The giant lifeline of India.
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 cities ebb and flow unapologetically, day and night. Giant carts of freight being pulled & pushed with determination through masses standing patiently, if not rushing platforms, passages, staircases, and ticket halls.
The panic at not seeing your train listed, wondering if the train just departing was yours. 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 even a trainline between Mumbai and Goa, and only 3 domestic airlines. Now there are at least 4 trains per day from Mumbai to Goa and 7 major domestic airlines operating hundreds of flights per day across the country, cheaply, so ‘enticement’ to fly and save a day or two on the railways is strong.
In recent years I am guilty of taking a $50 flight and not Indian Railways through nothing more than laziness, preferring to flop on a Goan beach than ‘waste time’ on the rails. If you are not time sensitive, or indeed sensitive, Indian Railways is an incredible means 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 and is oriented to most Indian railway travellers and frugal backpackers with (or without) a sleeping bag. 17-hours between Mumbai and New Delhi is only A$12. Been there, done that, and saved not a lot now I think back!
Because there wasn't a train from Goa to Bengaluru either, so had to take a bus, my first Indian Railways journey was overnight from Bengaluru to Chennai, throughout which I was sure I’d be robbed. Every 30 minutes I woke to check if my backpack was still under the seat and money belt around my waist.
So, along with the trains that originate in Mumbai, near countless trains to Goa originate in New Delhi (among other cities) that don’t stop at but pass Mumbai. You must travel to Vasai Road, Kalyan, and Panvel up to 66km from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus though still sold as MUMBAI, so choose your station carefully. Please Read:
Suffice to say, there is no shortage of rail options in 2021. There are a lot 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 if there was a train at all. Following Cricket World Cup 1996 there was no trainline from New Delhi to get us to the semi-final in Chandigarh, so it was a painful 5 hours by bus.
Now Indian Railways can take you to 18 of India's 19 active Test venues. No train runs to Dharamsala, you need to fly from Delhi or get a taxi from Pathankot railway station 86km away. With 4-Tests and 3-T20 in India in 2022, there should 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 of India on Saturdays at 1925pm, you arrive 4 nights and 75 hours later at India’s southern-most tip. This epic journey in SL is a staggering A$14. You first need a 30-hour journey from Kolkata to Dibrugarh, so a 1.5hr flight for $90 would be excusable if you are about to spend 75-hours on the rails!
That said, even short trips are wild affairs with the people and places that pass by, especially at railway stations. 20,000 people populate every kilometre of track so there will always be a grand transition of people at each stop. These along with food and chai sellers taking advantage of the 1000’s of people on each train that stops for what is often just 2-mins.
A frenetic chorus of hawkers cash in on their 2-mins (1-min at very-small stations) no matter what time of the night. Many times taking the ‘sleeper’ where the windows are open (at least not sealed) I was woken in the wee-hours by chai & coffee sellers shouting for sales barely 50cm from my middle-ear!
Though far from stopping at all 7500+ stations, my favourite is Itarsi Junction (Nagpur-Delhi line), the platform filled with the widest choice of food on the rails. As the 8th busiest junction in India, Itarsi feeds almost 400 trains every day across just 8 platforms. I’ve always got off the train for the 5mins it stops to get something different to eat!
When following cricket, most journeys were to / from / between Mumbai – New Delhi - Chandigarh – Kolkata – Chennai – Bengaluru – Agra - Nagpur – Mumbai. We never did much sightseeing but when restricted by a cricket schedule you do what you can. Perhaps the booking process discouraged us from going where the game didn’t take us?
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, including the train name and number. You couldn’t just request a ticket from Mumbai to New Delhi and part with cash, you had to know the exact train you wanted.
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 there were 6000 trains per day, was only A5 size and ‘Hausfrau magazine’ thickness. The print was small, but extremely useful.
Avoiding long public queues, Mumbai & New Delhi had (have) dedicated foreign tourist reservation centres. You still needed to line up but at least you were 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 25 years, everyone can book Indian Railways from their living room for the now 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!
In 2008 when we first booked ‘online tickets’, you could only have an 8-character username, and you can use any 10-digit number starting with 9 for your mandatory ‘Mobile Number’, which back then was never actually used! Indian Railways booking site (not 3rd party) now allows international mobile numbers, though you must pay to have your number verified and you can’t proceed without it.
Although you can still only book up to 6 people on one reservation, typing your name, passport, and destination address is now much easier than writing in the impossibly small fields on the paper forms (one per train), though you can still be hamstrung online in 2021.
More than 1.2m access Indian Railways per minute, which does inhibit its operation from time to time, though now you can have a 30-character username to individualise the population of Australia that use Indian Railways every day! Conversely, your FULL NAME can only be 16 characters on the booking!
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 2022, with 4-Tests and 3 T20’s 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.
Australia often plays in Mohali giving easy access to the Kalka – Shimla Railway. Not having played in Kolkata since 2001, it is time Australia played there again, which will create 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.
Mountain railways have basic seating configurations for the 5-6 hours but when we travel overnight game to game, we use 1A or 2A depending on route and availability. These translate as First-Class AC, AC 2 Tier, or AC 3 Tier. 1A sleeps 2, including steward, TV, and bedding. 2A sleeps 4, and 3A sleeps 6.
We use 1A or 2A to replace one night in your hotel tour. 2A is our first choice because there is more availability, and not every train has 1A but it depends on touring numbers and where we go. One carriage has 18 berths in 1A, 48 berths in 2A, and 64 berths in 3A. Bedding is included in all AC Tiers.
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 our ‘Indian Railways - How to Book’ page (coming).
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; 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 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. 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 would 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.
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 but very clean dormitory rooms to save money by not staying in a filthy, more expensive guest house on the Triplicane High Road (Chennai) for the duration of a test match, as one forgettable place to stay!
Thankfully, we won’t be travelling with sleeping bags & pillows on our next Australian Cricket Tours To India. As said earlier, bedding is provided in 1A and 2A when we rock and roll around Incredible India.