Reflections: Traveling on The Indian Railways – Say Goodbye to Personal Space

Riding the rails of the Indian railways networkThe wide and expansive Indian railway network, operates to every corner of this amazing but somewhat insane and chaotic country. The whole network is overseen by the Indian Ministry for Railways, and with 64,000km of track and 7,083 stations, makes the network is one of the largest in the world. With figures like these you can begin to comprehend its size, but the one number that just blows me away, is the sheer number of people who work for the system. At last count the total number of employees working for the Indian Railways is now estimated to be over 1.5 million (more than the population of many small nations), so you can begin to appreciate it’s colossal size, and importance to the people of India.

Some say the building of the Indian rail network actually helped forge this nation from a past of fractured and isolated regions, into it’s current state. With the tracks opening pathways to allow goods and people to move freely throughout this expansive and diverse land. For any traveler making their way to India, sooner or later you’ll have to prepare yourself for some tough, and hard fought journeys riding the rails. During my time in India in the mid nineties, I took many interesting journeys throughout India’s rail network, with each having it’s own story to tell.

Every Journey on an Indian Train Has it’s Own Story.

There were moments where you could just sit back and take in your surroundings, soak it all in and enjoy your journey. Although experiences such as this were few and far between. Other times your patience was pushed to boiling point, with the hoards of people pushing and shoving their way past you, both on the stations and inside the carriages.

Riding on the roof of an Indian train.

The only way you can get any real peace on an Indian train is to climb up onto the roof.

A great experience I had was the day we were heading towards Gokarna, to meet some friends and chill out on the beaches on the west coast. Liza and I boarded a train at Varanasi station for what was to be a long and tiresome journey. A few hours into the trip, I went for a stroll between carriages. I got talking to a Swiss traveller at the back of one of the carriages, where I noticed a steel ladder leading up onto the roof.

I suggested to him that we should go up and sit on the roof, to check out the view. We spent about an hour or so on the roof of the train, the wind blowing in my hair as we hammered along, occasionally getting freaked out by some low hanging cables. (this was much to Liza’s annoyance, as she had no idea where I was at the time)

Riding on the roof of the carriage is the only time where you can get any real peace on an Indian train. The one thing I wasn’t really prepared for whilst in India, was the complete disregard for your personal space. As the train approaches a platform, total chaos would sometimes evolve as people scramble for a position to board. India is crazy enough at the best of times, but throw in a train with limited seating and large travel distances, and you’ve got a recipe for most people to suffer ‘a serious sense of humor failure’. I’m hoping things have now improved somewhat, with the aid of computerized seating and better communications between stations, but my guess is they haven’t.

There were times when you had to completely leave your morals at the front entry to the station and actually fight for a seat, and I mean fight for it!

More often than not, boarding a train in India was more akin to a rugby scrum, and if tickets were scarce sometimes all hell would break loose. Having a ticket was also not guarantee enough for you to board the train, it basically just gave you entrance to the platform, from where the real game would begin.

Fighting for Your Seat Was a Common Occurrence

It took some time to adjust to this dog eat dog, law of the jungle attitude, but I did get it in the end, I had to. When the train approached, Liza and I would put our packs on, and go into battle mode. It was a take no prisoners attitude, as we would push our way through the hoards of young men, old frail ladies, mothers with babies and the odd beggar trying to fleece a couple of rupee from me before I departed. Once aboard we would then claim our seats, and not budge until the train began to move.

Some may judge me harshly for these actions, but without this approach you wouldn’t get anywhere. There were many times early on, where I did take the polite tourist approach. This would leave us stranded at a station in the middle of know where for another 16 or so hours, until the next train came by that was heading to our chosen destination. This was life traveling in 2nd and 3rd classes in the 1990’s. The life of a budget traveller, trying to squeeze as much as we could from every rupee.

Your Thoughts and Comments

Been to India?, Whats the railway system like today? Has the system improved or gotten worse, and are you still confronted with the madness described above?


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     About the author

Jason has traveled the world extensively during the last 20 years, with overland journeys on six continents and across over 90 countries. This site serves as a chronicle of the images and tales from these journeys, as well as offering advice and general information for other like minded travelers.

