Long Distance Sleeper class train experience & guide, India

I had my longest train journey of recent times. Took train to Kolkata from Chennai- about 28 hours spanning across 3 calendar days, in sleeper class. My earlier long distance train experiences were usually 16 hours between Chennai and Mangaluru. Have traveled in 1997 between Mangaluru and Itarsi Junction by train, but that was 22 years ago. This post shares the experience and tips in case you're planning long distance train journey in India.

Why long distance travel by train?
Most people travel by train purely because it is one of the cheapest modes of transport and they can't afford flights. A few travel by train for the fun of it, for the experience, stories etc but they are not even 0.001% of traveling public. Most middle class can now afford flights so prefer to fly instead of spending days in train. But flight fares are very dynamic and at times can be too expensive. In my case I wanted to reach Kolkata from Chennai- but while I was checking (June last week), the fares were around 4500 Rs for the dates I had in mind. I had time at my disposal, so decided to try the train and save about 4000 rupees, at the expense of spending an entire day extra. 3 days before my travel I noticed a flight fare dropping to Rs 3200 for my travel date- but that meant still spending 2.5k extra plus losing cancellation fee on train and also rescheduling a few things- I decided to stick with the train.

What are the concerns with long distance train travel?
1. Time. Time means money and spending days in a train won't appeal to everyone. You've to factor your one day salary, productive things you could have done in that time etc. Of course you can do some work on the train-nothing stops you, but time is a crucial factor
2. Compromised comfort.
There're lots of things not in your control that can severely compromise your comfort in a sleeper class train journey
A. Crowd: A sleeper class is designed for 72 passengers. But at times there could be 9 more RAC passengers, plus often people without tickets, people with general class tickets crowd the sleeper compartment looking for some space and then there're vendors constantly moving around. Sometimes you will get friendly co-passengers, at times you don't. Co-passengers who don't respect your space, who dirty the compartment by littering or causing other disturbances can spoil your journey. There is also a remote threat of theft, harassment or other serious concerns
B. Not so comfortable restrooms: Clean toilets are crucial during long journey- Indian railways has been focusing on this by inducting bio toilets, more better maintained toilets etc, but still at times you may get a compartment with poorly maintained toilets or toilets made unbearable by careless fellow passengers.
C. Temperature/Weather. Sleeper class is NON AC. It will have fan but fans can barely help on a hot summer day. Your best source of refreshment is cool air from the window. Still on a hot day you could be sweating a lot leaving you very comfortable in a confined space. Too much rain can also be a problem.
3. Hygiene concerns: There're several videos showing food and beverages sold on trains is made from impure ingredients or in filthy atmosphere etc. With no way of verifying the authenticity, you've to either trust the food sold to you or bring your own food.

Because of these reasons, many people, particularly women prefer to avoid long distance train journey in India, if they can afford an alternative.

My particular Chennai-Howrah journey was fine- crowd was normal, weather was bearable and train reached on time. But I have seen other issues listed above during my other train journeys. There's no way of knowing these things before the journey, so you are often left to your fate.

How much money will you save by traveling by train instead of flight?
Below is a sample fare table comparing sleeper, 3rd AC train and flight ticket prices between some of the routes.
#
Route
Train travel Time
Air travel time
Sleeper train fare
(INR)
3rd AC train fare
Lowest flight fare
Normal Flight fare
Last minute flight fare
1
Chennai-Kolkata
28-32 hours
4-6 hours (2 hours flight+ airport formalities + airport travel time
 660
 1600
2500
3300
 5000+
2
Chennai-Delhi
33-41 hours
 5-7 hours
780
2050
2500
3300
8000+
3
Delhi-Guwahati
27-43 hours
6-7 hours
755
2000
3000
3600-4000
8000+
4
Mumbai-Kolkata
26-36 hours
6-7 hours
740
2000
2800+
3500-3800
6000+
5








Takeaways:
  • Sleeper coach while super cheap, takes 5 to 7 times the time air travel would take (even after factoring some time for airport formalities and travel to airport. But it will save more than 60% compared to flight ticket cost
  • 3rd AC fare is usually 3x sleeper fare and is marginally cheaper than flight ticket- If you are flexible you can book flights for a few hundred rupees more-which is totally worth the time saved
  • Air ticket prices fluctuate a lot- last minute fares could be astronomically high- if you have time at your disposal, traveling by train could save you a huge amount compared to a highly priced flight ticket.
  • If you have enough time, one good idea will be to break the long journey by spending a day or two in cities enroute- like between Chennai and Kolkata- you can possibly get off the train at Vijayawada, Vishakapattanam or Bhubaneswar, see the city and continue your journey next day.
  • Flights to less popular cities are often expensive than big metros-trains are good alternative instead of an overpriced one stop flight
  • Long distance trains can be smartly used to save on overnight hotel stay expense- take overnight train, arrive next morning, you can fresh up for a few hundred rupees at dormitories often available in major cities.
The day I took the train, Air India sent me this mail. But their claim is not true. INR 990 Alliance Air fare is for some short distance like Chennai-Coimbatore, Delhi-Bikaner etc on just a few seats per flight when booked well in advance. These destinations can be reached by sleeper class for one fourth the above amount.


Which berth to select?
You will have an option of opting for a preferred birth while booking ticket- this is not guaranteed but usually gets assigned if available. (You can also opt for NOT to book a ticket if preferred birth is not available). Each of the berth types have their pros and cons. Read below and select based on your preference.
#
Berth Type
Pros
Cons
1
Upper
1. Can sleep anytime
2. Bags/items not easily visible/accessible for others- more safer
3. Least disturbance
1. Need to climb tiny ladder
2. Limited view of outside
2
Middle

Need to fold backrest to prepare berth-can't sleep at will
3
Lower
Window seat-view n fresh air
No climbing required
Access to mini table
 Can't sleep at will
4
Side Upper

If your body protrudes out of the berth, might rub against passing vendors/public
5
Side Lower
Comfortable seat to sit
Guaranteed window view
Disturbance due to moving vendors and public

How is Indian Railway long distance travel compared to other countries?
Most countries in South East Asia have good railway network- I have done train travel in Vietnam, Myanmar etc. With some minor differences, most are set up during British occupation and have seen a bit of modernization over time. Experience in these countries is largely comparable to India. Indian Railway supplies coaches to many countries around the world, including Australia.
If you have time and money, there're luxurious options with Indian Railways- Rajdhani, Golden Chariot, Tejas Express, Vande Bharat and several new concepts are being tried. India is also aspiring to have bullet trains but that may take several more years.

Conclusion
1. If you're very keen to experience long distance train journey in sleeper class or can't afford anything better and comfortable with some of the potential inconveniences/limitations listed above, go ahead. It is doable-1000s of Indians travel this way each day.
2. If you can afford 3rd AC will be lot more convenient, comfortable and safe. 3rd AC roughly costs three times sleeper class fare but still about half the cheapest possible flight fare.
3. Flights, if can be planned well or if you're flexible a bit are often available at reasonable fares. Time it saves is usually worth the premium.

Similar: Yangon Circle train experience * Maglev superfast train Shanghai * Konkan railway * Chennai Rail Museum * Swiss Mountain Railway * Doodhsagar falls by train * Japan Bullet trains

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