There is nothing that quite compares with travelling by train in India, an experience that engenders wonder, nervous anticipation and heady exhilaration in equal measure. In the following extracts, Telegraph Travel writers convey something of the magic.
Deccan Odyssey (Delhi-Mumbai)
Suddenly more noise fills the air. A band of dancers and drummers, dressed in bright reds, greens and purples, has appeared on the platform. After a moment’s hesitation, my nine-year-old daughter Lydia accepts an invitation to join the troupe, trying to follow the steps with a broad smile on her face.
The Deccan Odyssey has just been refurbished, and boarding the train, resplendent in a livery of purple and gold, I feel as though we’ve gone back in time to be elite members of the British Raj. Our cabin steward Himangshu – “Call me Himi!” – leads us from the lounge coach, through two restaurant carriages and a bar, to our cabins.
Mumbai commuter train (Mumbai CST-Parel)
A “tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick” drew nearer and train 20 to Parel came into view. The crowd tensed in anticipation, like a row of runners waiting for a starter pistol. When the nose of the engine reached the platform and the sound of braking and creaking grew deafening, moustaches and sweat-sodden polyester shirts appeared in the doorways, looming larger and higher before they suddenly leapt into the air from the moving carriages and hit the ground running. Before the train had stopped, hordes of men rained down on us with monsoon force, while the rows behind began to heave forward, reaching over our heads to grab the doorways and haul themselves in. The papaya was knocked from my hand and slithered down my leg. Once again the rule was simple: attack or be attacked. Crushed between satchels, stale armpits and wet skin, spitting out mouthfuls of coconut oil-flavoured hair, we managed to push forward and fell into the middle of the carriage.
The Toy Train (Darjeeling-Ghum)
Until the completion in 1881 of the 51-mile Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – nicknamed “the toy train” for its 2ft-wide gauge and pulled by blue Glasgow-built steam locomotives – visitors completed the final stage of their journey in bullock carts trundling up the winding track still called Hill Cart Road.
I took the hour-long ride to Ghum, 1,000ft below – a rail journey like no other. Whistle blowing and soot and smoke billowing, the train rattled along at 6mph on a track laid along Darjeeling’s narrow streets, passing so close to houses and market stalls that I could have easily snatched a samosa or a woolly hat. Though the train is a familiar sight, children still run alongside and everyone, passengers and spectators alike, smiles. It’s impossible not to.
The Saurashtra Mail (Okha-Ledo)
The train crosses a flat landscape of palms and cactus and dazzling green fields. Camels amble past, water buffalo bask in rivers, shepherds in embroidered smocks and tight leggings keep watch over their flocks. Women in crimson saris carry huge bundles of branches on their heads.
The young man in our carriage is Parag Vyas. We feel we know him already from the reservation chart. He is taking boxes of confectionery to Mumbai from his “spicy snacks” factory (“Seven storeys,” he explains. “Eleven thousand square feet; 365 varieties.”) For the next seven hours, our conversation ranges over recycling, the digestive benefits of sugar beet, arranged marriages v love matches, the inequalities of India and his son’s martial arts classes.
“I like going by train,” he says. “You can sleep all the time and when you reach your destination, you’re fresh. Thirty-six hours is a very common journey for us. Go by flight and you are only three or four hours away from your work.”
The Maharaja’s Express (Delhi-Agra-Ranthambore-Jaipur-Delhi)
On the polo field of Jaipur’s sprawling City Palace, created by the Maharajas of Jaipur, the train’s passengers are invited to try a few chukkas of elephant polo. On my trip, an alliance of Brazil, Australia and Britain was defeated by the Russians. Next morning, cocooned in rugs against the early chill, guests leave the train at 6.30 in open-topped land cruisers that whip through the quiet streets to Ranthambore National Park. The park was once the hunting ground of the Maharaja of Jaipur, and its lightly forested hills and lakes form an area of great natural beauty. It has 55 tigers, which is an upper limit because each needs a huge territory. Though we left without a glimpse of one, the spotted deer, monkeys, peacocks and pigs were entertainment enough.
The colossus (Indian railways by numbers)
India’s train system is a remarkable piece of engineering: some 71,000 physical miles of track, 41,000 miles of network and 7,172 stations – a colossus that carries 23 million passengers each day and 8.4 billion every year. And all at soil-scraping prices that keep its carriages within financial reach of much of the population. It is India’s veins, arteries and capillaries – and many of its vital organs, too.
However, it is also enormously antiquated – a very literal legacy of the Raj in that much of it was laid down while India was under British control. Only 6,000 of those 40,000 miles of network have been built since independence in 1947. The other 85 per cent of the system is rather older. The first train on Indian turf rolled between Bombay (Mumbai) and Thane – a 21-mile jaunt through (what is now the state of) Maharashtra – on April 16 1853. By 1880, after a wave of Victorian enthusiasm and investment, 9,000 miles of track had been pinned into position. Bombay and Calcutta were linked in 1870.
- Railbookers (020 3327 2467; railbookers.com) Independent rail specialists with a variety of tours including Mystical India (for the Golden Triangle) and the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels (including a stop at the Taj Mahal).
- Great Rail Journeys (01904 734500; greatrail.com) Guided rail tour specialists with journeys in India on a number of iconic trains including the Palace on Wheels and the Konkan Railway taking in Mumbai and Mangalore.
- Ffestiniog Travel (01766 772030; ffestiniogtravel.com) offers an annual tour to India that includes rides to three former British hill stations.
- The Man in Seat 61 (seat61.com) An authoritative site with a useful “beginner’s guide to rail travel in India” section.
Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh is published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing priced at £10.99. To order your copy for £9.99 plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk