I’ve always loved trains: looking at them, riding on them, eating on them, even sleeping on them. Anything about them except for the unusual hobby of trainspotting—that I never understood; seeing grown men all bundled up at five in the morning on a platform’s edge taking notes fastidiously in the rain as trains hurtle by in all directions. Railways lost their luster for me somewhat in the 1980s when I commuted everyday in and out of London on British Rail. The rolling stock was fine, it was the whole commuting experience that was soul destroying. I’m reminded that I once met a man by the name of Jack on that commute who would tell you how many rail miles he had travelled thus far on any given day and how many remained until his planned retirement.
Apart from my commuting woes, I’ve been most fortunate to take many exciting and memorable train journeys in numerous countries, including the Australian Ghan, United States Auto Train, Japanese Shinkansen, Chinese Jinghu, Canadian VIA Rail, South American Hiram Bingham and many high-speed train journeys throughout Europe. European high-speed trains nearing on 300 km/h are not to be confused with the inappropriately titled Indian superfast trains, which amble at a modest 55 km/h. Nevertheless, my odd lifelong fascination with railroads has led to the present desire to take a train journey across the Indian subcontinent, notwithstanding my mental outdated images of crowds hanging precariously from roofs and windows. While not the world’s largest rail network, India has by far the highest ridership measured in annual passenger-kilometers. As of 2014 it had over one trillion passenger-kilometers, equivalent to a per capita usage of over 1,000 passenger-kilometers—the same order of magnitude as per-capita usage in Europe, but with a lot more people of course.
While I enjoy an occasional challenge on my travels I had not anticipated the inexorable tests of my on-line skills in attempting to secure tickets for India’s railways. The singular company responsible for the world’s fourth largest rail network is state owned and known as the India Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC). Generally, with all the traveling I do I will happily use the services of a travel agent and pay a fee to assist with these types of things but there was no apparent easy go-to company in this instance and therefore I persevered tout seul in my railway arrangements. However, when I tried to obtain tickets from IRCTC I was defeated immediately: merely attempting to search for tickets was a non-starter, as the webpage appeared completely unresponsive. Subsequently, i.e., after what seemed like an age, I realized that the site was designed to ignore incorrect entries with impunity. Absent any feedback whatsoever the site apparently requires the user to correctly guess an exact combination of correct entries. Perhaps obvious to the seasoned Indian rail network traveler, required inputs include the dates, class of service, and connecting stations, which was not anywhere near obvious to the first time user. If a train and class did not exist between stations on any given date one could not proceed. Sensing some continued trouble a quick Google search revealed legions of folks encountering the same issues. On one of those useful last resort forums, some guy called Larry boasted that he booked the train with no problems using a site called cleartrip.com.
Once downloaded, a huge benefit of the Cleartrip app is that it identifies when you have entered incorrect information, and it is far easier to use. For example, Cleartrip helpfully allows you to select a city with “all stations” instead of leaving you to guess which station in one city matches another in a different city. For example, Chennai (Madras) and Bangalore each have 5 different stations although the trains between each city don’t run to all stations, leaving you to try up to 25 different combinations on the IRCTC site. Furthermore with 8 classes of service and not all available on each train adds a few more combinations for you to guess.
But my favorite nuance is the mandatory requirement to provide a cell phone number. The IRCTC asks for a 10-digit Indian phone number, which of course you don’t have. When you use Cleartrip it suggests that you enter a fake number. Now the fake number has to look real so, you’re told after you try 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on that Indian phone numbers must start with a 7 8 or 9. Considering the demographics you quickly start to realize that quite a few of the 3 billion remaining numeric combinations are already in use by the burgeoning Indian populous. Forget all 8s or all 9s and go with your inner random number generator. After a few tries I eventually had my fake Indian mobile number accepted by the system. But this is where it got even more comical – Cleartrip tells you in a congratulatory tone that a verification code has been sent to your fake Indian cellphone. After a bit of head scratching it appears that there is yet another workaround for the fake number workaround by emailing a copy of your passport to Indian railways. There were a few other little online challenges but it is fair to say that this process was not superfast taking a few hours of effort over a 3-day period, taking time differences into consideration.