It has been said that you can never experience the real India without taking the train in India. While I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, the real India is one that may shock, frustrate, anger and disappoint. It’s unlikely that you’ll have the same romantic experience as that on the Orient Express. You’ve been warned. Hop on only if you’re mentally prepared.
Fortunately or unfortunately, our first train ride in India was quite pleasant, the usual spectacle that is India notwithstanding.
Nizamuddin station (New Delhi) was quite a sight with people walking across the tracks, sleeping on the floor of the ticketing platform and a mini riot at the ticket counter. Thankfully, I had already bought the tickets online and printed them out.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t much chaos on the train platforms, apart from the odd “floor sleeper”.
We were taking the Gatiman Express (spelled Gatiman on the train and Gatimaan in most other places including the ticket) to Agra and with the benefit of foresight, there was much anticipation and expectation. The machine was by no means sleek and shiny, but neither was it rickety and ramshackle, pulling into the station some 30 minutes before departure time.
The interior was nothing like the trains in Taiwan or Japan, but it was relatively clean, tidy and tastefully furnished. Departure was also punctual. At exactly 0810, the train pulled out of Nizamuddin station.
The seats were comfortable and spacious, with plenty and leg room and even electrical outlets for charging mobile phones. Free wifi is available at the stations, but you need an Indian number to receive the OTP.
Food was provided and service was comparable to economy class on a plane. Everything totally exceeded my expectations. This was “AC Chair Car” class, the equivalent of 1A.
Things took a very different turn at Agra Cantonment where we were supposed to board the train at 0235. When I was buying our next train ticket from Varanasi to Gaya, the agent was surprised that we were boarding the train at Agra that night because to his knowledge, there was no train stopping at Agra Cantonment that night. I showed him my ticket. He checked the latest information at Indian Railways, called an “insider” and confirmed that the route for our train 13240, had been changed! I checked my options at the 12Go.asia site where I booked the ticket and and it indicated no refund. I decided to catch the train on its new route.
The nearest station from which we could board the train on the new route was Bharatpur in Rajasthan! The departure time from Bharatpur was 2215. We had no time to lose. We boarded a taxi and rushed down to Bharatpur. Two hours later, we arrived at Bharatpur, well ahead of time. I presented my ticket at the counter and asked the ticket seller to issue me a new ticket so we could board the train at Bharatpur. The counter staff very rudely told me to go back to Agra Cantonment!
I told him that the train’s route had been changed and we could no longer board at Agra Cantonment.
“No change!” he snapped at me.
I was flabbergasted. Did we receive the wrong information from the agent at Agra and wasted our time and money on the 2-hour taxi ride? I contacted 12Go.asia and support staff seemed clueless as well. I tried to show evidence of the change in route to the ticket counter staff taken from the Indian Railways site and they curtly dismissed me with a “call enquiry”.
At this moment of despair, train no. 13240 suddenly appeared on the display screen. The agent at Agra was right. The ticket counter staff at Bharatpur were egregiously ignorant, shoddy, irresponsible and unprofessional. The alarming questions which crossed my mind were: 1. Why didn’t 12Go.asia inform us of the change in the train’s route? and 2. How could the ticket counter staff not know that the route has been changed and would be passing his station?
We went to the platform and I optimistically presumed that we could board with the original ticket since the ticket counter staff at the station was so unhelpful. Our troubles were not over yet. First, there was a delay of 1 hour 40 minutes (“inconvenience caused is deeply regretted”). Temperatures started to plunge. Then, there was a change of platform. We moved. Soon, it was 10 deg C. At midnight, the train was still nowhere to be seen. Another “deeply regretted” message. Finally, at 0030, the train pulled in. We boarded, quickly found our beds (2A sleeper) and went to bed.
Waking up at about 6am, we had to endure another 12 waking hours before the train finally pulled into Varanasi. Is it because the train had to travel slowly because of the fog? I don’t think so. Most of the delays happened at stations where arguments over the loading and unloading of goods took up many precious minutes.
We arrived dazed at Varanasi. Having wasted an entire day (and a good part of the evening) on the train, we couldn’t wait to check into our hotel for a good wash and rest.
Now for the next installment, Varanasi to Gaya. The train station was a hive of activity. The platform was crowded with hawkers, passengers who looked like they were prepared to camp.
Soon it was time and the dreaded but not totally unexpected announcement with “inconvenience caused deeply regretted” came. First, it was 1 hour, then, it was 2 hours. The delay stretched like a rubber band until we didn’t know whether it would be snap before the train arrived. After nearly 4 hours from the booked departure time, train 18104 finally pulled into the station.
The folks who did not seem to mind all this crappy service calmly boarded the train. It makes you wonder if such “patience” is a virtue or a major impediment towards progress.
Although we ought to be thankful to our agent at Agra for informing us of the change in route for 13240 Bharatpur-Varanasi, he had been less than honest with us with the ticket he sold to us. It was not a 2-tier sleeper. It was 3-tier SL Class. The 4 seats we booked from him were in separate cars and not the same car as he had promised. It was too late to strangle him. Not wishing to separate the family, we squeezed in with another family – with children who were presumed not to occupy any space on the train.
Apart from the decrepit condition of the car and the marginally civil behaviour of some of the passengers, the doorless toilet announced its presence in no uncertain terms. From the anxiety-filled 4-hour drag on a crowded, chaotic station platform, we got onto the train we’d been painfully waiting for to endure another 7 hours in a crammed and nauseating environment. The “fast train” which would only take 4 hours to go from Varanasi to Gaya was pure fiction. Curious faces of folks who deem all this as normal turned our way, wondering why we were looking so dazed and miserable.
How to make the experience more pleasant? If you’re with your family and you can afford a taxi, do consider it for short (200km) trips. For the longer train trips, start from the starting station like Delhi and book well in advance. These trains are seldom delayed and if you book early, you may be able to get a 1A seat/sleeper. Forget about creating your id with Indian Railways. I paid Rs 100 for their OTP by SMS and never got it. It took 3 emails before they replied saying that they would look into it and I received no reply after that. Try using the more reliable agents. If they ask you for a local Indian number, you can give them the number of the hotel where you’ll be staying.
For train seat/berth classifications, check out this link.