Our train travel experience in India

Jaisalmer Railway Station, India Jaisalmer Railway Station, India

On the whole, our train travel experience in India was excellent, unlike much of the rest of our journey. Trains ran pretty much on time, we were always booked into our berth without any issues, and it was reasonably comfortable. In fact, our travelling by train between our destinations was our little sanctuary away from the madness that is India. Some of that madness is great, but a lot of it is not nice at all, and in some cases it’s downright criminal.

Because we’ve got Jack, and are carrying a little bit more luggage than the average traveller, we were a little cramped at times. But if it’s just you and a pack you’ll be more than comfortable, and if you 175cm or shorter, you won’t even care which bed you’ve been allocated (TIP: make sure you pay a little extra and get beds for any long haul or overnight journey).

Jack and Chris on the top bunk of one of our berths

Jack and Chris on the top bunk of one of our berths

After finding out what we needed to know from the excellent railway travel website www.seat61.com, we decide the best course of action in getting train tickets for India is through an agency acting on our behalf. We were living in Thailand at the time, so we had to use an agency in London called SD Enterprises to sort out our tickets. You can contact them by email at info@indiarail.co.uk.

I fired off an email introducing ourselves, explaining where we wanted to visit, how long we had and the general direction I thought we should go, and asked for any advice they may have about our plans. They came back to us within 24 hours with an itinerary they thought would be best, which while going to the same places was considerably different, and how long they thought we should spend in each place. Their itinerary was much better, despite a bit of backtracking here and there, as it consisted of more overnight trips. This would save us both money from not having to stay in hotels on those nights, and time given we wouldn’t be travelling during the day.

They also sent us a form to fill out with details of travel dates and places, which we were to follow up with a call once they confirmed they had received our completed documentation by fax. This was so credit card details couldn’t be stolen in transit. However, they didn’t receive our fax so they accepted an emailed copy of our itinerary. We then called them, passed on our credit card details and the ball was rolling.

There was a bit of a delay and I had to follow up with an email a few days later to enquire about the progress on our tickets. Again, within 24 hours we’d received confirmation our tickets were ready for collection from their agent’s office in Delhi. This place was a little difficult to find, hidden on the third floor of a nondescript building in the Geetanjali Enclave, but we got there while site-seeing around Delhi and they were very friendly and helpful. It came to a total of approximately $AU450 for two second-class 15-day passes we could use anywhere in India (TIP: definitely pay a little extra and get second-class tickets, you’ll be thankful for the comfort). This included the cost of the tickets, and the services provided by SD Enterprises. We were happy to pay that little bit extra for great advice and the organisation of our bookings on each of our journeys from city to city. Given we’re travelling with Jack we would have preferred first-class tickets to ensure we had a private cabin, but these are only available on long-haul routes between major cities.

The process was easy enough, although there wasn’t exactly any warmth in the email correspondence from SD Enterprises. It was very clinical, just details of what we needed to do. I’d prefer a ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘have a safe trip’ included in the emails, but the most important thing was getting the job done properly and on that score they were first class. Although if I do have one suggestion, they should include clearer, more detailed information on potential scams tourists face at railway stations across India such as the one we faced head on at New Delhi Railway Station. You can read all about it HERE, but a word of warning for anyone reading this – DO NOT BELIEVE ANYONE TELLING YOU YOUR TRAIN HAS BEEN CANCELLED, or any other ‘information’ people outside the station may tell you. It is a scam, and if you have any doubts go into the station and seek information from an official railway station employee.

Here’s a recount of what happened on each of our trips during our 15-day stay:

NEW DELHI – AGRA (194km, 3 hours 40 minutes)

Agra Cantt Railway Station, India

Agra Cantt Railway Station, India

After making it to our train by the skin of our teeth, we made our way to our seats and settled in for the short journey to Agra. There was plenty of room for our bags which was a significant step up from our experience on Vietnamese trains in seated sections, and the seats were comfortable with enough room for Sarah, Jack and I on two seats.

