To Chennai (& other places) : Indian Railways - let the train take the strain

Chennai Travel Blog

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Indian Railways - a legend and an institution.

Spend enough time in India and you are bound to make use of a breathtaking variety of modes of transport.  But if you wish to get that 1,350 kilometres from A to B (or from Kolkata to Chennai as in my case today) in relative comfort without riddling your dreams with potholes on a bone-shaking, bed-bug infested night bus then your only choice has to be the two-tone blue armada of the Indian Railways network.  It's a travel cliché in itself and a truth to claim that you haven't really travelled in India until you've taken to her rails.

The Indian railway network is the stuff of 'modern' infrastructure legend and the only much crumpled from over-usage trump card we Brits bashfully pull out of our sleeves when we defensively claim 'look we did some good things for the country too!'  True enough but we'll set moral and historical debate aside for today I think.

Seated 2nd class carriage. Fine enough for daytime travel.
  It's an interesting fact to observe though that India's railway network represents the biggest recorded peace time (ahem...yes, always an interesting phrase that one!) financial outlay of any colonial power on another nation's infrastructure in history.  Of course this wasn't a strange and expensive bout of colonial philanthropy but rather designed to expedite Britain's extraction of India's resources.  Ironic then that its onerous costs coupled with the economic double-whammy of World War One and latterly World War Two helped push Britain into national bankruptcy.  Not to mention it helping all those nice Indian National Congress politicos and some bloke called Gandhi zip with never-before-known ease around the country whipping up 'Quit India' fervour - both of these situations in the end actually expediting Indian independence and the end of Empire as was then known.
'Stripes' (Red trains are rarer than the typical blue and tend to denote local inner-city lines.

Before your train even arrives ( and 'we regret for any inconvenience' but it may not do so for some time) India's train stations represent a world of travel observation and experience in their own rights.  They are 24 hour meccas and madhouses of human migration and activity.  Also they will often be the finest or most grandiloquent piece of architecture a particular town or city has to offer.  Though I haven't seen it with me own eyes, Asia's largest train station Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai (or Victoria Terminus as it was christened in 1887, 117 years before becoming an UNESCO World Heritage Site) looks an absolute corker!  Rather oddly bucking the trend, both New Delhi and Old Delhi stations are dismal to say the least.
Baba on board.

Inside, once the benches and waiting rooms are overrun whole families and temporary communities set up camp on the platforms, suitcases, metal chests and bulging bags and bundles set up as perimeter fencing.  Only snacks and mobile phones allowed to breach the outer ring.  The floors of the entrance ways, main halls and platforms are often covered in shawl or sari-wrapped slumbering forms stretched out almost any time of the day.  Sometimes looking disturbingly like dressed corpses left unattended.  And given the withered and suffering-whittled forms of human beings who often hover in the shadows of India’s stations when they’re not bumming a few pity-passed Rupees, such an advent would not surprise me.  

In the meantime, whilst waiting, grab yourself a magazine.  The India Today, : 2009 Sex Survey edition ‘The Fantasy Report’ for 25 Rupees - ‘Hey!  I’m just trying to keep my finger(s) on the cultural pulse for you guys here okay! Research.
  Ya know!’
  Then stock up on mineral water, Parle G or Hide ’n’ Seek choco-chip cookies ( train travel in India having bequeathed me an addiction to the latter), Lays crisps or a nibble of any one of the ad-hoc, usually fried snacks - only though the ones your expert eye feels are least likely to have you dashing for the splatter hole ten minutes out of town.  Oh, and why not, for 2 Rupees I’m just gonna weigh myself on one of the peculiar LED Catherine-wheel style machines ( product of Lunna Scales Co of New Delhi) that populate every single one of India’s stations offering you statistics and sage words.  The tiny little card dispensed today informs me that ’Everyone is the son of his own works’ and that I weigh 52 kilos.  ’Yipes!’ that’s two and a half kilos less than when I last weighed and noted in my diving book last July!  

