First Time Train Travel in India

A local train in Mumbai. An overnight train to Varanasi. A subway ride in Delhi. And a regional train ride to Jhansi. Those were the four, very different train rides we took in India and it was definitely a unique experience.

The country’s train system is extensive to say the least.

  • 40,000 miles of track
  • serves 18 - 25 million people daily
  • run by 1.6 million staff (making it the world’s largest employer)

Our first rides were made easier and less daunting as part of a small tour group, but with that experience under our belts we know we’d be up to the challenge of booking and boarding the trains independently on our next trip. There are a ton of great tips online, so if you’re headed to India just make sure to do your research.

The Quick Jump

While in Mumbai, we spent an afternoon walking through the famed Dharavi slum via Reality Tours (highly recommend). To get there, we took a local train together with our guide and group. I was the only woman on the tour. I imagined getting crushed by hundreds of sweaty Indian men and possibly getting groped but Root promised to protect me, so onward we went.

We boarded the train mid-day (and therefore off-peak) so to my surprise, the scariest thing I would have to contend with was the fact that the train only stops for 15 seconds at each station, give or take. I thought, “What if we don’t get off in time? What if the train starts moving while I’m stepping off?” But we edged our way close to the exit and it all worked out fine.

{video} Here’s a video I took while on the train. The guide explained that the compartment you see here is designed for a capacity of 100, but at peak times around 500 squeeze into each car!

{video} A train coming into the grand Victoria Terminus Station in Mumbai. As you can see, people jump on and off these while the train is moving. We read that they are thinking of adding doors now due to the numerous deaths and accidents caused by this each year.

{video} Here’s that awesome closing dance number from the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Just because. (Recognize the location?)

The Sleeper Car

More bunk beds! We boarded an overnight train to Varanasi and got assigned to a section with other locals. They did not speak English, but no matter – there seemed to be an understood respect and manner of moving within those small quarters. We were told to use a cable lock and tightly guard our things, which we did, even though the people around us had no intention to steal.

There were two young parents and a toddler (who was wearing a Yankees t-shirt – HA) in the bunks above Root, and two men in the bunks above me. The middle bunk collapses down during the day so people can sit on the bottom bunk, and when I got sleepy enough, I motioned to the man sitting next to me to help me set up and secure the middle bunk so I could go to sleep.

I managed to get around 5 hours; Root maybe 3. (Those beds aren’t really designed for tall people.) The squat toilet on the train really was as bad as they say. Just remember your toilet paper and hand sanitizer. And I hate to tell you this – but when I woke up in the morning I found three cockroaches crawling around. Thank god I didn’t see those before going to bed!

{video} A quick peek at our sleeper section in the morning, once our bunkmates had gotten off.

The Countryside

Our train ride from Agra to Jhansi was the most “normal” train we took – like a regional commuter train and quite comfortable. This is a fantastic way to see the rural side of life in India and scenic countryside. We were provided with a small hot meal, a small bottle of water and of course, tea.

Even in the train station…your friendly neighborhood cow

The Separation

Although the frequent separation of the sexes feels both odd and backwards, I have to admit there are distinct advantages when it comes to train travel. While Root had to endure extreme sardine-like conditions on a subway ride in Delhi, I got to enjoy the spacious women-only compartment. We just had to make sure to get off at the same stop.

The Toy Train (almost)

Unfortunately we missed taking a ride on Darjeeling’s famous antique “toy train,” as tickets were sold out that day. Still, we took the same route via taxi on our drive from the airport. The track follows the same path as a steep and windy road through the mountains called Hill Cart Road.

There are also tons of luxury trains in India, if you can afford it. Though I doubt it would afford the same opportunity to connect with local life and people.

Have you taken the train in India? Share your experiences and tips with us below.