After a few minutes of the train departing the station the attendants served tea and digestive cookies to everyone in the carriage. Not long after they served everyone a meal, either fried vegetable cutlets (vegetable croquets) with the worst chips and peas you’ve ever eaten, or a non-vegetable omelette. We didn’t know we had a choice so we took what we were given which were the cutlets, but if I had my time again I’d request the non-vegetable omelette when the meals arrived. Each meal was also served with two slices of bread with butter. This was actually a really pleasant surprise because in our rush to get to the station we hadn’t had any breakfast and we were all starving, Jack included. We thought we’d be able to buy food on board, but free meals were a huge bonus.

The third party company that provides this service on Indian trains is called Meals on Wheels, and our waiter was especially friendly and helpful. He served us with a smile, offered us friendly advice and helped us get Jack and our gear off the train. He asked for nothing in return so we gave him a decent tip. There’s a lesson to be learned by other Indians from the way this man treated us without any expectations.

We got off at Agra Cantt Railway Station and made our way straight out into the heaving throng of tuk tuk and taxi drivers yelling at anyone who came within earshot. We were ushered to the pre-paid taxi stand and we organised a ride to our hotel. It cost 250 rupees ($AU5), plus an unknown 10 rupee, for a non-air conditioned taxi (it was 300 rupees if you wanted air-conditioning). TIP: If you’re asked whether you want AC or not, say no because once you’re in the taxi the cab driver puts the AC on anyway. They don’t want to drive around in sweltering heat any more than you do. If they don’t you can always wind down the windows. We don’t know if we could have paid less for our taxi ride, but we were tired and just wanted to get to our hotel so we were happy to pay.

A strange part of the taxi ride was another official looking person jumping in the front seat for the ride to our hotel. He started explaining the sites you can see in Agra and passed a brochure with some information on it. It was obvious what was going on, so I glanced over the brochure for about two seconds before handing it back. Of course, as we got close to the hotel the hard sell started. Did we want a guide for our stay? Did we want to hire the taxi and driver for our stay? A good price for us was promised of course. Given the two scams we’d already been subjected to in the 72 hours we’d been in the country, we abruptly declined their offers and we didn’t hear any more of it.

AGRA – UDAIPUR (675km, 13 hours 5 minutes)

We arrived at Agra Cannt Railway Station about 75 minutes before our train was due to leave, so we made our way to platform two, found a space to lay down our belongings and waited for our train to arrive.

One of the many people selling food on station platforms

One of the many people selling food on station platforms

The wait was fascinating watching people go about their jobs, but at the same time slightly uncomfortable given the long stares we were subjected to from anyone who could see us. When a train stopped at the station hawkers selling food would make their way up and down the outside of the train serving passengers through the windows. Some hawkers would go onto the train and sell food to those who couldn’t be reached from outside. When the train left the station kids would jump onto the tracks and collect any plastic bottles that had been thrown from the windows, I assume (or hope) to sell at recycling depots, or more likely to refill with tap water and sell to unsuspecting tourists (TIP: never buy water in India unless the cap is sealed into place properly).

After one particular train stopped on our platform, a group of 5-6 guys hovered in our general vicinity staring at us for what seemed like about 15 minutes. They were clearly talking about us and they looked like the kind of guys who got up to no good in their spare time. One of the guys came over to take a look at Jack sleeping in his cot, but I caught him checking out our belongings while he was there. We have every compartment of our packs locked up tighter than Fort Knox, and all of our passports and money are in a small case that is permanently around my neck.

We boarded our train and made our way to our beds. Sarah and I were split up for this leg for some reason. We initially thought men and women couldn’t sleep together in the same area, but then we noticed men and women sleeping in opposite bunks so that’s clearly not the case. We didn’t mind, we were in the same carriage not too far from each other and perhaps they were the only two berths left in this class. Either way we settled into our spots for the night. Jack stayed with me and watched a few episodes of Peppa Pig on the iPad before he drifted off to sleep, while I watched a movie on my laptop.

Along one side of the carriage were compartments of four bunk beds, with walls separating the compartments and a curtain closing it off from the walkway. Along the other side were bunk beds lying longways against the carriage, with curtains closing them off from the walkway. They were decent enough, had all the space we needed to store our luggage safely, although the mattress was rather hard. I woke up several times during the night with sore hips, but sleeping with Jack who, despite being a quarter of my size, likes to take up three quarters of the bed didn’t help.

