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Saturday, July 31, 2010

The India Railway Trains---Coach Configuration

The Engine

Well, it’s in the front with the driver and his assistant! The guard at the tail end of the train is the person in charge of the train. Indian trains run on diesel or electricity, depending on the route.

Second Class (General Compartment)

2 to 4 coaches in a train, usually 2 just behind the engine and 2 at the end of the train. You need not have any reservations for traveling in second class. You can buy tickets from the counter at the railway station, even when the train is standing at the platform ready for departure.

Second class is the cheapest way to travel on the India railway system for me. For less than $10.00 USD, for example, you can travel about 3,000 kilometers (yes, three thousand!) from Trivandrum to New Delhi. The only catch is that there are no seat reservations. No sleeping berths either, so you would have to sleep sitting up for 2 nights.

If you do manage to get a seat, there is no guarantee that you can hold on to it. You need to keep your luggage, or any other personal object, on the seat when you go to toilet or walk around the train. An empty seat is open for anyone, including you, to occupy!

The facilities for second class on the India railway system are a bare minimum: food is available from the vendors; there are four squat-type toilets with water attached to each coach; fans are provided; two washbasins are also available at both the ends of the train.

Tip: bring a small chain and a padlock to secure your luggage beneath a seat or over the luggage rack.

Depending on the season or route, the second class on the Indian train may get overcrowded. I’ve traveled many times in this class during the peak India travel season, and a couple of times I had to breathe through my neighbor’s nose! The coaches get especially crowded during the Indian summer season, and there is a large passenger overflow into second class from other classes due to the overbooking of reservation.

You will see the poorest class of Indian people in these compartments, but if you want to get a feel for the "raw India", then traveling in the second class is the best bet. The people are generally accommodative, and are more than happy to talk to strangers. A foreigner will surely generate a lot of curiosity.

You take definitely the first step in striking up a conversation, but use your common sense and good judgment to assess the situation. You will know they are interested when they bombard with you with a lot of curious questions. Be prepared to answer a lot of personal questions! Some standard questions you will be asked on your India travel journey are "Where you are coming from? What is your profession? How much you earn a month?". Your answers will lead to additional questions! Don’t be offended by the personal nature of the questions. This is how people in India socialize. Surprisingly, they may not ask your name. They think this is too personal a question to be asked!

An average Indian has an infinite number of questions to ask. Don’t be offended. This is how the Indian culture is. Asking questions is not considered impolite. My advice is to roll with it, rather than fighting it or getting upset.

A poor Indian is of the impression that all western tourists are infinitely rich, and that they have more money they know what to do with it. Otherwise why would they travel around the country and waste a lot of good money? Even the well-to-do Indians share the same opinion.

Second Class Sleeper Compartment

The sleeper class in the India railway system is the main chunk of a typical express train. Each coach holds about 72 passengers, with about 10 to 15 coaches per train.

You will need a reservation to travel in this class of the Indian train. Reservations can be made 60 days prior to your journey at the most. Once reserved, your name will be listed on the chart stuck next to your coach’s door outside. A copy of the same is displayed at the departing station “Reservation Chart” notice board about an hour before the departure. The coaches are indexed as S1,S2,S3, and so on. Lookout for a square white paper label stuck on the side of the door with the coach number marked on it. The same is also printed on your ticket. Most of the stations have a notice board indicating the position of the coaches from the engine. If this is not displayed, ask the staff at the railway station for your coach. Try to locate your coach prior to the arrival of your train so that you can avoid the mad-tourist dash up and down the length of the train with your huge backpack.

Bring your own bedroll for the II class sleeper travel. A thick blanket and an air pillow is not a bad idea.

The middleclass massed of India travel by this class. Next to your seat will, in all probability, be a newly married Tamil couple who will speak reasonably good English, an old lady who is not very happy with you to begin with, her middle-aged daughter who speaks Hindi only, and her inquisitive young boy who want to know everything about you.

For a budget traveler Second Class sleeper is THE most suitable mode of transport.

