SL for so long?

Going back to the teeth-cutting, jaw-dropping, halcyon days of 1996, after taking a bus from Mumbai for a few days in Goa, I slowly made my way across India via Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Chennai (Madras) to Visakhapatnam (coll. Vizag) for Australia's first Cricket World Cup 1996 match vs Kenya.

Unsurprising at the time, there wasn't a train from Goa to Bengaluru either. I took another scary overnight bus ride to Bengaluru from where, after three nights, I took my first Indian Railways journey; a slow overnight 8 hours to Chennai.

Throughout that first anxious ride, I was sure I’d be robbed. Every 30 minutes I instinctively woke to check if my backpack was still chained under the seat and my money belt around my waist.

Fast forward to 2024, Bengaluru - Chennai can now be done in as little as 4hrs 25mins, some in double-decker rocketships, with 17 services around the clock.

This route has grown as rapidly as Mumbia to Goa (Madgaon Station). Of the 15 Mumbai-Goa trains, 6 originate in New Delhi (among other cities). Trains from New Delhi don’t stop at but instead 'pass' Mumbai. It is too inconvenient for trains to travel into the Mumbai 'peninsula' and back out.

To catch a Goa train from/to New Delhi from Mumbai, you must travel north to Vasai Road, Kalyan, and Panvel up to 66km from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus.These trains are still sold as MUMBAI, so choose your station carefully.

Suffice to say, there is no shortage of rail options now, you just need the wherewithall to understand the search and booking process.

There are more direct trains in all classes that are cleaner, faster, more comfortable, and indeed reliable than in 1996 when often 24-hour journeys would take 30+ hours. 30-hour journeys could take 40+ hours, and 40+ hour journeys were best avoided in their entirety.

As it was the seeming 'norm' during Cricket World Cup 1996 there was no train from New Delhi to get us to the semi-final in Chandigarh either, so it was yet another painful 5 hours by bus.

In 2024, there are now 15 daily trains from New Delhi to Chandigarh!

Indian Railways can take you to 17 of India's 18 active Test venues. The missing link is Dharamsala to where you either fly from Delhi or get a taxi 86km from Pathankot Railway Station.

Knowing the geography of the region, it is unlikely a train will service Dharamsala for quite sometime, but let's not say it won't!

With 5-Tests scheduled for the Australian Cricket Tour To India 2027, there could be many railway records broken for the humble Australian Cricket Tourist.

Though not on any cricket schedule, if you want to break records and test your boundaries of physical tolerance, travel from Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari.

Departing the far north-east on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturdays and Sundays at 1955pm, Vivek Express arrives 74 hours later at India’s southern tip of Kanyakumari Cape.

This epic journey in SL is a staggering A$22, after a 30-hour train from Kolkata to Dibrugarh in the first place. A 1.5hr flight for $90 would be excusable if you are about to spend 74-hours on the rails!

Strangely enough, though this is India, there is no First Class on this service. The comfiest you can book is Second Class AC for a whopping A$82.

If you want to add yet another head scratch to your Indian voodoo, there is no return journey from Kanyakumari to Dibrugarh. It's a 74 hour one-way train, 5 times per week.

#GoFigure

Speaking of long, even short trips are wild, especially at Indian Railways Railway Stations.

20,000 people populate every kilometre of track so there will always be a grand transition of people at each station, bypassing food and chai sellers taking advantage of the 1000’s on each train that stop for what is often just 2-mins, as little as 1-min, and as much as 5 minutes.

A frenetic chorus of hawkers cash in at every waking moment. When taking the ‘sleeper’ whose windows are open, expect chai & coffee sellers to stick their face in the frame and hawk sales inches from your ear at any time!

Though far from stopping at all 7500+ stations, my favourite is Itarsi Junction (Nagpur-Delhi line), whose platform is filled with the widest choice of food on the rails (that I've found).

As the 8th busiest junction in India, Itarsi feeds 400 trains across 8 platforms daily. I’ve always got off the train here to get something different to eat!

When on an Australian Cricket Tour To India most Indian Railways journeys are to/from/between Mumbai – New Delhi - Chandigarh – Kolkata – Chennai – Bengaluru – Agra - Nagpur – Mumbai.

When restricted by a cricket schedule, and using Indian Railways to get about, you don't do a lot of 'non-cricket' sightseeing. Way back then, the 'analogue' booking process was discouragement from going where the game didn't.

To buy train tickets 'back in the day', you needed to (im)patiently line up at any main interstate railway station and submit your request form. You couldn’t just ask for a ticket from Mumbai to New Delhi and part with cash, you had to know the exact train name & train number. There is after all, 14 different trains to book.

If travelling India for weeks or months you were well-served buying ‘Trains at a Glance’. This invaluable book was the complete Indian Railways Timetable, which considering are 13000 trains per day, you'd expect it to be larger than an A5 ‘Hausfrau magazine’. The print was small, but extremely useful.