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  • Connie Hum

    Indian trains are definitely crazy and chaotic but that’s part of why I love them so much! My boyfriend and I took as many trains as possible and some of our best memories from India take place on trains! We met some of the best people on the train who really helped shaped our experience in India. We often talk about India and how we miss riding the trains there.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that boarding a train in India was more akin to a rugby scrum .. worst still every guy trying to sniff ur shampoo-ed hair LOL! Great post with vivid descriptions – love it!

  • Jason

    Hey Ciki, Only someone who’s had the experience of traveling by train in India could describe your scenario above. There was never a dull moment on the trains in India, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks for your comment.

  • Jason

    Hey Connie, Thanks for stopping by. I completely agree that many fond memories were had on the trains in India, but at times my patience was pushed to breaking point.

    There was one time I watched a train roll into our station, and once section of one carriage was going absolutely crazy. Singing songs and waving flags from the windows. As it got closer, I said to Liza ‘Without a shadow of a doubt, that will be where our seats are’. Sure enough it was, and made for a very long journey, but one I still remember to this day. Thanks for your comment.

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  • Peter Heck

    The rail system (or, more specifically, the personal space issue) is one of the reasons the wife is skeptical of going to India. I hope to convince her one day that we have to do it. I won’t let her read this article. :)

  • Andi Perullo

    How cool that you rode on top of the train! I gotta add that to my BL. :)

  • Dave from The Longest Way Home

    Great stuff Jason. New Delhi in 2008 was quite respectful. Varanasi was 3 hours overdue, with bodies piled on bodies. Sadly not rooftop ventures as they are getting strict. That said, you are right. Indian’s push, and you gotta push back. I remember tugging some indian’s pony tail at a counter when he blatantly walked by and skipped the queue. He shrugged,as I push by him. Only problem, is Indian underarm body oder. It’s lethal in those queues :)

  • Steve

    I can’t believe you got to ride on top of the train. That is something I would do if I had the chance.

    I haven’t personally experienced the train system in India, but it sounds a little chaotic. It reminds me of the train system in some of the places I went to in China. Mobs of people walking to and from various platforms and guys in bullhorns shouting things in Chinese. It was a little hard for me to figure out where to go.

  • Jason

    Hey Peter, Please don’t allow Dalene to be to skeptical about going, and I’m sure you’ll be able to convince her about a trip to India. It’s well worth the effort, and the occasional drama you will face along the way (it’s either a very lucky traveler or one that doesn’t venture out the front door of their hotel that gets away without some sort of drama in India)

    You just need to make sure you’re prepared for the masses of people and as mentioned above, lack of personal space.

  • Jason

    Hey Andi, I’m not sure if you could get away with it today, but it was definitely an adrenalin rush that’s for sure. Just make sure you do it on a diesel train and not an electric….lol

  • Jason

    Hey Leigh, If you go to India, and want to see vast amounts of the country then you must travel by train sooner or later. I suppose the option of 1st class is still there if you’ve got the cast. Always plenty of room on the roof though. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Jason

    Hey Dave, Yeah I could see them getting a bit more strict on the trains (OH&S is taking over the world and ruining everyone’s fun!). I had a bit of a chuckle at the pony tail tug mate, and i well deserved. I hate queue jumpers, it’s one of my pet hates. When I was there, there basically were no queue’s and that’s fine, you just deal with the system at hand (or no system as it turned out), but if there’s a line then there is no excuse.

    Under arm odor, now there’s a topic for another day. I did inhale my fair share or unpleasant body aromas, wafting in my general direction whilst in India that’s for sure.

  • Jason

    Hey Steve, To ride on a roof of a train was a great experience. I’ve ridden on the roof of many buses throughout the world but never on a train. It was even more of a thrill, as I wasn’t supposed to be there as well. Given the right opportunity you should give it a go, but hang on mate. As the train bounced around, it was quite dangerous as there wasn’t anything to hang onto, and the curved rooftop made it quite a task.

    I know exactly what you mean in relation to China. I was there only a couple of years ago and couldn’t believe the amount of people. It was a little more orderly than my experience in India, but quite confronting just the same. Thanks for stopping by mate.

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