Sleepless in Sleeper Class: an Introduction to the Class System on Indian Railways

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As about 50% of my time in India seems to have been spent travelling on trains, and I’ve lived a few horror stories, I thought it would be a good time to outline the confusion that is the Indian Railways. In England, the longest train journey I have ever sat through was 5 hours, and as India is huge in comparison, train journeys can range from 1 hour to 35 hours. And this means trains are equipped with beds as standard and you can spend some or all of your journey having a nice sleep on a narrow bed surrounded by numerous others.

Instead of just one standard class, plus one first class, which is a bit of a novelty/treat for us, there are 5 different classes on overnight journeys, which I introduce below, with a few of my own stories, starting with the lowest class first.

Second Sitting
Not to be confused with the concept of “second class” which might fool you into thinking that this is a class of reasonable comfort, like flying economy. This is not the case.

This class is a complete free for all, with reservations rarely made by locals and the only order is to strictly fit in as many people as possible. Seats are hard and bunks are simply metal slats, but the main problem isn’t the cramped and uncomfortable quarters, it’s the embarking and disembarking. When the train pulls into your stop, there is no restriction on the force or method you use to batter yourself through the hordes of densely packed people before, or in some cases as, the train pulls out of the station. Not to mention getting past the people that are frantically trying to shove their babies and bags on, just as desperately as you are trying to get off.

I’m proud to say I’ve survived a small journey in this class. However, I wouldn’t recommend second sitting at all, unless you have no money or no other choice. Or alternatively, if you’re an adrenaline junkie who enjoys having an excuse to knock people over or jump off moving trains.

Sleeper Class

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The layout of a sleeper class carriage

The man in seat 61 deems you brave if you choose to travel sleeper class; the class that most Indians use for their journeys. We have travelled sleeper class enough times to know it’s cheap and sometimes cheerful (it costs about £3 to go 600km) but it can also be your worst nightmare (provided you manage to fall asleep).

The carriages are split up into sections for 8 people, each made up of two sets of three-tier bunk-beds parallel to each other and a further single bunk-bed at the end, with the walk-way in between. There are about twelve of these sub-sections per carriage.

I have a complicated relationship with Sleeper Class, I love it quite as much as I hate it. If you’re lucky you can meet charming young families who treat you as one of their own, or you can at least get a friendly nudge from the man next to you when it’s your stop. You can entertain yourself for hours on end by people-watching and even witness beggars prance merrily down the aisles playing the flute with their nose. Although, beware, not all beggars are as peaceful as the prancing flute man; transvestites trail through the aisles and clap loudly in your face and wait, hands on hips, until you acknowledge their presence with a few of your spare rupees and beggar children won’t refrain from giving you a casual slap across the head if you refuse them your clinker.

You’re more exposed to Indian life – through the wide variety of people and through the permanently open windows and doors. The wind is the air-con and the loud and rhythmic sound of the train chugging is the background music; punctuated by vendors singing about the coffee and tea they sell – exactly what you want to hear when you’re thirsty and in need of refreshment on your hellishly long journey.

If you fall foul of the sleeper class lottery of luck; you’ll have to ram yourself in second sitting style and battle your way to your berth only to find four people sat casually on your bed for the night. You can try to get them to move, but in truth there is nowhere for them to move (the fact that your cheek is pressed against the window proves this). In fact, there are 32 people in a space for 8 and the train is crammed to five times capacity, and as the floor is already occupied by those bedding down for the night, all that is left for you to do is to share your bed with four strangers for the next 10 hours.

This happened to Sam and not me – on this journey, we managed to get the people off my upper bunk – but instead of bed-sharing, I endured the resentful stares of those I had relegated to the floor for many sleepless hours. It hardly mattered that we had paid for tickets and they hadn’t… The purchase of a ticket guarantees you a bed as long as you are willing to fight tooth and nail for it.

This is by no means a typical sleeper class journey, we caught a train at a busy time and on a busy route. Mostly it is impossible to predict how crowded the train will be; the only thing that is likely is that you won’t have the best nights sleep.

This aside, you can escape the over-crowding by sitting in the train door with your legs dangling over the edge and watching as you pass through the beautiful countryside, over rivers and count your blessings that you’re not in second sitting.

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Getting some fresh air
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Sam trying to get some hours of sleep
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Some views through the bars of the train
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Sam dicing with death
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The view from the top bunk
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A particularly grubby carriage
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Some feet dangling
3-tier AC
These carriages feature sealed compartments (same layout as previous) with air con and significantly more padded seats than sleeper. Bed sheets and meals are provided on the newer trains, and there’s even a guard to wake you for your stop and prevent hordes of people packing into your bed. Normally twice the price of sleeper, and it a bit of a treat for those of us on a budget.
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Nice curtains
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Free bed sheets
2-tier AC
A rip off when you consider it’s exactly the same as 3-tier AC but with only two tier bunk beds. Double the price of 3-tier, to get moderately more privacy.

First Class
I can’t really describe what this is like accurately as I have never travelled first class. And nor do I think I ever will, as it costs near the price of a flight, and the only real benefit is you get your own compartment – but as it sleeps four you’re often still sharing with strangers.

We tend to switch between sleeper and 3-tier, depending on whether we need to arrive in our location refreshed and able to function. It’s always a gamble in sleeper class and odds on you won’t get a good nights sleep – but there’s always a chance you get a snorer or a crying baby in 3-tier and sleep is disrupted anyway. Expect trains to be late and things never to go smoothly, but you’ll nearly always have an interesting story or something good to moan about at the other end.

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Happy Campers

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6 thoughts on “Sleepless in Sleeper Class: an Introduction to the Class System on Indian Railways

  1. Well I think I will keep to trains in good old GB. It sounds as if sleep is impossible unless you are totally knackered but leg dangling sounds interesting.

  2. Huh. Even I didn’t know this. It was interesting going through your post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂 And yes, the leg dangling. I’ve never tried it and I doubt anyone will let me, in the near future. 😛

  3. Sounds like great fun! I’ve always wondered if it was as mental on Indian trains as it looks like on TV. Looking forward to the next post! x

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