Photo by Jayakumar Ananthan on Unsplash
When we were in Kerala, we travelled by train as much as we could. Not only because it’s convenient and cheap but it’s really enjoyable. You get to see the countryside, speak to fellow travellers and get a bit more of the flavour of India than if you were sitting in an air-conditioned cab travelling in your own little bubble.
We found travelling by Indian Railways was pretty straightforward but there were one or two things we wished we’d known before we travelled, mainly that it’s actually easier and more fun than we ever imagined. Hopefully, this post will set your mind at rest, inspire you and help to make your first Indian Railway journey just a little easier.
So you’ve read about getting your Indian Railways account and bought your ticket, all that’s left is to turn up at the railway station and get on the train, Isn’t it? Well yes, but Indian Railways is big and busy, it’s the fourth largest rail network in the world and one of the main forms of transport in India. The main stations are large with multiple platforms and the trains are long, sometimes very, very long. You need to know where to go and where to stand to get to your platform, carriage and seat.
Check Your Ticket
Forget any images you have in your head of people hanging off the outside of trains or sitting with chickens on your knee, nope, not gonna’ happen. Just take a look at your ticket. Somewhere on it, you will see something like the J2-57 in my ticket below. This is my carriage and seat number. Carriage J2, seat 57
Note – Your ticket may look slightly different to this ticket, this is a screenshot from a Cleartrip ticket. But somewhere you’ll be able to see those details
Aha, you think, that’s easy. I simply find carriage J2 and my seat number 57 is reserved? Again, well yes, but I remember that I mentioned that those trains are long, sometimes very, very long, so how to find your carriage? Trains only stop for a few minutes, if you’re at the wrong end of the platform you could easily miss your train. And anyway, which platform do you need? So here are 5 simple rules to hassle-free train travel.
- Get there in plenty of time
- Find the platform
- Find where you should stand on the platform
- Buy drinks and food, picnic out, watch the whole world go by. Smile at people, talk to people. It’s fun, it really is.
- Get on the train, sit in your seat and relax
Rule 1. Get there in plenty of time
This should go without saying, but it’s a good reminder. It’s the first step to any travel on public transport anywhere in the world. Having the time to find your way around and navigate rail bridges, platforms and read the notices is doubly important for large and busy stations like those you find in India.
Rule 2. Find the platform
Our first Indian Railway journey was straight after our plane landed. We took a pre-paid taxi from the airport across town to Aluva railway station. We were a good 90 minutes early for the train, but hanging out at the train station seemed like a good idea. In fact, it was a great idea. Being early allowed us to stretch our legs after the long journey, marvel that we were finally in India, figure out the system and buy fresh samosas and coffee for breakfast. A win, win, win, win situation.
At Aluva Station, right at the entrance to the station, we saw a board giving times and platform numbers. If you’re early at the station, your train details might not appear, don’t worry, platform announcements and boards tend to show the trains in the next half hour or so. Platform announcements were multi-lingual and very easy to understand too.
As we got to 25 minutes until the train was due, the platform for our train did not appear on the board. We started to worry. But on looking at the station booking office, I noticed a white-board with lots of writing on it. Our train (the 16305) was leaving from Platform 3, we had plenty of time to cross the footbridge over to the right platform.
If you have one of the Indian Railways apps, it’s possible to see the platform that the train normally leaves from too. If all else fails, there’s always an information booth or office to ask at.
On the Platform
A word about the wonders that are Indian Railways platforms. If you’re used to cold, draughty, dank, abandoned UK platforms, you’re in for a treat. For a start, you could eat a fine breakfast, lunch and dinner right there on the platform, you can buy hot and cold drinks, sit in relative comfort, buy books, magazines and newspapers, use the loo, have a wash, even book an overnight room at some of them. Main stations are lined with kiosks selling anything and everything you could possibly need for the journey.
The loos, as you would expect, are not so good. However, we did find some pay to use loos which were much better. To be honest, if you’ve ever been to a festival in the UK, I doubt it will worry you too much!
Indian Railways seems to be updating apace and large “water ATMs” are appearing on platforms. These are a great idea. They dispense purified and sterilised water cheaply and cleanly, into your own container if you have one handy too. Great idea IR!
Rule 3. Find where you should stand on the platform
So you get to the correct platform early, you’re eating your samosa and drinking your tea, trains pass, trains pull in. trains pull out. Suddenly you realise that some of these trains seem to be miles long, therefore the platform is miles long. There’s no way you could get quickly from one end of the platform to the other with your luggage and through all of those people once the train arrives. How on earth does this work then?
This is how it works. All of the train carriages have the name of the train, the carriage class and the carriage identification number on them. The one below is a second class carriage G3. The train name and number is on the yellow board above the G3.
Now look above your head and down the platform, you’ll see a series of electronic indicator boards, these boards will light up with your coach number to tell you where to stand. Sometimes instead of the electronic system, you’ll see older numbers boards or letters. If this is the case, you’ll find an information board close by telling which number corresponds to which coach number
Remember the white-board in Aluva? Now it makes sense. The numbers along the platforms in Aluva were not electronic. Therefore we needed to find what we called the ‘correspondence board’. Train number 16305 leaves from platform 3. Carriage C1 will stop at spot 5 on the platform, Carriage D1 will stop at number 6 and carriage D2 will stop at space 7.
Just be aware that if you have the electronic version of the signs above, you’ll have to wait until your train is due before you’ll know where to stand. The numbers won’t flash up until your train is next on the platform. If your train is late the information will be late too. The first time that happened to us, we got a little worried until we found someone to ask. As Steve pointed out, it was Indian Railways lulling us into a false sense of insecurity, in actual fact, they couldn’t announce the platform space because the train was late and there was another train due before ours so the information would have been incorrect.
Buy drinks and food, picnic out, watch the whole world go by. Smile at people, talk to people. It’s fun, it really is.
Now you know where you need to stand, you can relax a little and enjoy the experience. We fell a bit in love with Indian Railways.
Get on the train, sit in your seat and relax
Toilets on Indian Trains
A real mixed bag (so to speak). The usual state of play is a small grubby, cubical with either a squat loo or a Western type loo – we only encountered Western ones but I’m assured squat loos still exist. Be sure to take loo roll, hand sanitiser and wipes, there was never any loo roll, water or hand wash for us. Traditionally, loos flushed directly onto the tracks (ewwww), before you judge though, consider that this system was inherited from the Brits and that the UK only abandoned it for a system of holding tanks 20 or so years ago.
By 2019, years ahead of target, all Indian Railways trains will have bio loos. The waste will be collected in a tank under the train, where anaerobic bacteria work on it to remove harmful bacteria and break down the waste to water and methane which can safely be discharged onto the tracks.
Mobile Phone Charging Points
All of the trains we travelled on had phone charging points dotted around. You simply plugged your normal euro socket charger into the electrical point and charged your phone. People often just plugged their phones in and wandered away to their seat to return later when the phone was judged to have enough charge.
Air Conditioning and Fans
They work, and work well too. Take something to cover up in case you get chilly. During our first journey, I loaned someone in front of me a shawl from my luggage because she was freezing cold.
Indian Railways Apps
There does seem to be lots of different ones. As far as I can tell, the blue one on the left is the one that gives you information about the network, late trains, platforms etc. The middle one is the one you can use to book tickets and holds your account info and a record of your tickets and the one on the right simply leads to the normal website.