India rail versus Japan rail

May 27, 2015

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I don’t think we’ve ever really explained just how crazy the Indian train system is, only alluded to it. It is mental, like completely out of control, makes no sense to anybody mental. Luckily, I had experience of its completely baffling rules from the first time I had visited so we weren’t completely shocked by it. Others definitely were not prepared for it; we met a few people who had just arrived and said they planned to travel long distance in the next day or two. Do you have a ticket? No. Hmmm, sorry but there is no way you will be travelling on a popular train route tomorrow, prepare yourselves for a bus!

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India’s train infrastructure is pretty good, and every part of the country is serviced by a train of some kind. However that doesn’t mean there are hourly trains like we have in the UK. Try once a day, or even once a week. With over a billion people in the country and an emerging middle class who want to spend their money travelling and a culture of men working in the cities and travelling home to see their families, the tickets are in demand. Also, strangely, the trains are cheaper than buses (we figure they must be subsidised by the government), normally faster and slightly more comfortable so it’s a bit of a no brainer.

The system means that tickets are available for sale one month before the journey, similarly to at home. The difference is that you can buy it, from anywhere in the country, and have absolutely no intention (or a very small intention) of getting on that train and still get a full refund up to 3 hours before that train departs. Therefore, popular routes get booked up very very quickly.
Because of this system they have a second system called waitlisting. This means that you can buy a ticket that is in a queue to become a real ticket as people refund their confirmed tickets. This might happen two hours after your purchase, or three hours before the train is due to leave, or never. Therefore you’re in a slight limbo state.
Then there is a third system called RAC which stands for Reserve Against Cancellation and means that you have a ticket to board the train but not an allocated seat, so you can stand for your entire journey or try to make some friends.
Has your brain fallen out yet?
The people who were scattered around us on the floor during our 38-hour journey experience we assume were RAC. We thought our experience on that packed claustrophobic train was hard but imagine not having a bed or even a seat for that long. We met Adam and Felicia after that journey, and travelled on with them into Nepal, and their train story was worse. They did a similar 38 hour journey from Chennai to Varanasi having booked their ticket online, but there was some kind of error and their bed wasn’t there. They spent 38 hours on the metal floor in between the toilet cubicles and the main bit of the packed carriage with 7 other women. 9 people crammed into a corridor by a toilet used by hundreds of people. You can imagine what that smelt like. We felt pretty lucky after that.

However you’ll never go hungry on Indian railways, there is always food and water available. Sellers negotiate the packed corridors regularly and more get on when the train stops at a station. The chants of ‘CHAI, CHAI, CHAI, COFFEE, COFFEE, COFFEE’ become very familiar and can often make a journey just a bit more manageable.

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So on our sudden arrival in Japan we thought YES trains that run on time without someone’s chicken on your head!! Right?
It is true that Japan’s train system runs to the second; it is so meticulous! When I was reading up on the predicted, forthcoming earthquake, (which has already been named Tokai) an article said something along the lines of ‘nothing is late in Japan, every single train arrives on time as expected so the earthquake will too’. They pride themselves on it.
Our train from the airport cost a fair bit; £38 each with a 3 day subway pass. A bit of a shock after our £6 tickets from Mumbai to Gorakhpur, but the train was pristine, it didn’t smell, there were loads of seats and we hadn’t had to book it three weeks in advance. Bonus.
It wasn’t until we got to Tokyo that we found out there’s this thing called the Japan Rail Pass for foreigners which allows you unlimited travel on Japan Rail trains including the bullets. It’s pretty expensive at £245 for two weeks but great, that would make things pretty easy. Then we read more and discovered that this pass can’t be purchased in Japan, it has to be bought in a foreign country and collected when you arrive. Ok, so our lack of research ruled us out of that one.

We considered hiring a car, but you need an international driving licence here. Nope, don’t have that. We looked at the bullet trains without the rail pass but one way from Tokyo to Kyoto, which is about 600km cost between £70-£100 each ONE WAY. Ouch.

Then I read about local trains. Each one only services a small area so you do have to change a lot and they’re much slower than the Shinkansen (bullet) but there is a strange advantage to using them… For every 100km on your ticket you have an extra day to use it. Hmmmm? So we just got a train from Otsuki to Kyoto which is over 400km and if you did it in one sitting it would take 5-6 trains and 9 hours, but we had four days to make the journey in. So we stopped off for two days in Matsumoto and saw another awesome little place. I think the same does apply to the Shinkansen train but the route is much more direct so there are less options to stop off at interesting places.

It’s still been expensive but overall we will actually spend considerably less than the Japan Rail Pass and have been here longer than the two weeks that it is valid for, so it definitely was the right thing for us. Plus we’ve seen some awesome scenery along the way.

So far there has been no food available on Japanese trains. You have to be pretty organised not to end up with a 7 hour journey without food or water. Not too much effort with the amazing 7/11s – haha – but still useful to know beforehand!

Overall I think the train systems are quite representative of the countries and both have pros and cons. The experience on an Indian train is completely unpredictable; it might be absolutely packed, smelly and be full of rude people who stare at you, or it might not – we had some amazing conversations with people on trains. You might wait nine hours for a four hour journey or it might leave spot on time. Who knows. Japanese trains are totally predictable, you know exactly where you stand. That’s hard when you have three minutes to change trains and you know the next one will leave whether you’re on it or not. Cue two white people running across a station with giant bags; fascinating for the locals. And generally ends in one of you falling over. You can book them five minutes before you get on, like UK trains as they’re never full and the service is impeccable.

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