The classic stereotype of Indian rail travel, in many Western minds, is the one from films like Slumdog Millionaire. Crowded, dirty trains, often delayed, idling for hours with no explanation. People leaning out of open doors, perched between the carriages, or even sitting on the roof. Narrow, uncomfortable sleeper berths. Putrid toilets. It’s a somewhat alarming prospect for those more used to the comfort of a sleek intercity express.
So when I booked a tour of Southern India, and was told we’d be spending a night on a sleeper train, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I’ve been on some fairly rancid transport in my time, like the 48-hour bus journey I took from Accra in Ghana to Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso (it was only supposed to take 24 hours, but that’s a story for another day!). So I wasn’t nervous as such, but I was a little wary.
We took the train from Mysuru (Mysore) in the South West of India to Chennai in the South East, a journey of around 300 miles. We were due to leave at 9 pm and arrive at around 8 o’clock the next morning – so 11 hours travelling.
Mysuru is the start of the line. When we arrived at the station, the train was already waiting, and the platform was bustling with passengers looking for their carriage or saying goodbye, and traders selling drinks and snacks.
We had plenty of time before departure, so I took a walk along the platform. The train was huge! Twenty-four, 23.5m-long carriages is standard for most long-distance services, so this train was well over half a kilometre long!
There’s a slightly bewildering array of classes on Indian trains, but if you want a berth on an overnight sleeper the main ones are Air-Conditioned 2-tier (2AC), Air-Conditioned 3-tier (3AC), and Sleeper – which has three tiers of bunks and open windows. You’ll get plenty of fresh air in Sleeper, and a great view in the morning through the open windows, but it’s more crowded, noisy, and bedding isn’t provided.
But because I was travelling with an organised tour group, we were allocated a slightly better class: AC Three Tier. Bedding supplied and air-conditioning. Luxury!
The picture in my head was of one of those sleeper trains you see in historical dramas or Bond films: a wood-panelled corridor down one side of the carriage, with doors leading to private compartments with bunk beds inside.
But as we boarded and stowed our luggage, I quickly discovered I was somewhat mistaken…
You can forget the cute compartments – and indeed the privacy. The carriage is open-plan, with eight berths in each section: two rows of three bunks facing opposite each other, and two more across the aisle, in the area where I’d imagined the corridor would be.
When you first board, the middle bunk is folded up so there’s room to sit at the bottom, but if that’s your spot it’s a good idea to fold it down fairly quickly and claim your space. Stories abound of people pinching each other’s berths, and arguing with someone who’s sitting in your seat is never fun at the best of times – even less so when you don’t speak the same language! Of course if you do find yourself in this situation, don’t worry. The ticket inspector will soon be along to sort everything out.
Mine was the top bunk, which I was quite happy about. It was a little tricky to climb up to, but once installed, I was well clear of the people passing backwards and forward, and being above everyone’s heads meant I felt I had a bit more privacy than the lower bunks. You don’t get much space, and not enough headroom to sit up properly – but I thought it was rather cosy. Though possibly slightly too cosy if you’re on the taller or larger side…
Because the carriages are open-plan, and anyone can wander through the train, you’ll need to think about security. We all cuddled up to our valuables like they were a fluffy teddy-bear (or cute partner!), but you’ll have to put your luggage on the floor under the bottom berth. A top tip is to bring a travel padlock that comes with a cable, so you can lock your bag to the bunk. This will deter any opportunists or professional thieves – who have been known to go through the carriages when everyone is asleep. Though I was told this is rare, so don’t panic.
Once I had settled in and made up my bunk, I went for a wander through the carriage with my camera. I soon attracted the attention of the other passengers, many of whom were in groups or large families. They’ll often book up a whole section so they can sit together, bringing home-cooked food to share around – so it won’t be long before the entire carriage smells of curry. Somehow they manage to eat their meal with their hands on a moving train and still not make a mess – something I was unable to master even when stationary!
This family thought I was fascinating, so I stopped to chat to them. They were on their way home from spending the Christmas holiday in Mysuru. The oldest son fancied himself as a future pop star, so serenaded us with a bit of Backstreet Boys and One Direction. I’m not sure his sisters were terribly impressed, but I thought he was pretty good!
If you don’t fancy bringing your own curry, there’s a wide range of snacks and meals available on the platform and on board the train. There’s no buffet car, but there is a kitchen carriage, where cooks rustle up everything from foil containers full of biryani, to deep-fried samosas, to canteens full of hot, sweet milk, from which they serve sickly chai or coffee. These are then brought through the train at regular intervals by vendors, chanting ‘samosa samosa’ or ‘coffee chai’ in gruff, bored voices.
I didn’t want to run the risk of something disagreeing with me, so I’d brought fruit, crisps and biscuits to stave off any hunger pangs. This is definitely not the place you want to get sick – in fact the aim of the game on the Indian sleeper train is to minimise the number of times you need to use the toilet!
There’s a choice of Asian-style or Western-style toilet, and although they’re pretty basic, they were actually considerably better than I was expecting. At least, at the start of the journey. As you might expect, they don’t stay too fragrant for long, so I’d suggest you get your visit in sooner rather than later.
Once bunks had been made up, tickets checked, meals consumed and ablutions performed, the lights in the separate sections were turned out one by one. Sleep wasn’t easy: the bunk was not the most comfortable so I kept having to change position. And all through the night the train stopped at different stations and people alighted or boarded, which created an extra disturbance. But my eye mask and earplugs helped, so I did manage a few hours.
I was actually asleep when our guide came round, announcing that we had about half an hour till arrival. All around me people were waking and packing up their stuff, accompanied by a chorus of coughing and hacking into the sinks at the end of the carriages. It’s perfectly acceptable in India to clear your throat loudly and vigorously and spit out any phlegm you might have produced, and it seems a night on a sleeper train is great for loosening the lungs!
With the daylight came a chance to take a look at the view. Although the windows in the AC carriages are pretty small and dirty, they leave all the train doors wide open, so you can stand in the vestibule and (carefully!) lean out to enjoy the fresh air and passing scenery.
The open doors also mean it’s not unusual to see people hopping off the train in between stations as it slows down.
Finally, we arrived at our destination, Chennai Central, slightly dishevelled, a bit sleep-deprived, but on time. So it turns out most of my concerns about Indian sleeper trains had been proved wrong. They’re actually a great way to cover long distances: well-organised, friendly, you get to sleep through all the hours of boring travelling, and although they’re basic, they’re relatively clean and comfortable.
Except for the toilets. I managed to hold on until we arrived at our breakfast stop, so I can’t comment on what they were like after an 11-hour journey, but I’m told they were pretty eye-watering!
Have you been on an Indian sleeper train? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.