The seats in the second class sleeper are grouped into semi-private sections of 6 seats - 3+3 facing each other, with upper berths, middle berths, and lower berths. The lower berth is the primary seating for the passengers during daytime. Seats in the second class convert into sleeper berths at night. Don’t get offended if an older passenger asks you to exchange your lower berth with his upper berth. Generally, younger people consent to this as a courtesy to the senior passenger.

The upper berth on the Indian train is undisturbed and can be used for sleeping during the daytime as well. Lower berth passenger gets the window seats during the daytime, although generally you will see a lot of co-operation among the "6 member berth family" in berth-swapping.

On the other side of the walkway is a row of ‘’Side Berths”. These are twin seats facing each other. If you are taller than 5.5 feet, though, these side berths are going to be a little short for you to sleep on. But both of these seats are window seats and you won’t trouble the other passengers when getting up walking around, like the trouble created for the mid and aisle passengers sitting in a row during an airplane flight.

Try to avoid, if possible, the first and last 16 seats of the 72 seats in each coach on the Indian train, as they are close to the doors and toilets. You may be annoyed by the traffic near the door and toilets, just like the last row in an airplane. The light that stays on at night at these sections of the compartment might also annoy you.

Chains are provided by the India railway to secure your baggage, but bring your own padlock. Your luggage can be pushed under the seat.

AC 3-Tier Sleeper (3A)

This is the air-conditioned version of the Second Class Sleeper. Most of the express trains have about 2 to 3 coaches of this type. This class is more comfortable than the Second Class Sleeper and is also a bit more spacious. The windows are tinted glass and do not open. You might not be able to enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of the scenery as you pass by like you would in the Second Class Sleeper.

Ticket prices are fairly reasonable as well. For about $34 USD you can travel about 3,000 kilometer from Trivandrum to New Delhi in this class. I recommended this class if you wish to travel in a bit more comfort, and especially during the summer. Bedrolls are available inside the coach free of cost. Most of the facilities are comparable with the Sleeper Class, though.

Here again, you will find the Indian middle class as your co-passengers.

Don’t get upset if someone requests to share the magazine you have been reading. This is a very common practice in Indian trains. After reading a magazine, if you have kept it beside you, someone might just take it to have a look. And it will be passed from person to person in the compartment without your permission. The magazine will experience a trip around the compartment and be returned to you in due time.

With a newspaper, the story is even more dramatic. If you are reading the news headline, someone will hold the middle papers and pull it gently... you are expected to release your tight hold so that he can pull out the middle section of the newspaper easily. This, by the way, is treated as absolutely courtesy! Here too, the newspaper will travel in loose sections and comeback to you after a well read tour.

Generally people won’t request your books for reading. If you are a ‘selfish’ person, keep your magazine inside your bag immediately after you read it.

AC 2-Tier sleeper (2A)

You will find the well-to-do Indian traveler in these coaches. This is a good place for those who don’t want to join the crowd, or prefer a more luxurious trip. All the facilities available in SL is available here also. At a cost of about $48 USD you can travel about 3000 kilometer from Trivandrum to New Delhi in this class.

Bedrolls are available inside the coach, free of cost. Like in any other air-conditioned coaches, you can’t enjoy the outside view due to the dark window glass. Tell that coach attendant to reduce the CHILL if you feel you are inside a freezer with berths and wheels!

The AC 2-Tier Sleeper is found on many of the express trains in the Indian Railway system, and is more luxurious than the 3A.

First Class AC (1A)

The First Class air-conditioned class is the highest luxury class in the India railway system for the regular routes. The cost is roughly comparable with the economy class airfare. For about $150.00 USD, you can travel from Trivandrum to Delhi on the India railway system in this class. A number of the important long-distance routes along the Indian railways have these coaches. You’ll find the elite class of Indians and business executives traveling in this class.