Train employees made their way up and down the aisles selling food and drink for a few hours after we got on board, but with the curtain drawn and them speaking Indian, I didn’t realise it was someone selling food until it was too late. They don’t check everyone to see if they’d like something, they race through the carriage so I missed out on buying dinner (TIP: unless you’re going to keep an eye out for food sellers, take your own). Needless to say I went to bed hungry having only eaten a tiny banana and a small biscuit since lunch.

We arrived in Udaipur about 30 minutes late which didn’t bother us, and we made our way outside the station into a much smaller, less aggressive group of taxi drivers. We wanted to get our bearings so we made our way through the throng to make sense of what was on offer. There was a pre-paid taxi area, however a nice tuk tuk driver offered to take us to our hotel for 80 rupees (after some gentle bartering) and we were on our way. It wasn’t much to pay for the 3km trip to our hotel and from our first impressions of Udaipur we knew it was going to be a much better stay than our time so far in Delhi and Agra.

UDAIPUR – JAIPUR (435 km, 7 hours 40 minutes)

One of the small top bunk beds on Indian trains

One of the small top bunk beds on Indian trains

We arrived at the train station at 5.30am with plenty of time to kill before our train departure time of 6.00am. Udaipur is the end of the line and our train was the first to leave for the day so it was waiting there for us. We boarded, found our seats, put our bags in the overhead racks and settled in for the long trip to Jaipur.

We wondered before boarding whether we’d be served any breakfast like we were on the train from Delhi to Agra. We brought some bread with us, along with bananas and peanut butter so we could make some sandwiches, and of course bottles of water, but we were hoping for something else we could buy. Unfortunately there was no sign of food at all on board the train for the whole trip.

A couple of hours into the journey we stopped at a station for about 10 minutes, in which time a lot of passengers got off the train to buy food and drink. We were starving so I got off to get some supplies for us, anything packaged for Sarah and Jack because she still wasn’t feeling the best and doesn’t trust the food anyway, and something more substantial for me.

I made my way to the food stall and it was literally every man for themselves. I stood there waiting my turn to be served, but that doesn’t seem to be the way it works here. Others were pushing their way in front of me, shouting their order while holding money in their outstretched hands. I think the stallholder took pity on me when he started ignoring the others and sold me a few packets of chips and some biscuits. I took them back to Sarah and Jack and went out for a second go. This time I ordered some of the cooked food sitting in a huge bowl on the stall’s front bench. I had no idea what they were, but I bought four anyway and a cup of masala tea. I took them onto the train, ate my first bite, and was relieved to see they were some sort of curried vegetable ball. I Hoovered them in no time at all, and washed them down with the delicious sweet masala tea.

Jack made friends with a girl seated opposite us, and they spent a couple of hours dancing in the aisles, jumping up and down and playing games on Sarah’s iPad. It’s a long, very uneventful trip so I watched two movies on my laptop, finished a couple of articles for the website and created a video about our stay in Udaipur.

A couple of hours after our first extended stop we did the same at another station so the passengers could stock up on food and drink. I guess that’s how it’s done here, no food service inside the train, but regular stops to buy what you need from stallholders at the station platforms. While we were at this station a young boy came past on his hands and knees, sweeping the floor then stopping at each row of seats begging for money. It’s so hard to see that sort of extreme poverty, particularly when there is so much of it, and it put into sharp focus the hardship tens of millions of Indians face on a daily basis.

We arrived in Jaipur and were immediately set upon by a taxi driver who, for some reason when told we needed to call our hotel who were sending someone to pick us up, wanted to help us. He offered to call the Pearl Palace Hotel from his mobile phone, but as I was reading out the phone number I sneaked a look at his phone and saw the numbers he was entering were slightly wrong. A smile crept across my face, but I wanted to play along to see how far it would go. At the moment he was about to ‘dial’ our ride appeared bearing a sign with ‘Appleford’ written on it. The expression on our ‘helpful’ taxi driver’s face was priceless, and the crowd of others who had gathered to watch him ‘help us’ (I assume were also taxi drivers) burst into laughter. It was a great way to start our visit to Jaipur.

