Indian Railways – Oh, you aren’t…

A common response to our India travel plans was “Oh, you aren’t riding the train are you?”. But, of course we were. Our aim is to experience the culture and way of life as the locals do rather than observe from the isolated safety of an air-conditioned window. With India, however, it was difficult in our planning to know where to draw the line with some of our own standards in health and comfort. As friends urged us to refrain from the train, we just couldn’t believe it would be that bad. We wanted an authentic experience…


Our Indian rail adventure started with booking tickets when they are first available exactly 60 days before. The trains fill up quickly — especially for peak season in December and January. So from our hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky (for my sister’s wedding), we scrambled to find seats on our train of choice from Mumbai to Goa. The night train had sold-out, so we settled on taking a day train, we snapped up AC third class seats and felt fortunate since so few seats were still available.

We wondered what fate awaited us as we made our way along the carriages on track 16 in Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus. The crowded and uncomfortable people packed in the unreserved cars peered out through the open-air barred windows. This, combined with the sight of local travelers hanging on for dear life on the exterior of a full car as the commuter trains entered station foreshadowed an unpleasant journey to come. We wondered with anxiety what third class would be like. Maybe the neigh-sayers were right? Maybe take the train was a mistake?

Filled with anxiety as we reached our tinted-window, air-conditioned carriage we climbed aboard and searched for seats 37 and 38. The interior was clean but basic. Similar to European trains, the compartments had two bench style seats facing each other, only without closing doors and a less stylish vinyl-like blue upholstery. Having stowed our luggage in the tiny space under our seat, K needed a minute to adjust as we awaited our compartment companions. Who would we be spending the next 10 hours with?


They soon arrived — a middle-aged Indian couple and a family of three with a teenage boy. The couple wore jeans. The men of the family wore western style clothing while the mother wore a brightly colored sari. The teenage son carried a textbook while father read the financial section of the newspaper. They seemed normal. And our anxiety began to melt away. There was plenty of space and we wouldn’t be trapped with a cabin full of  pestering beggars from Mumbai.

The rest of our anxiety disappeared upon realizing that we wouldn’t starve on the 10 hour journey. We had stocked up on chips and bottled water in preparation, but despite the lack of dedicated dining and snack carriages, there was no shortage of food. A steady stream of attendants paced the aisles offering a selection of chai (tea), coffee, mango lassies, bottled water, and various fried snacks like samosas.

We also discovered that they have a meal service. Carefully observing our travel companions placing their orders, we recognized the student’s response which sounded like “cheese sandwich”. K and I looked at each other thinking, “That sounds safe”. Responding in kind on our turn — “cheese sandwich” — we placed our order. About a half hour later, he reappeared delivering boxes filled with cheese sandwiches and other goodies. We repeated the routine again around noon. Though lunch was a bit more difficult due to the lack of a table, and unfortunately, K’s skirt fell victim to a bright orange Tikka Masala sauce from an overflowing tray. Darn Tumeric!


Following the pleasant third class experience, expectations were raised for our second class night train from Goa to Cochin. Joining day two mid-route from Delhi, we found our compartment had previously been occupied by an inconsiderate family with small children that had done their worst. Scattered rice and assorted meal remnants decorated the seats and bunks, while crumpled newspapers and food wrappers littered the floor. Half empty cups of chai hid behind a partially completed coloring book page stuck to the small fold out table. The lone Indian lady that remained, also a victim of the storm, sat in the corner holding her knees in her arms and conveyed without doubt that her journey had been hell for the last two days.

Expectations shattered — this time it was me that needed a minute to adjust. Mess aside, the interior was a bit older and more worn, though much the same as the third class carriage. It became clear, the second and third weren’t so much a reference to quality, but rather capacity. Three bunks per wall in the AC3 compartment provided space for six people in the compartment. In AC2, the two bunks per wall allowed for four people.


Consistently in our travels, we have observed fewer safeguards abroad than in the litigious United States. Hiking along the sea-side cliffs in Italy or Mallorca, no warning was necessary — if you fall, you’ll die. The trains in India were much the same. No one stopped you from opening the door and hanging out as the train sped along. In fact it was a popular activity as every doorway had a least a couple people vying for the prime position.

I took a turn and tried to snap a few photos. Carefully braced to secure my position on board the train — and to make sure that is where I stayed — I peered out the threshold cautious of any possible upcoming obstacles. With a bit of time and summoned courage, I got some great views of the train and the country side. While difficult to capture from a high speed speed train, I did manage a few worth sharing.

This is the third installment in our series on our India trip. You can also read about Mumbai and Goa. And check back tomorrow as we arrive in Cochin, Kerala.

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