For foreigners, the India railway system can be a daunting challenge – forget Waterloo or Grand Central Station – this is organised chaos on a scale you’re unlikely to have ever experienced before!
One of the first thing you’ll notice at the train station is a heavy security presence, with armed army and police officers everywhere. Following the 2009 Mumbai terrorist attacks- India and especially its transport network have been on high alert.
Almost all trains travel with security on-board, but also expect to see large numbers of heavily armed on and off duty soldiers travelling back and forth to one of the remote army bases, particularly on the northern borders with Pakistan, China and Bangladesh.
On board there are instances of opportunistic theft and as such tourists are advised to remain vigilant. Personal safety can also reportedly be an issue, particularly for female travellers. Most trains have female only carriages and Kolkata and NJP stations even had a ‘Womens Safety Area’ with a stern faced female guard armed with a rifle.
Our advice would be to always travel in pairs or ideally groups. Remain vigilant and take some common sense security precautions.
8 safety tips for travelling on trains in India
1. We were advised by a friend to buy a bicycle lock to secure your main luggage to a fixture such as the bottom bunk. We ordered a bike lock and also a Bosvision Combo (available from Amazon for about $12.99) lock with retractable 2m cable – whilst initially it looked a bit chunky, so far I’ve been impressed. We’ve been cabling all our bags together plus our shoes!
3. Alternatively we recommend sleeping with smaller day bags with valuable under your head/ pillow. Never leave valuables down the corridor end of your bunk!
4. Keep copies of all your important documents and back everything up with photos on your smartphone and/or on a cloud platform like Dropbox or Google Docs. Paper copies of your passport and insurance details may come in handy, but more sensitive items such as photocopies of the front and back of your credit card and best kept online only.
5. Buy clothing with zipped pockets – travelling in January means we’ve slept fully clothed and kept our passports, wallets and mobiles in our jacket or trouser pockets.
6. Expect friendly locals to come and sit down next to you at every opportunity and strike up conversation. They’ll very soon invite their friends over and start talking about you in the local language – don’t be too alarmed if suddenly 10 people are squeezed in around you in a space meant for four!
7. One of the most worrying parts of travelling on the trains was the number of men in casual clothing with machine guns. Apparently off duty Indian soldiers always use the trains to travel back and forth to their bases carrying their guns and no visible ID. As a Brit who’s not used to guns this scares me – especially when an AK47 is casually left on the bed next to you when the owner goes to the toilet. My advice is stay calm and vigilant – there’s no way of telling the good guys from the bad guys, so ask a local passenger if you’re concerned.
8. If challenged take common sense security precautions and remember no material possessions are worth endangering your safety for.
Those are some simple tips that are applicable not just when travelling on the trains but useful for any journey. Vigilance however will always be your best way of staying safe.