JAIPUR – JAISALMER (613 km, 11 hours 30 minutes)

A far more subdued platform at Jaisalmer

A far more subdued platform at Jaisalmer

We arrived at Jaipur Railway Station at around 11.15pm to make sure we weren’t late for our 11.45pm train to Jaisalmer. We needn’t have worried as our train didn’t arrive until 12.15pm and on a different platform to the one it was supposed to arrive at. But there were a few others waiting for the same train who informed us of the change which was very nice of them.

As the train arrived we looked on the side of each carriage for our number, HA1. We spotted it go past and made our way there quickly as you never quite know how long the train will be stopping for. What you don’t want is the train to start going if you haven’t got your child, pram and everything you’re carrying on first. It wouldn’t be a problem if it was just Sarah and I, the trains take off slowly and most people don’t start getting on until the train starts to leave. Having Jack means we need to be a little more careful than that because trying to get Jack and everything on a moving train would be much more difficult!

We boarded carriage HA1 and quickly discovered we were on the wrong one. We couldn’t find our name on the manifest taped to the outside of the train near the door, and beds 11 and 12 weren’t there for us anyway. So we raced off the train and asked a couple of official looking guys where we were meant to be. They pointed down to the opposite end of the train which must have been about 100 metres long. So we made our way very quickly to where we were supposed to be. Apparently the front half of the train was to be detached at a station along the way and continue on its journey, while the half of the train we were supposed to be in would continue on to Jaisalmer. Sounds a bit crazy to have two carriages on the same train called HA1, but that’s the way it is.

We made it to our carriage with a minute or two to spare and quietly made our way to our beds. Trying to store our belongings and make our beds while keeping Jack quiet so as not to wake up fellow passengers was tough, but we did a reasonable job and we were all soon into our beds. This time Sarah and I were in bunk beds together, as opposed to being separated like on the journey from Agra to Udaipur. However we were in beds that run parallel to the train which are smaller than those groups of four bunks that run perpendicular to the train on the other side of the aisle. As such I had a shocking night sleep trying to make sure Jack had enough room to get a good sleep. After all, I’d rather spend the following day tired with Jack well rested than the other way around. Travelling through India with a tired child, especially in the desert of Jaisalmer, would not be fun.

We woke up the following morning to the sound of train staff selling breakfast through each carriage. I’m not sure what was on offer, but we think it was fried vegetable balls (which are quite delicious), soup and chai. However we’d stocked up on Corn Flakes, Muesli and milk at the supermarket the day before because we had no idea whether breakfast would be available.

We were due to arrive in Jaisalmer at 11.15am, so I watched a movie and finished off our video from our time in Jaipur, while Sarah and Jack played for a while then caught up on some more sleep. Despite our late start from Jaipur we arrived in Jaisalmer right on time. We got off the train and the platform was calm with not a tuk tuk or taxi driver in sight. The station was open air and the sky was so blue, I thought we might be able to enjoy a relaxing stay here. We exited the station and were immediately surrounded by six drivers all shouting at us to get in their tuk tuk. So much for our relaxing stay in Jaisalmer! It really was ridiculous the scene these guys were making, and if I could I wouldn’t have chosen any of them. But it was hot, our guesthouse was 2kms away and we had to get a ride. So I just pointed at one guy and we were off.

JAISALMER – JODHPUR (301 kms, 5 hours 10 minutes)

The narrow aisle of an Indian train

The narrow aisle of an Indian train

Because Jaisalmer is the end of the line, the train was there waiting for us when we arrived at the station at about 4.30pm for our 5.15pm departure. I’m not quite sure why we keep getting to railway stations so early, it was only a five minute tuk tuk ride from our hotel yet here we were, once again wasting time sitting on a platform with nothing to do.

We boarded and discovered we had the top bunks opposite each other. Without a child this would be the ideal situation as you can escape what is going on at ground level, even though it’s only a metre or two away. However when you’re travelling with a child both of us having a top bunk isn’t great. Ideally at least one of us should have the bottom bunk, because the last thing we want is for Jack to roll off in the middle of the night. But we got our selves set up so he was wedged in the top corner of the bed and my legs were stopping him from moving far at all, let alone off the bed.

