The Indian Railways
I really wanted to ride on the Indian railway system while we were travelling there. The Indian railways are an astonishing feat of organisation, maintenance and logistics.
They are also as astonishingly cheap as the UK’s outdated, badly run rail system is astonishingly expensive.
We arrived at Ernakulam junction station in Cochin, to catch the Rajdhani express sleeper train from Kerala overnight to Goa. We hadn’t been able to book a ticket online because text confirmation can only go to an Indian phone number and we didn’t have one.
Third class on the Rajdhani Express
When we got to an actual station selling tickets all the first class ones were gone. Only third class ones were left. You don’t need to be a Maharajah to travel first class on the Rhajdhani express. For a twelve hour overnight journey, a first class ticket costs £12. For our third class ticket it set us back the princely sum of £7.50. No one was complaining about the price. But what would the train carriage be like?
We waited on the station for quite a while as the train wasn’t until 10pm. It was nearly an hour late. India is generally very hot, but luckily things were starting to cool down by then.
I was keeping to the tiled floor after my run in with some vicious red ants outside a café a few nights ago. They ran up my trouser legs and attacked my shins and knees injecting their hideous formic acid into me. I didn’t realise the extent of the assault until later, when my knees and lower legs started to burn and came up in angry unbearably itchy lumps.
I think I must be particularly delicious to biting insects for some reason. Anyway, I was keeping my feet off the floor on the luggage, just in case there were any other surprise attacks
The Indian Railways – station life
Lots of people turned up at the station. All kinds and all ages of people arrived. They sat down or, if they felt like it, had a lie down on the floor. Here this is all acceptable train waiting behaviour.
The station was full of small curious stalls as well as lots of offices and waiting rooms and counters. They are all doing slightly different things. The Indian railways are organised. No one has bothered doing that one-size-fits-all rationalisation thing here. Consequently there are still lots of jobs for Indians to do, and any job on the railways is highly prized.
There are lots of trains, lots of people and lots of train related jobs. The luggage boys and the station master. Not to mention the ticket man, the waving the train out man and the waving the train in man. They all came and went.
Pilgrimage travel is big in India, and there was a big ‘boys only’ pilgrimage season going on when we were there. Apparently there a few that ladies can join in with, but essentially it’s more a boys’ thing.
It’s like a great big alcohol free stag night, but without a wedding. There is one pilgrimage people go on to stand in a very, very long queue to get a small hug from a particularly holy old lady. Cuddle tourism – I approve!
Overnight on the Rajdhani express
We had a delicious take away curry from a small street stall for about £2 for two people. The street food here is very environmentally friendly. You don’t get any paper packets or polystyrene cartons just a banana leaf and no cutlery. You need to use your fingers or make a scoop from the aforementioned leaf. We used the cases as a table and bingo! Our own pop up restaurant!
The Indian railways are one of the biggest employers in the world. Everyone who works for them takes their job very seriously and is very proud of their employer.
The Rajdhani express is a premium train and is fully air conditioned. It only stops at major stations. We were travelling overnight from Kerala to Goa.
On the night train everyone gets a narrow bunk and is supplied with two sheets a blanket and a pillow. The distribution of these bedtime items is the job of one man on the train. He likes to have things in order before the lights go out for the night.
We didn’t have berths together (because of our tardy ticket buying behaviour) so we had to wait for the top man on the train to allocate our bunks. The top man on the train is the ticket inspector.
Finally the inspector turned up. He was quite young and dashing with Bollywood hair. He was the main man with the power on the Rajdhani express. We were relocated and finally installed in our bunks. While I can’t say it was the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had – it certainly wasn’t the worst.
Breakfast on the train
The next morning a different man appeared carrying the chai tea canteen and the breakfast tray. We enjoyed a simple breakfast of tea and banana sandwiches while watching the glorious green landscape of Goa slide by through the window.
The train was very full of people. They were three deep in the bunks, all coming and going at stations, but everyone was remarkably civil and got along just fine. I couldn’t help thinking how a train full of Brits in such circumstances would have been a very different experience.
The Indian railways – a very special network
The Indian railways are owned and operated by the Government of India through the Ministry of Railways. It is one of the world’s largest networks comprising of 115,000 km. In 2014-15 the Indian Railways carried 8.397 billion passengers in that year or about 23 million passengers a day. That is a lot of people.
The idea to build railways in India came from the British in the 18th century, and they were nationalised in 1951. The railways here are still pretty impressive. They have carefully preserved and continually repaired their original tracks and their rolling stock.
We arrived in gorgeous Goa the next morning in one piece and ready for the next part of our Southern Indian adventure. I loved our trip on the Rajdhani express. Somehow I don’t think the Empire was all bad.
Check out our New Year on Kovalam beach in Kerala