Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Buying an Indian Rail Ticket

Update: The Indian Railway website now accepts foreign phone numbers and will text you the OTP code. So all the information about emailing passport pages is redundant.

Once upon a time, my chosen profession involved explaining a variety of linguistic intricacies, complexities and nonsensities to adult Mexicans seeking to further their careers through the knowledge of the English language. And I confess, sometimes I winged it a bit. As in, I made it up as I went along. Rather than mutilating the feathered extremities of our avian friends. English is tough to learn. If it wasn’t the contradictory grammar rulesbefuddling them, it was the neverending list of words that mean different things in different contexts with different nuances in positivity or negativity. Should they say mean, tight fisted or thrifty? But I’ve become befuddled myself lately. Indian Railways are to blame. I needed to book some tickets, and it’s quite the process. But which of us, Indian Railways and myself, is ageing and which is maturing is not always entirely clear.

There are many signs that I am indeed ageing, and not in the sense of a fine wine or rack of beef. The last time I ventured on a big trip somewhere exotic, more than a decade ago, I simply bought a ticket for a flight, a Lonely Planet guide book to briefly browse on the plane and then worked everything out as I went along. Planning? Pft. That’s for old people. I didn’t do planning. Not back then. I didn’t even have a room booked for my first night upon landing. Life should be spontaneous. Roll forward ten years to today. I’ve booked my flight. I’ve still got my Lonely Planet guide book. I’ve also spent hours reading about our destination on the internet. I’ve also downloaded a number of apps, the most useful of which is proving to be Google Trips.
I’ve booked our hotel rooms for our journey through Rajasthan, and I’m monitoring the currency exchange rates. I have created a Flipboard magazine to save relevant blog posts/articles to. I’m conversing with a taxi company in Jaipur to arrange an adventurous trip via Ajmer and Ranakpur. My new rucksack, an obvious but feeble attempt in itself to recapture my youth, has been delivered, unpacked, inspected and placed ready for a trial run. And, of course, I’ve booked tickets for the train journeys we will be making. Whether all this exacting preparation suggests I am ageing or maturing is open to debate.

When you think of the Indian railway system, you likely think of a rickety network of unreliable relics from a bygone era slowly shuffling millions of people around the country, half of them sat on the roof. There’s some truth to that stereotyped view. But it’s not the whole story. Let’s start at the beginning. I’ve already written about the easy new system to obtain a tourist visa to visit India. The train ticket buying process has also greatly improved. Is it a streamlined, quick and easy to use system? Not on your nelly. But with a little patience, it works. 

Buying tickets is  actually a fairly straightforward process. Once you have a verified and activated account with Indian Railways. And therein lies the rub. Whether you choose to buy your tickets on Indian Railways, ClearTrip or MakeMyTrip, you first have to have an account with Indian Railways. A process that starts simply enough. Choose a username and password. Enter your name, date of birth, address etc. Type in the security code. Press the submit button. Voila! Then you need only verify your account by having a code sent to your phone. To your Indian mobile phone.

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You don’t have an Indian mobile phone? Well, me neither. In this case, one must email Indian Railways at the address provided, asking them to activate your account. You must provide your username and attach a scanned copy of your passport page. This must be the required size and must be attached to and not embedded in the email. I fell foul of this in my first attempt to activate my account. If you use Apple’s Mail app on your iMac, you will too. My second attempt, now using Gmail, didn’t succeed because this time I failed to add my username. My third effort was ignored entirely, presumably because I’d now misspelled my username. Two weeks, half a dozen emails and several Twitter messages later and activation seemed a distant prospect. I gave up and started again. New account, double checked everything, sent one Twitter message and my account was activated within 48 hours. India hasn’t yet progressed to the point where it can capably cater for idiots. Do it right first time, and you’ll probably breeze through the process.

It was time to book some train journeys. First up, a ride in the all new-ish Gatimaan Express from Delhi to Agra. It’s India’s fastest train, hitting 99mph as it whisks passengers to and from the Taj Mahal. It’s also the costliest train trip that we’ll take at about £38 for the pair of us. That’s because I treated us to seats in the Executive Chair carriage, with at seat dining of some sort. There’s no Roof Class on this service. The booking process is quite straightfoward, although the website does have the irritating habit of automatically logging you off if you are inactive for even the briefest period of time.

But at least Indian Railways do now accept international debit and credit cards. Until recently, this was not the case, forcing users to register first on Indian Railways and then switch to Cleartrip and MakeMyTrip to actually book tickets. This advance has, for all intent and purpose, rendered the latter two options redundant. Although having said that, it’s not immediately obvious how to pay with an international card. There’s a plethora of payment options. You just have to click through till you find the one that states ‘International Cards’ or something very similar.

Having booked our first two trains, I attempted to book the third. Which was rejected. Specifically ‘Risk Rejected’. A quick call to my card issuer confirmed that the problem was not with them. I abandoned ticket number three till another day. Another day came the next day. I received a call to my mobile from an Indian lady. My first assumption was that this was one of those scam calls, hoping that I would hand over control of my computer for a ‘virus’ check. But no, the heavily accented Indian lady asked instead if I had purchased a train ticket recently. Why yes, I had. She thanked me and ended the call.

So I thought I’d now try again to book that elusive third ticket. The payment went through easily enough – heavily accented Indian lady had clearly done her job! Well done her. As in, congratulations. Not cooked right through. I still actually have one more train ticket to book. Whilst reservations are open months in advance for trains from Delhi to Agra, Agra to Sawai Madhopur and Sawai to Jaipur, tickets for the Jaipur to Udaipur Express open one month before departure. I have the date recorded on my calendar app with an auto alert set to remind me at the appointed time.

This obviously is not a definitive article on using India Railways. For that, see Seat 61, the online bible for almost all international rail travel. I can but add a supplementary account of my own experience to the public record. I can confirm that the Indian system is moving, albeit a little slowly, into the 21st century. It has so far worked for me. Although I have only done the booking part – the actual travel experience is yet to come. Hopefully the Indian experience will leave me older and wiser. And not old and withered.