On a side note, I once met a businessman on this class on a train, who informed me that he was afraid of flying, and therefore traveled only by train. Being a private compartment, you can travel days without even making eye contact with your other co-passengers. India travelers tend to mind their own business on these coaches, busy with the usual stuff - the newspaper reading, staring at the laptop screen, acting sleepy, etc. I have noticed this contrast between the First and Second or Third class on the Indian train in almost all of my India train journeys. Someone explained this to me as it being the product of the physical distances in the luxury classes. In a Sleeper class you are more physically close to the co-passengers and this increases the drive to interact with others.

AC Chair Car (CC)

The AC Chair Car is generally attached only to the day-running trains on the India railway system. They look more like an economy-class seat on a plane, although with a little wider seat seating. It cost slightly less than the 3A. It’s alright for a decent day’s travel. Many express trains that run day routes on the India railway system have this class.

First Class (FC)

This is the legacy first class coach. Only a few meter gauge express trains on the Indian railways have this class . This is similar to the First Class AC, except that it’s not air-conditioned! The cost for a ticket is between the cost for a Second Class AC and Third Class AC ticket. It’s spacious, although you will need to inform the station in charge prior to boarding the train for a bedroll. The bedrolls go for approximately Rs 20.00 per bedroll.

There are a number of special trains called the Rajdhani (meaning "capital") and the Shatabdi (meaning "centenary") Express, which are among the fastest passenger trains on the India railway system. These trains only have the luxury class coaches. The Rajdhani Express runs between Delhi and many important cities. The Shatabdi Express runs between most important cities. The Shatabdi is a day running train with no sleeping berths. The India domestic flights and airlines are their main rivals.

Break Van - Luggage on the India Railway System

These are the luggage vans that are attached at the ends of each trains. If you have any oversized luggage, like a bicycle, motorbike, or camping equipment, you can store it away in this compartment.

Luggage does not have to be booked while making your reservation on the India railway system. Just make sure you arrive at the boarding station a bit earlier than the departure time states, and book your luggage in the break van. The Luggage Office is located near the train platform. You will need to show your ticket as proof that you are traveling on the same train. Make sure you go personally to the break van to supervise the loading and unloading of your luggage. This will help you avoid any missing luggage.

You are given a free allowance of 35kg for second class, 40kg for Second Class Sleeper and Third Class AC Sleeper, 50kg for Second Class AC Sleeper, and 70kg for First Class AC. You can usually go over by 10kg or so before they charge you for the extra.

Note: You will need to pay the additional charge if your luggage amount is more than the free allowance, whether or not you store it in the luggage van.

Pantry Car

Most of the long distance trains on the India railway system have this facility. The pantry car serves meals, snacks, coffee, tea (chai), and cool drinks. "Room service" is available, where the wait staff brings your order to your seat, although you can go the pantry car and order your meals directly. You will need to pay for what you buy.

The menu is basically vegetarian, although egg omelets are served. Chicken curry and other non-vegetarian dished are available at the stations for about a $1 per person. Prices are slightly higher for food than the local restaurants charge, but the food is pretty decent on an express train.

The India Railway toilets

The toilets on the India railway system are more or less similar for all the classes. Each coach is typically equipped with 4 toilets - 1 western style toilet, and 3 squat-style Indian toilets. Carry your toilet paper, though. Interestingly, the squat-type is more hygienic on a train, but using one of them on a running train requires some experience. The squat-style toilet in an Indian train is basically a stainless steel basin installed on the floor, with footrests on either side. Be careful with small articles like spectacles, purses, toiletries, etc, as these can easily fall down the drain if accidentally dropped on to the toilet floor. Once, I’ve lost a bunch of keys when they accidentally fell from my pocket. Also, don’t forget to collect all your items if you choose to leave them over the small shelf fitted inside the toilet near the mirror. Unlike in the west you can use the toilet even when the train is at the stations. No one locks up them while the train is at the station.

There are two latches for the toilet. One is a twin latch that can be opened and closed from both inside and outside. The other can be operated only from the inside. Lock this one when you are inside and leave the other one open. This gives the indication from outside that it is occupied. The toilets with the twin latch in the closed position are the unoccupied ones.

Early mornings are a bit crowded at the toilets. You use the washbasin located outside the toilet for brushing your teeth and washing your face.

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