Saturday 7th December
Unfortunately the train pulled into platform 3 at Kannur which meant trudging up a steep flight of stairs to the bridge – hard work with our backpacks in the early afternoon heat. Long distance express trains normally pull into the much more convenient platform 1 but our train was running an hour late, so had competition for the prime spot. For a train to be an hour late may sound reprehensible, but this train had started its journey the previous evening – the delay therefore represented a tardiness of only 3 minutes per hour of travel, which is not that bad when you consider the potential causes for delay on the Indian railway network. If First Great Western are late because of leaves on the line – how would they cope with buffalo or elephants?
The railway system is one of India’s wonders, with 1.4 million employees (and jobs are highly sought after) and a bewildering cornucopia of classes, quotas, concessions and ticket statuses. We’ve got our heads around the classes now – all 8 of them (although there are rarely more than four on any one train). Our usual choice on long distance trains is sleeper class, the second cheapest, not primarily for financial reasons but because the superior classes are air conditioned, which means that they are freezing cold and have sealed tinted window which are virtually opaque – so no view of the passing countryside. As tourists we don’t need to bother about the 51 possible concessions which range from the usual age related ones through the laudable (kidney patients going for dialysis, rural girl school children attending engineering exams and small farmers going to agricultural exhibitions) to the inexplicable (parents of children who have received bravery awards – but not the child? – and mountaineers going expeditions).
Quotas are important to us. Seats can be booked up to 60 days in advance and many trains sell out quickly, partly because tickets can be cancelled with only a tiny admin fee deducted from the refund that is paid straight into your account if you cancel online. This means that people buy ‘just in case’ tickets – perhaps tickets for the same journey on several different days because they are unsure of their exact plans. However a percentage of seats (what percentage, who knows) are only released the day before the train starts its journey (which may be two or three days before you actually want to catch it). This is the tatkal quota – they cost 30% more than the normal fare and no refund if you cancel. We need to book some tatkal tickets tomorrow for a train that leaves Ernakulam on the10th, but which starts from Bangalore on the 9th.
If that fails, one option is to go to the station and try for a ticket under the foreign tourist quota, but we will need proof of exchanging some foreign currency for that. Or, assuming that no genuine VIP turns up, we might wangle one on the VIP quota. Once all the seats have been sold, and before the tatkal quota is released, tickets are sold on the basis of Reservation Against Cancellation – you can get on the train, but you’ll only get a seat/berth if enough people have cancelled. Once a certain number if RAC tickets are gone, you will be Waitlisted – you pay for your ticket, but can’t be sure that you’ll be allowed onto the train – again, it depends on how many people cancel. If you book online you can track your progress as you move up the Waitlist, through RAC, and hopefully to the holy grail of Confirmed – but you might not get there until the charts are prepared, a couple of hours before departure, or at all, in which case you get a full refund. Which isn’t much consolation if it leaves you stuck somewhere you don’t want to be.