Then it’s finally here.
Stevie perched up high on his 2nd Class Sleeper upper berth.
  Pulling in to platform 22 of the 30 odd at the meganormous ( meganormous is very, very, very big in case you were wondering) Howrah train station in Kolkata (or wherever you find yourself).  And those ubiquitous blue carriages just seem to stretch for miles and miles and miles!  As far as the eye can see.  Often thirty carriages and more, not all of them arranged in any logical order that might aid your powers of deducing which might be yours.  'Sh*t which one am I in?!'  Away from the few better-moneyed or run stations where there are telecaster signs to assist you and when there are no numbers - at best stuck or in the least chalked on to the sides of the carriages - then frankly you're b*ggered and it’s every man, woman and saddhu for themselves!  'Elbows at the ready!'  Total.
Let the train rock you to sleep :)
  Unadulterated.  Confusion.  And carnage.  You're only hope to throw yourself at the souls already happily emplaced inside behind those four-barred windows screaming ‘S3?! S3?! Is this S3?!‘ [ Sleeper Carriage 3 ] and to pray you receive more than a non-committal head wiggle in response.  Running the entire length of an Indian railway platform four times with twenty kilos on your back, sweating profusely, screaming rabidly and cursing the country's name and very existence does not make for a happy start to a journey.  And fear not about getting in a scrum including India's sari-swathed women.  Whilst they may demure in many social situations, queuing and boarding trains can be two notable exceptions and they’ll barge you as good and hard as their often surprisingly robust forms will permit them.

The chaos without is only possibly surpassed by that which unfolds within as, stepping over fare-dodging babas and withered old crones you attempt to battle your way to your seat/ berth once you’ve actually managed to jar and heave yourself, your portable life and your foul mood on board.
'Sleeper Class'
  As a final test of your patience there will not infrequently, I’ve found, be someone sat in your seat for no reason more apparent than that they couldn’t be bothered to read their ticket and plonk their arses further up the carriage or away from the cooling window.  Invariably there will soon be five bottoms sat on your berth when there should only be three.  ‘Budge up luv!’

But eventually all is settled and calm.  The ancient fans, that sprout like dank mushrooms erupting with their dusty spores from the ceilings roaring away like jet turbines and your sweat-soaked brow and t-shirt slowly drying.

On this particular 26 hour Coromandel Express journey to Chennai (the later Chennai Mail service taking 30) we’re only 100 kilometres west out of Kolkata when my conversational companion at the time points out that we have pulled into Kharagpur station which, he educates me, possesses the world’s longest railway platform.
  I’ve since checked and it’s true.  A whopping 2,733 feet in length!  And whilst we’re on a statistical note and I’m happy for a moment to keep scamming the internet to assist the necessary process of appearing more knowledgeable than I am, shall we dazzle ourselves with a few more facts folks :

The first train to run on Indian soil did so from what was then Bombay on 16th April 1853.  These days the Indian Railways network comprises approximately 64,000 route kilometres of track making it the 4th largest network in the world after Russia, the U.S. and China.  It possesses rolling stock of around 14,300 trains that criss-cross carry approximately 13 million people and 1.3 million freight tonnes between 7,000 stations every day and contributes just over 1% of Indian Gross Domestic Product.  The longest possible journey on the Himsagar Express runs from Jammu Tawi in the north ( last stop before the line runs west to a now defunct crossing into Pakistan), all the way to Kanyakumari (aka Cape Comorin), India’s southern most tip ( where the Bay of Bengal meets with the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea) taking 4,751 kilometres and (theoretically) 60 hours of track time.
Poor lady and her child move through the carriages receiving anything they can from passengers. There are often whole strings of such alms seekers.
  “Phewf!”  Indian Railways is also the world’s third largest employer bankrolling 1.55 million souls.  The Peoples Liberation Army of China at 2.3 million bodies strong ( ’Look out America!’) and Wal-Mart Stores with 1.8 million underpaid suckers on its books ( ‘S’alright, we sell eeenough guns ’n’ ammo ta take dem yellas down!’) rank first and second respectively if you’re curious.  ( And a little ‘hoorah!’ for Britain too whose National Health Service comprises 1.3 million angels and comes in fourth.) *

The trains themselves, these days at least, are not as filthy and cockroach ridden as legend would have you fear.
  Least ways not as far down the scale as the Second Class Sleeper category of berth.  Only on the train from Gokarna to Mangalore were the HPC (Hygiene Pest Control) stickers, recently updated and checked off as clean-okay, routinely defied by families of small roaches.  You may occasionally spot cute little mice skittering around too. Second Class Sleeper is the class most commonly sought by travellers whom, but for those most in need of pampering and socio-cultural exclusion from the country they’re travelling in, should find themselves comfortable enough.  ’Open Seating’ and Third Class travel (other than 3rd Class Air-Conditioned) i.e. ‘slummin’ an’ keepin’ it real’ Gandhi stylee has not been tried by myself but are not recommended by the Authorities whom make it pretty tricky for such tickets to end up in the hands of foreign guests anyway.
Beggar boys often sweep the floors of the trains clean, end to end, in the hope that when they double back you'll proffer a couple of Rupees. Probably the only people who keep the trains clean!

