There are few railway systems in the world that can rival India for sheer character and scale.
Next to our own, India has one of the oldest railway systems in the world.
The British colonists’ first line was laid from Bombay (now called Mumbai) to Thane, a mere trifling 22 km. The line proved to be a great success and soon tracks were being built throughout the length and breadth of the country. Today, India has the fourth longest railway system in the world. It’s a system that is much in demand, with over 8 billion passengers being carried within a year, that’s a staggering 22 million people a day – for a little perspective, around 1.7 billion passengers use our own system each year.
Although the Indian Railway system began as a colonial institution, over the decades since India’s independence from Britain, it has refined and developed it’s own unique culture. Trains are given their own names, separate to the route that they are travelling: Island Express and Himalayan Queen are just some of them, suggesting a golden era of luxury and convenience. Indeed, some of the overnight options offer more comfort and service than you would ever expect on a British Railway system. Trains such as the Golden Chariot, take wealthy travellers from Karnataka to Goa, offering hotel standard rooms complete with colonial style observation carriages and a silver service dining experience.
Of course, this kind of luxury doesn’t come cheap. A trip on the Golden Chariot will set you back around £4,400 (you can knock it down to around £2,800, if you’re willing to share a room with two friends), no small price to pay. These trains are, arguably, a sanitised version of Indian train travel: what they gain in comfort and space, they lose in charm and authenticity.
The Mandovi Express, one of the few modern railways in the Indian Railway system, offers an admittedly daunting 12 hour-plus journey, for a price as low as £15.50. You might have to share sleeping quarters with up to 30 people, but you definitely won’t be going hungry. Unlike British trains, Indian rail services pride themselves on the food they serve their customers. No lacklustre sandwiches here, the Mandovi Express serves up some of the best food that you’re ever likely to enjoy whilst in transit. The pantry car is dedicated to the cooking and serving of countless dishes that bring together the best meals that the local regions have to offer.
Whilst you enjoy your food, it’s worth taking into consideration the sheer scale of this route and the mammoth effort it took to construct it. There’s a reason why this particular track wasn’t built in 1998. The British balked at the notion of forging a way through the 756 km of valleys and gorges. So it was up to the Indians to build a route that winds its way across hundreds of rivers, going through 92 tunnels and over 2,000 bridges – one of which, the Panvalnadi bridge, is one of the highest viaducts in India.
Like the majority of Indian trains, there are a variety of travel options to choose from. The Sleeper class is the cheapest at around £5 for a one-way trip. There’s no air-conditioning but there are electric fans and open windows keep the air moving. Things can get cosy on busy services, so if you’re looking for a bit more space then its wise to fork out a little more. AC3 through to AC1 are carriages with air-conditioning and one-person cots. Just be warned, sometimes the AC can be a little strong and you might find yourself a little chilly!
If you’re worried about feeling a little trapped aboard, you can put those fears to rest. The sliding train doors are mostly left open, allowing a welcome breeze to flow through the train and giving travellers ample chance to gaze in wonder at the stunning vistas the outlying land has to offer. Travelling by train in India is an experience that can vary greatly, depending on the route you take and the class that you travel in.