Avoiding long public queues, Mumbai & New Delhi had (have) tourist reservation centres. You still needed to line up but at least you're in an airconditioned room waiting for your number to be called.

This could still take hours, but train information was available at counters along with ‘trains at a glance’ to help fill in your form/s.

Fast forward to 2024 and everyone can book Indian Railways from their living room for the 13000 daily trains to & from the 7500 stations. There are still some of the limitations faced in 1996, though the coffee is better at home than from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus cafeteria!

I first experienced 'booking online' in 2008. It was a rather simple registration process (compared with 2024), but bizarrely you could only have an 8-character username, and you had to have an Indian Mobile number, even as a foreigner.

Conveniently at the time, you could use any 10-digit number starting with 9 for your mandatory ‘Mobile Number’ as it was never actually used!

Indian Railways booking site (IRCTC (not 3rd party)) now allows international numbers, however you must pay A$1 to have your number verified and you can’t proceed without verification.

Inconveniently, you can still only book for 6 people on one reservation. Typing your name, passport number, age, and destination address is much easier now than writing in the impossibly small fields on the paper forms (one form per train), though you can still be hamstrung online in 2024.

Incredibly so, more than 1.2m people access Indian Railways per minute, which does inhibit its operation from time to time. At least now you can have a 30-character username, but conversely, your FULL NAME can only be 16 characters on the booking!

#GoFigure

It’s incredible that such limitations exist but when you look at the enormity of the system, it’s either fallen through the cracks or the train tickets only have enough room to print 16 characters. You’d think with all the detail required when booking, passengers using their full name would be integral.

While we consider that, get your head around these amazing Indian Railways - Facts & Figures

Many of these facts and stats are ever-changing as are our Australian Cricket Tours to India.

What we do and how we travel across India is dependent on the schedule but in 2027, with 5-Tests played from January to March we have much time to invest.

Not only will we include Indian Railways between cities, we hope to enjoy at least one of the UNESCO heritage-listed mountain railways.

Should Australia play in Mohali (Chandigarh), there is easy access to the Kalka – Shimla Railway. Not having played in Kolkata since 2001, it is time Australia played there again thus creating the opportunity to take the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Bengaluru is closest to the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, though a night in Coimbatore is needed before a 7am departure.

All that excitement aside, everything just takes so much longer in India. Darjeeling mountain railway is closest to Kolkata but it is 8 hours by train to New Jalpaiguri, from where you take the 7 hours 30mins mountain railway. It almost negates the thrill of going. Fly to Bagdogra (Siliguri) from Kolkata, and take the toy train from Siliguri to Darjeeling.

Though the gorgeous mountain railways have basic seating configurations (as one may expect on a 'toy train') for the 5-8 hours but when we travel overnight game to game, we use 1A or 2A depending on route and availability.

In 1996 there were only 5 classes; Unreserved / 2C / SL / AC (1 & 2) / Chair Car). Now there are 30 'train types' divided into 13 classes, which include luxury day trains, luxury sleeper trains, executive chair cars, and double-deckers on the Bengaluru-Chennai day-route. See the full list of train types and classes on:

AC is a comfortable way to travel Indian Railways, but being climate controlled means the windows are sealed, which is a down-side of the pointy end of the train.

Open windows in lower classes allow for better photos and indeed views as windows in AC carriages are often dirty or tinted and difficult to see through. This blunts the edge of travelling Indian Railways, which is truly experienced when packed in with the masses ‘slumming’ overnight in SL Class.

Speaking of the masses, images of trains laden with people on the roof is not a thing of the past even though it has been illegal since 1987 to 'steal a ride' on the outside.

Images seen today of hundreds clinging to the roof, are trains laden with pilgrims or festival goers taking the short trip to the grounds and not clinging to a high-speed long-distance interstate mail-rake.

It is widely accepted that people will ride on the outside of a train to reach the pilgrimage site by which ever means possible!

Mind you, there were times when one thought the thousands that used to ride on the outside of the train were in your carriage. Though everyone must be ticketed, I once saw 18 in a 6-berth compartment, without the Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE) batting an eyelid.

The TTE now travels with a tablet rather than a clipboard jammed with computer paper listing the name of every person ticketed.

Part of the SL experience was staying in a railway station retiring room, before an early departure or late arrival. You could only stay one night, and you had to show your railway ticket to prove you were leaving early.

As such, you couldn’t use these very cheap, very clean dorm rooms to save money by not staying in a filthy, more expensive guest house on Triplicane High Road (Chennai) for the duration of a test match as one forgettable place to stay!

Thankfully, we no longer travel with sleeping bags and one eye open on our Australian Cricket Tours To India. As said earlier, bedding is provided in 1A and 2A when we rock and roll around Incredible India.