In my experience unless you're on one of the cute-as-a-button historic hill station trains such as the Himalayan Queen running from Kalka up to Simla, or the similar narrow-gauge 'toy' trains that bobble their way up to Darjeeling or Ooty, the Indian Railways trains have a pretty much universal look.  The carriages and interiors follow the iconic two-tone faded aquamarine and baby blue colour motif.  The main bulk of the carriages coloured the former with two foot and a half foot band of the latter running the length of them and encompassing the windows that always have four, or more, metal bars across them - presumably to stop an excess of fare-dodgers or opportunistic bag thieves gaining ingress to, or exit from the carriage.  

I found these windows quite perturbing to begin with.
Maharani behind bars.
  Imprisoned!  G*d forbid the worst should ever happen but when major troubles kick off in India, which they do from time to time, trains have in the past been popular targets for firebombing.  This a historic precedent set during the violence of partition when trains carrying those wishing to escape across the new border to either Pakistan or India would routinely arrive at Lahore or New Delhi stations either burnt to a cinder or running with blood, their entire populations having been murdered by one communal group or another.  Usually with only two tiny red 'Emergency Exit' windows, one on either side of the carriage and themselves with awkward lift-up shutter bars you'd pretty much be a gonna I reckon.


But don't think of such things.
Banana Man :)
  Sit back on your sweaty-bum inducing blue faux-leather chairs or benches, grab your first of many 5 Rupee little cups of sweet chai or Nescafe Sunrise, sit back, and if you're lucky enough to be besides a window (make sure you specify when you book your ticket!) let the wind restyle your hair as you enjoy taking in the fast-passing Indian landscape.  That beautiful, fecund rural Indian landscape most of us never get to truly experience scudding as we do from one major town or city to the next on Indian Railways, the panoramas we take in forever permanently tattooed with the four horizontal metal bars that run across our field of vision.

On board, and during the course of your often very long journey whilst you may have your book, iPod, thoughts and maybe some friends for company, even without these there will always be frequent distractions, moments of the bizarre (playful or poignant) and light entertainment along the way.
  This provided by the extensive cast of characters that a life of penury and necessity in India ushers onto the carriage stage.  Little girls and boys with black kohl ringed eyes and bindi marks who caterwaul (sorry, 'sing most sweetly') for their supper before either banging a tin-pot drum or amazing the audience by passing their entire bodies through a metal hoop three times wider than their tiny forms.  'Wow!'  If you're lucky a professional adult singer accompanying himself on a jambai.  A parade of some of the most heart-rending human conditions also shuffle, limp and drag their way along the carriage floors, palms upheld for a Rupee or two.  India a country that never ceases to amaze with the cruel contortions she sculpts out of the rough clay of her people through combinations of poverty, disease, disablement, inherent genetic defect or (occasionally) self-mutilation in an attempt for economic sympathy.

India's trains are also likely to be the only place you as a foreigner will ever encounter its population of hijra.  Their distinctive double clap of the palms announcing their approach, ten Rupee notes fanned out between their fingers, lips firmly pouting.  The hijra are a somewhat outcaste caste, though in the right circumstances (births and weddings) deemed as auspicious presences.  A secretive community of transvestites and/or eunuchs who dress in women's clothes and make a living by shaming and embarrassing people into paying them to go away.  A most unusual sight in sexually conservative India ( 'It is, I know, I read The India Today Fantasy Report remember!') where to be just plain old homosexual is still an insurmountable social crime and barrier.
Keyhole of doom - the infamous squat loos!
  Fear not all you phobes, they hijra are not usually interested in gora (foreigner) money.

Aside from all the side shows of course there are your fellow passengers.  Occasionally fellow India-adventuring tourists but more often than not you'll be left to fend happily for yourself with your indigenous hosts.  Smiling lots, impressing everyone again with the same six stock phrases of Hindi you actually bothered to learn in your first two weeks in the country four months ago.  'OOOH!  You speak Hindi?!'  'Errr, tora tora.' [ 'little little' ].  Indians are deeply touched and fascinated to find you riding alongside them and wish often to get to know you and your story with a curiosity, sincerity and warmth that are a joy to embrace when such interactions often prove so difficult (usually owing to language barriers) in other nations.
Busy on board from Gokarna to Mangalore
  A few well-placed choice compliments about the home nation (of which you should have many by now) and you've got firm friends for the ride - and sometimes beyond.