It was late when arrived in Jodhpur, around 11.00pm due to a delay on the way. The train was cruising, presumably on time, when all of a sudden there was a continuous almighty noise emanating from what appeared to be right under our carriage. After about 45 seconds the train came to a stop, and we noticed the train was on a considerable lean to one side. I got chatting to an English guy as people started to disembark, and we thought perhaps we’d derailed. Although I wasn’t 100% sure because from what I’ve seen in movies train derailments usually end in disaster!

After five or so minutes I decided to get off and see what was going on. It was obvious we hadn’t derailed, we were simply on a bend and the train was leaning naturally with the curve of the tracks. There were plenty of people shining torches under the train, trying to find the cause of the noise. There was no one looking under the carriage next to ours, so I fired up the torch on my iPhone and took a look. Immediately I could see what looked like a tree trunk or huge branch had wedged itself up underneath the train. I thought maybe a tree had fallen onto the tracks and the driver didn’t have time to stop before running over it. But on closer inspection I noticed blood, then it became clear what I was looking at, the mutilated remains of a cow that was either standing or sleeping on the tracks when the train collided with it. It was almost unrecognisable, and I was trying to make out what each bit was when another Indian guy saw that I’d found the problem. He in turn shouted something in Hindi down the line and all of a sudden a large group of men were staring at the remains of the cow wedged under the train. I left the scene and returned to my carriage while they got to work removing the carcass so we could continue on our way.

The rest of the trip was again fairly uneventful. Because we weren’t stopping at any major stations on the way, railway staff were selling food for the first few hours of our journey. The options were fairly limited – deep fried curried vegetable balls, some sort of soup, and chai of course – so if you fancy something more than that make sure you’re prepared and bring it with you.

We arrived about 30 minutes later than expected and made our way out of the station. Because of the late hour there wasn’t a heaving throng of drivers yelling at us to get in their tuk tuk. We made our way down the stairs and noticed one tuk tuk driver yelling aggressively at another. When we got to the bottom he asked us if we’d like a ride somewhere, but given what we’d just witnessed we declined his offer. Instead another guy approached us and given the late hour I started the process of getting the best price for our journey. We settled on 150 rupees which I thought was a little steep, but we just wanted to get out of there. Before we left I had to fire up the laptop to find out where we were staying so the driver knew where to go. There were a few dodgy looking people standing around and I felt uncomfortable doing it given it was almost midnight, but I had no choice if we wanted to get to our bed for the night.

When I showed our driver where we were going, he tried to talk us into going to a different hotel. It’s a common trick, they get a kickback for every customer they bring to their hotel. But we’d already booked and we knew where we wanted to go, so off we went. I didn’t like our driver almost from the start, there was just something about him that seemed no quite right. Our journey took us down some dark and seedy looking back alleys, and I was thinking we were being set up for something bad. He couldn’t find where we were supposed to be going, then he stopped and pointed to a hotel about 50 metres down the alley. I got out with Jack to see if it was the right place, leaving Sarah alone in the tuk tuk with all of our gear. I made sure I kept an eye on Sarah while sussing out the hotel, the name of which turned out to be nothing like the name of our hotel. Another hotel for him to earn a commission perhaps? He could tell I was getting angry, so he tried to reassure us he’d find our place. He asked someone where our hotel was who said it was up the alleyway where we’d stopped, but we’d have to get out and walk because the tuk tuk couldn’t fit up there. He then said he had a room at his hotel which coincidentally happened to be right there, but we’d had enough of being scammed so bluntly told him we weren’t interested and told our tuk tuk driver to get us to our hotel. About 30 seconds later, totally unsurprisingly of course given how many times people have tried to be scam us on this trip, we were outside our hotel. It’s amazing what happens when you lose the politeness and just tell people in no uncertain terms what you want.

The guy who met us at the hotel was brilliant for us, making us feel so comfortable as we told him about the journey we’d just endured. He said unfortunately that sort of thing happens all the time, and because they don’t pay tuk tuk drivers commissions to bring tourists to their hotel, they always try and talk people into staying somewhere else. Incredibly the tuk tuk driver came by the following morning seeking a commission for bringing us there the night before. How about the nerve of this guy? Never mind that we’d booked and paid for the room online, and he’d tried to take us to two other hotels. So the hotel guy told him to go away and seek a commission from the hotels he’d tried to take us to.

