I’m not a die hard train aficionado, but I do really enjoy riding on them. We relied on trains to get us from city to city in the Northern leg of this trip, andÂ one particular train rideÂ was a key part of the itinerary. Quite a lot of my pre-trip research and planning involved learning enough about the India Rail system to be able to plan routes and book tickets in advance. That process was quite a saga, and it provided a bit of a preview of the Indian experience.
The train system is run by the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, and is impressive in many respects. Just that name is instructive; the Catering portion refers to the fact that literally millions of meals, not to mention snacks and cups of chai, are served on Indian trains daily. They are the largest public sector employer in the world with about 1.5 million employees. Their online reservation system is also the largest in the world. There are nearly 7,000 train stations. A staggering 15 to 20 million people take a train journey in IndiaÂ every day.Â All this adds up to a truly impressive feat of logistics and day-to-day operations.
I’ve mentioned the frustrations of dealing with dishonest touts and aggressive cab drivers when getting in and out ofÂ theÂ train stations. Once you’re inside, though, it’s pretty smooth sailing. The stations had good signs, more or less consistent layouts, and generally pretty clean (the tracks were another matter). The larger stations were like tiny towns unto themselves, with bookshops, sweet shops, snack bars, men selling fruit, shoeshine boys and luggage zipper repairmen.
And then there’s the journey itself. We found riding the trains to be pretty comfortable overall. Now granted, we were always in air-conditioned coaches with reserved seating. Our trains were mostly on time, and running smoothly. Complimentary hot meals are provided on the longer routes, and they were not bad, which surprised us a bit. On shorter trips, there was a steady stream of vendors walking up and down the length of the train, ready to sell you a ‘bread omelette’Â (an omelette served between two pieces of bread), a cup of chai, tomato soup, or some ice cream.
Our train rides also gave us the opportunity to meet people and have longer conversations: a teacher returning from a conference, a couple traveling with their two young daughters for a vacation in Shimla, and a pair of newlyweds visiting family members before moving to Canada. So, if you visit India, I can heartily recommend traveling by train. Use your common sense and the kind of precautions you’d take on public transportation anywhere, and enjoy the ride and the people you meet.