What can you expect from Indian trains? What are the prices? What will you eat? Is it safe for solo traveller? Read more and find out.
Indian trains are comfortable. Well, I'm talking about 2nd class and higher :-) It's not German or Japanese railways, but still, it's nothing scary. They even have western toliets in some! Not that I mind Indian squat ones as they even appear to have good impact on health. Who knew? Bring your own toilet paper!
If you get AC class, make sure you are not too close to the AC which is often dusty and can make you sick. If you go on night train, you will even get pillow, sheet and blanket (picture on right). If you get lucky, there won't be any kids around and you can relax, as trains there are usually quiet. Maybe too quiet, because they don't announce names of train stations so you have to watch out.
One thing is sure - you won't stay hungry! There are lots of vendors walking in aisles offering everything from Mars chocolate bars to my favourite dosa. What they don't offer much is water. Make sure you bring your own, otherwise you can wait forever :-) With longer journey and higher class comes lunch included in ticket price. It's nothing fancy (picture of right). The one I got had no taste at all. Also, garbage bin might be right next to you bed, so don't get anything that might smell all night or all day long. Did I mention you can't open the window? Well, that's why I always carry a mentol stick with me when travelling - it's my daily dose of drug :-D
Train full of people, foreign country, bag full of electronics? Who wouldn't worry. I was actually in the middle of police chase at Margao train station, but generally, trains are safe. What you should do is buy a long chain (usually sold at every train station, just ask any shop there), lock your luggage under the seat/bed or next to it. Important stuff like passport and money should be close to you. I havn't seen any railway police at trains, but there is always someone in aisle - vendor with food or train service. I guess the only concern is about pickpockets. Also, don't book a train that gets to your destination at night - especially if you don't know the city and don't have anyone to pick you up.
There are many classes from sleeper (don't confuse it with nice sleeping AC class!), CC to AC1, AC2 or AC3. You want to get AC1 or AC2 unless you want some real adventure or just save money. How do you find your seat at train? Every platform has digital screens showing where will your car stop. Then you either have seat number on ticket which is rare, or you get seat number from railway employee who sits by entrance at your car. I ignored him at first and sat wherever I wanted and was kicked out by older couple in the middle of journey. Anyway, AC1 and AC2 classes are equipped with electricity plugs, have bed sheets, probably mirror and more important - some privacy. It will be either 2 people in a coupé (i think there is only one or two coupes like this in most of trains), or 4 (2 beds on each side) or even 6 (3 beds on each side).
Booking is the hardest part. Where do you get information about train schedule? You can either call or visit Government of India Tourist Office in every major city (guys there are really helpful and will provide you with free maps and guides) or local Tourist Offices (for example MTDC for Maharasthra state). Another good source of information is www.cleartrip.com where you can book some tickets as well. I wouldn't recommend going to train station ticket office to ask for trains, schedule and information. It's usually very crowded, some staff don't speak much english and everyone is in hurry. If you can, book tickets online, or via local agent (in Thomas Cook for example) or in your hotel. They usually charge you fee. If there is no other option, then go to train station to buy a ticket and waste 1-2 hours. Don't forget to bring your passport and its copy!!!. You then have to buy token to wait in line (yesss seriously, buy token for 10Rs - change only) or find a special window for tourists, get the form, fill it out (I got it right only on third time! :) and then you can wait and pray for ancient computers in office to function. Anyway, it's funny experience sometimes, but not if you don't have time and want to enjoy the city. Another weird thing I still don't get is time of booking. Sometime, you can't book a train ticket a week in advance. You have to wait for certain date when their reservation system opens and then hurry and buy it as quickly as possible. I once had to wait in long line for 10:00am when I finally could get the ticket I was waiting for for over a week, I got it thanks to "Tatkal" which is immediade or emergency ticket on fully booked train.
Prices are not high, I usually got my one-way tickets for 500Rs to 1500Rs.
Cancellation is not possible on some tickets, but if you have to cancel it, think twice. If you paid little money, don't bother, as it will take you so much time and get you anywhere.
India Railway web: www.indianrail.gov.in