JODHPUR TO DELHI (620 kms, 10 hours 5 minutes)

We left our hotel at around 7.10pm and were at the station not 10 minutes later to catch our 7.50pm train to Delhi. It was the final train trip we were to take on our whirlwind visit to the north of India and we couldn’t wait to get on our plane to Dubai.

We stocked up on water and snacks before boarding the train that was waiting at the platform for us. We carried all of our belongings into the narrow walkways and found our beds. Jack and I were on the shorter, lengthwise bed right next to the entrance to our carriage, while Sarah was bunking into one of the four berth areas with an elderly couple and another guy. We were right opposite each other so there were no issues with being separated, and Sarah could make sure Jack was safe and sound. We jammed our packs underneath my bed, and hung the various backpacks and bags we had from the pegs next to our beds.

One good thing abut sleeping with Jack in the bed next to the entrance is there’s no bunk above. You have the whole area to yourself. Another benefit is there’s a partition between where the door swings open and the bed, providing an enclosed area where Jack could sleep at my feet without any danger of him rolling out of bed.

Again there were food options to purchase throughout the evening and the following morning. I’m not sure what they were, I didn’t check, but the containers looked the same as those on the other trains, which means chai, soup and deep fried curried vegetable balls were on the menu. But that’s just a guess.

As the train made its way into Delhi, Sarah and I noticed the terrible conditions people live in next to the train tracks. These were proper slums, with the poverty and lack of hygiene abundantly clear. We hadn’t noticed it quite like this from the window of any of our other train journeys, so this was a real eye opener. People were lined up just a few metres apart for large portions of the track going to the toilet, squatting in full view of the passengers. It’s simply an every day part of their lives, and a few prying eyes from within a passing train isn’t going to stop them going about their business.

We arrived in Delhi a few minutes late but with plenty of time to get to the International Airport to catch our plane to Dubai. We exited the station into yet another heaving mass of taxi drivers yelling at us to use their services. As usual you can’t choose who you want because you’re literally surrounded by 10 people, and all you can do is randomly pick someone and agree on a price. We chose a guy and agreed to pay 300 rupees, but he turned out to be just a guy who gets passengers for the actual tuk tuk driver. We loaded our gear and all of a sudden, as though it was a throw away line we wouldn’t notice, said the price was 350 rupees. I’d had about enough of this sort of thing, so I told him we’d agreed on a price and if he didn’t like it we were getting out. As he was starting to argue back, I got out and started unloading our gear. It’s only a difference of $AU1, but this sort of thing happens all day every day. He saw that I was serious and agreed the price was 300 rupees, so we got back into the tuk tuk. The tuk tuk driver handed over some sort of commission to the guy and he was off to try and rip off some other unsuspecting tourist. But we were on our way to the airport and that’s all that mattered to us!

Overall, our train travel experience in India was excellent. There was generally food available, whether from a train employee or at stations where you stop for at least 10 minutes. The beds were reasonably comfortably, and if it’s just you and a pack you’ll be more than happy. And it was an escape from the chaos and noise that surrounds you every day on the streets of India. Just watch out for scams, if the information looks and sounds too good to be true, it almost definitely it is. Or if it’s coming from someone outside the station and not from an official employee inside a station, it is definitely a scam of some sort. Be very aware of what’s going on at all times.

For all of your travel needs and information anywhere in the world, we strongly recommend you check out www.seat61.com. It is without doubt the best source of train travel information on the net!

2 Comments on Our train travel experience in India

  1. I am headed to India soon and am glad to have found this post. There are lots of useful tips here, thanks!
    Katie @WorldWideVegetarian.com recently posted…Washington, D.C.’s National HarborMy Profile

    • Thanks Katie, and good luck with your Indian adventure. Just keep your wits about you, if someone is being friendly to you, it’s not because they want to be your friend, it’s because they want your money. Make sure you read our articles on getting scammed in India too.

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