This is the soundtrack to your time on Indian Railways.  The constant calling of the army of men in navy blue trousers and tartan-chequer shirts who manage to plough their way up and down the body and bag-strewn trains from dawn 'til dusk carrying and serving food (khana) and drinks.  'Khana khana khana!  Veg cutlet veg cutlet!', 'Riiice biryani biryani!' or 'bread omelette bread omelette!' or 'samosa samosa samosa!' and 'pakhora pakhora!' of course.
Taking in the view.
  Once down south the regional dosa pancakes and steamed idlys are doled out on wilting banana leafs along with little baggies of coconut chutney and red-chilli sauce but much as I love ‘em, the prospect of finger slopping all that gunk probably anywhere and everywhere other than my mouth on a train just ain’t a winner for me.  'Pani Pani cold drinks' and 'Biscuit cake' accompanied by packets of crisps etc are there for the safety players too.  More wild card options are available from the itinerant sellers who hop on at station stops to ply their home-fried goods, battered-fried chillies, capsicums and bread slices, pakhoras, chana masala (spiced chick peas) and bel puri (small 'bubble' thin fried pastry pockets doused in spicy sauce, finely chopped onions, puffed rice, herbs and a host of masala spices).
Become a fan of Indian Railways ( "Sorry!" ;P)
  Hot meals for dinner and breakfast are also provided by order on most Second Class Sleeper service and certainly when you upgrade to the A/C (Air Conditioned) classes.        

And with all that nibbling away on India's wonderful, though often questionably concocted culinary treasures, or with that slightly dodgy looking curry you bought in a rush before you boarded 'cos it was all that was going at the time, hopefully - hopefully you won't have to suffer an inglorious moment in one of the notorious toilets.  Travel here long enough and you'll always meet someone with a tale of how they had to kiss goodbye to their innards and dignity (simultaneously) on India Railways.  They're not so bad really.  Not usually.  But then I've been lucky so far.  And I'm saying that as a male aren't I.  As so often when travelling one must sympathise with the ladies who - dodgy curry or not - are condemned to squat over these aluminium holes of hell without a hand grip, slippery-when-wet footing and the train dancing the rumba from side to side all the while.
Air conditioned class :)

It ain't always pretty.  It ain't always fun.  But it's India.  And you've bought a ticket to ride!  

* The information contained in this paragraph is owed in large part to a single internet hit ( ‘I confess it!’) at but also info gleaned from an NDTV pre-railways budget news report and the dark, confusing recesses of my Swiss-cheese memory.  Employment stats from

[ Afterword 04/03/2010 : This was actually a weighing at Dehradun Station following 11 days of quite ascetic living during my Vipassana Meditation course.

  Rather startled by a rare vision of myself in a full length mirror in a hotel in Mangalore two months later I have since been trying to put some weight back on.  Last night for 1 Rupee at Kollam Junction Station my little square of card confirmed that I now weigh 52.5 Kilos, so a small gain has been made, and my future now reads : 'YOU are on the threshold of worldly success.  Splendour and achievement will colour life.'  Well, I sure hope so.  But don't get too excited on my behalf folks.  Hannah, excited at my revelation of these 1 Rupee weigh-in fortune tellers dashed off and promptly returned having been granted exactly the same fortune as I.  But it's tough luck, it was my future first, and she can't have it!  ]  

[ For some reason the rather numty system of 'travel tips and reviews' posting will not allow my 'tips and advice on Indian Railways travel' to be directly linked to this blog entry but it appears as the next entry in the blog if you are in need or otherwise interested.

View with bar tattoo.

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Indian Railways - a legend and an …
Indian Railways - a legend and an…
Seated 2nd class carriage.  Fine e…
Seated 2nd class carriage. Fine …
Stripes  (Red trains are rarer t…
'Stripes' (Red trains are rarer …
Baba on board.
Baba on board.
Stevie perched up high on his 2nd …
Stevie perched up high on his 2nd…
Let the train rock you to sleep :)
Let the train rock you to sleep :)
Sleeper Class
'Sleeper Class'
Poor lady and her child move throu…
Poor lady and her child move thro…
Beggar boys often sweep the floors…
Beggar boys often sweep the floor…
Maharani behind bars.
Maharani behind bars.
Banana Man :)
Banana Man :)
Keyhole of doom - the infamous squ…
Keyhole of doom - the infamous sq…
Busy on board from Gokarna to Mang…
Busy on board from Gokarna to Man…
Taking in the view.
Taking in the view.
Become a fan of Indian Railways ( …
Become a fan of Indian Railways (…
Air conditioned class :)
Air conditioned class :)
View with bar tattoo.
View with bar tattoo.
Tick tock, tick tock - you may wel…
Tick tock, tick tock - you may we…
photo by: Marusya