India might have a lot to work on in its education sector, but its railway system is an impressive feat. Can you imagine trying to connect 1 billion people via public transit? These days, I can get a comfortable sleeper seat on an express train from Bangalore all the way up to New Delhi for 2000 rupees (that’s like going from Chicago to Billings for 50 bucks). People also fly more these days, but I admit, I really enjoy taking the trains.
This little subcontinent has so many railway stations, train types, car types, and groupings, you’ll feel your head spinning before you’re finished. In my short time in India, I have experienced maybe 5 of the 7 available ticket types, so I thought I’d share my thoughts for anyone trying to understand how I travel or trying to navigate the system.
First rule: for long trips or any trip you can foresee happening in the future, you should book right now. Train tickets become available as early as 90 days ahead of time, so everything is already sold for Diwali and Christmas tickets are about to disappear too.
That said, the railway system holds 25% of tickets for “Tatkal” or last minute purchase, that become available 2 days before departure, and 10% of tickets are held as emergency (which are sold at the end, and usually given to tourists…”Tourist” is another such grouping that allows foreigners to break the 60-90 day norm and buy tickets when they travel, since its not likely they have an Indian credit card). I, however, am not a tourist (research student doesn’t count), so I’ll be booking my holiday plans this week.
Next there are AC and non AC cars. When I was little, it was normal to take non AC and only the rich took air-conditioned cars. Now, most of the middle class travel AC. But, for short trips, many travel non-AC. The important distinction between the two groupings is not the availability of air conditioning or not –its actually the amount of crowdedness. Non-seat holders are allowed to board nonAC compartments, but only those with a seat can board the AC cars.
The types of tickets:
- No reservation- you boldly board without a seat and plan to stand until you can claim a bit of bench
- Non-AC Seater- you have a seat on a bench and you defend your space against the “no reservation” ticket holders
- AC class seater- A comfortable seat, free from chaos…great for day trains. Reminds me of seats you find in European trains or fancy US commuter trains.
- Sleeper- No A/C. No privacy. Sleeper benches, great for overnights. You get your own bed. Ticket holders without reservation are allowed to board this car.
- Sleeper 3AC- 3 tier sleeper class. Try for the top bunk.
- Sleeper 2AC- 2 tier bunks.
- Sleeper 1AC- I have no clue what this looks like, and personally, its probably not worth the cash.
Seater Class: In my short month, I have gone “No Reservation” many times between Kuppam and Bangalore. The ticket is 60 rupees, which is actually cheaper than the Rickshaw ride I am able to take once I am in the city (compare, traveling 100 km vs. 5-10). When I have this ticket, I wear a salwaar, pack only a small bag, and just push onto a bench like its completely natural to wedge myself in with 5-6 other people. As a woman, people tend to give me a seat once something clears up, so I don’t usually stand for more than an hour. But these cars are crowded! It wouldn’t be a problem, except that the chai, dosa, vada-wallas all insist on pushing through the packed aisles to sell railway food. That makes standing in the narrow aisle complicated. When I purchase a seat ahead of time, I ask for a window seat, to avoid the crowded aisles.
Seater A/C is probably one of my favorite choices for day traveling. A bit more pricey than the seater (200 rupees for the same journey), but I can feel myself breathe, think, and sit more easily. Its not the same people watching scene as non-AC, but I admit my one experience on it has me hooked.
Sleeper class is actually relatively comfortable in Karnataka. The weather here is not so muggy or hot, so the breeze from the windows is sufficient for great views and a pleasant night’s sleep. But, you have to book this ticket early. Railway tickets go on sale up to 90 days advance of a journey, and believe me within 80 days, you’ll start finding yourself on the waitlist. Also, I have found this car to have many beggars squeezing on and off trains. Unfortunately, I never get used to the kids and sadly amputated figures I come across. I’m gonna start keeping cookies in my purse to hand them –who knows where the money goes, but you can always hope food goes somewhere useful.
Sleeper 3AC or 2 AC is probably the best choice for long journeys (20-40 hour routes). Its easier to move around, there are power outlets next to bunks to plug into, and you won’t be hassled by anyone. I took this from Pondi to Bangalore and it was a smooth travel. I’ll be taking it again to Delhi in a few weeks too