Surviving an Indian Sleeper Train

Arriving into the mist at Jhansi  at 10pm it felt more like a refugee camp than a train station. There was a mix of excitement and terror among the group as we weaved through sleeping bags, stray dogs and injured beggars. The message was, to mind yourself, to watch your bags and to watch each other at all times. I felt a bit disgusting as we wandered through carrying pizza boxes, looking at families camping out, unsure whether they were waiting for a train or simply looking for a place to shelter. It was a cold December night and Mothers sat with babies wrapped in thermal blankets and woolen clothes. Cows also stood beside us as we waited on the platform, some rummaging in bins and others as if they too were waiting on the train.

The Pizza in question was the first “Western” food I had purchased in weeks and was “in case of emergency”. The train to Varanasi the night before had been delayed by 7 hours and the sleeper train does not serve food. We had stopped at a Pizza hut on the way to the station, as well as a nearby shop buying biscuits and a single bar of Cadbury’s chocolate, which I planned to keep as a treat for Christmas day. We were approached by a number of people asking us for money and I, as advised, gave open packaged food such as biscuits and crackers instead.

The enormous overnight train pulled up to the station slowly and its sudden presence brought immediate anxiety. I climbed on board and found my way to the large brown leather seat I had been allocated, feeling relieved that I was beside the two men I was now travelling with, a South African and a New Yorker. Our section had triple bunks and of course mine was on top, so I needed some help from my South African friend to dress the “bed” with the sheet provided. I was immediately glad that I had been working out as I climbed up the thin, three-stepped ladder and maneuvered myself onto the little leather bench that was to be home for the night.

 

The view from my bunk
A little bit cramped!

To say that the train was crowded, would be an understatement and I knew that there was no way that I would be getting a good sleep. At least being on the third bunk meant that I had a little added security from potential thieves. At times the rocking motion of the train was quite soothing and I would say that, throughout the night, I probably got about 4 hours sleep, but definitely not at the same time!

A terrified looking selfie from my bunk

Waking at about 7 am I began speaking to the other passengers. The message had been sent around that the train had been delayed. A few days previous, a train had been derailed having hit a cow (I’m serious!) and so we had to re-route during the night. It looked like we might be travelling for a long time yet and so I was never so happy to have a breakfast feast of cold Pizza!

By now it was bright and it was Christmas Eve morning. A most unorthodox Christmas Eve indeed, but the festive feeling got me out of my “bed” and down to chat to the other passengers. I learned that the train that was due to arrive in Varanasi at 11am would be hours late. Some passengers estimated that it would be 5pm, others 3pm. Thankfully the latter were correct! The train had by now resumed its course and in the early hours we passed the culprit of our delay. The ruin of a cargo train lay in pieces on the sides of the tracks. Suddenly, the delay was forgiven, and I was just hopeful that we would arrive safely.

 

The ruins of a derailed train

In a most bizarre turn, we arrived in Varanasi at 2pm, however the train stopped roughly 100 meters from the station to allow another train to pass. It would be an hour before we could get off the train, even though we could, ironically, see the platform. Some how I didn’t really mind, as I had by now joined a group of passengers and was learning the words of “Jingle Bells” in Hindi! At 3pm, we finally alighted, ready to spend our Holy festival in the most unlikely, but the most spiritual City of Varanasi.

7 comments

  1. Wow, what an experience! I've never tried a sleeper train before and that looked like a scary and cramped experience. Good thing you've got your box of pizza to keep you company! 🙂

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  2. It seems you had a bad experience. Usually, in AC class no extra passengers are taken for the overnight journey except for side lower berth, where they give 2 sitting seats sometimes instead of one sleeper.
    There are few things to keep in mind when traveling by train in India.
    AC II tiers are less cramped than AC III
    Overnight trains don’t have pantry car (Means trains run between 9 PM to 8 AM). You can also check on railway’s website to know if they have food service available in particular train.
    Most stations have waiting rooms separately for AC class (Same for Jhansi), it is advisable to use those for waiting instead of standing on the platform.
    Winter months of December and January are bad in terms of timing. Sadly most trains in the north of India get delayed due to fog though in your case it was accident. It is a sad fact but true.
    Hope if you come to India gain and travel a train, you will have good experience.

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  3. I’m going to be honest, this does not look fun at all. I took a bus from the DR to Haiti last summer and it was a similar feeling (although better conditions). I would never do it again.

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  4. Loved reading through your experience which I go through almost every month. Trains in India are the lifeline and we throughly enjoy our journey in the crammed spaces chit chatting and sharing meals with co passengers.

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