[Following on from the “Trainspotting” post below, 1 March 2018]
So now you are proudly in possession of a confirmed train ticket, things should be easy hey? Not entirely. Do not under estimate the size of Indian stations, the fact that they are busy places 24/7 (trains leave at all times of the day as the network runs all over this vast country) and the lack of concrete or unequivocal information.
L: Madurai Junction; R: Jaipur station
First job is to identify the correct platform. Normally that is fairly straightforward but (assuming there are any), the indicator boards tend to show all trains departing that day regardless of whether they have already departed or not. The order also seems to be completely random, neither sorted by departure time, nor train number nor platform number. You just have to wait until information relating to your train number comes up (to be fair this will eventually come up in English as well as Hindi if you wait long enough).
One additional little quirk is that not all indicator boards necessarily show the same information: why should they – that would be too simple! For example, at Varanasi while the board above the main entrance to the station did proudly show details of our train to Kolkata, this train failed to appear in any of the other screens on the platforms themselves or in the waiting room nor was it included in any of the station announcements (whereas all the other trains were listed with information about the relevant delays). This was both odd and a little unnerving.
If there is no indicator board, sometimes there are handwritten boards or otherwise you just have to start asking (always have the all-important train number to hand).
Or we got used to using yet another app (Indian Train Status) which gives some (pretty approximate) information about the current status of trains including the potential platform number. The info on this app however isn’t fool proof though and can cause some alarming anomalies when, for example, your train suddenly disappears from the app as though it has already been and gone, despite you having been patiently waiting for it for 5 hours on the allotted platform. This happened to us and was a little disconcerting to say the least but fortunately the train itself did eventually appear, both on the app again and, more importantly, physically!
To be fair, once a platform number has been determined, it seems to be rarely altered even when (because of a number of late running trains) you suddenly have a situation when multiple trains are all due to arrive either at the same time or within 5 minutes of each other. Which is never going to happen in practice: no train turns around that quickly. It’s anyone’s guess as to which train out of that fleet will arrive first! Just hold the faith.
Boarding the train
So, you’re doing well and are on the correct platform. But where to stand? These trains are not little South West commuter trains from Clapham Junction, comprising 4 or 8 carriages at best. No, these are huge long things, often comprising at least 20 (possibly 30) coaches of different classes plus carriages for luggage, for the “differently abled” and sometimes a pantry car too.
L: A seemingly never ending train; R: Porters at Jaipur station
When they arrive, there’s generally a bit of chaos with people trying to get on before others (with copious amounts of luggage) are still trying to disembark.
If you are lucky, there are sometimes charts which show the composition of the trains and the order of the carriages or, even better, sometimes small electronic signs on the platforms giving the train number and also the relevant coach that will allegedly stop by the sign. Of course it’s not an exact science and when the train pulls in, you still have to hot foot it along a few carriages but, generally speaking, at least you are standing somewhere close by. Here you also need to understand how some of the carriage codes work; for some reason the AC2 class that you booked has now been “converted” into either HA1 or A1 and so that is what you need to look for both on the platform or, more importantly on the side of the train when it pulls into the station.
Of course, at many stations there’s no information at all and you just have to take pot luck and hope that you are standing somewhere near where you might need to board and be prepared to leg it with all your luggage when the train does finally stop. Fortunately, similar classes of carriage are usually grouped together and you can identify AC carriages by the lack of bars on the window as the windows don’t open.
If you have the luxury of joining the train at its source, then you have a lot more time to find your carriage. If boarding at an intermediate station (especially one where the scheduled turnaround is short or a delayed train is trying to make up time), you may have to make a run for it and just board wherever and then try and walk through to your correct carriage. However, this is not always possible at night as they close off the different sections at night to prevent footfall through the superior carriages.
Where’s my seat?
Fortunately once in the correct carriage, seats are usually pretty clearly marked although it can be a little confusing to arrive at your part of the carriage which should accommodate 8 people only to find that there are already way more than 8 people there, especially if you are boarding at a source station. It turns out that while there may only in fact be one passenger from this group travelling, it’s quite common to have a large family send off. This can make it a little hectic while you are trying to store your luggage and you can find yourself having to fight for space.
In case of any issue about whose seat is whose, as well as referencing electronic and hard copy tickets, there are sometimes passenger reservation lists pasted onto the side of the trains. I remember these from my previous visit back in the early 1990s: in those days, these lists were essential as these were the only way to identify whose seat was whose. Nowadays with the advent of electronic ticketing etc, they are, in my view, largely redundant but I still quite liked their nostalgic reassurance. However, they are not pasted on every train or at every station and so you can’t rely on them and therefore, their use is pretty limited.
Passenger Reservation Lists can be lengthy; they include name, gender and age of passenger
Once you’ve found your seat, relax, you’ve made it and you are on your way. Wherever you are going, sit back (or lie down), it is going to take a while!