Haridwar isn't really very far from Delhi and it's of marginal advantage to take a night train. The train has to pretty much slow itself to little more than a slow job in order to ensure that you don't arive in Delhi as stupid o'clock in the morning. I offered my sister and her partner the option to take a much quicker day train but they decided that an over-nighter should be part of their India 'experience'. I wouldn't have pushed them into it – especially as I know that others we've travelled with have hated the sleeper trains – but I was glad they agreed to do it.
The overnight train from Haridwar to Delhi pulled into the station about 20 minutes before it was due to depart. It's rare that you need to worry about the train system rushing you in India and this was no exception. Due to the incredible size of many Indian trains and to the amount of people, luggage and general 'stuff' that has to be moved around, they sensibly allow time for you to find your carriage, load all your gear and settle down.
Thanks to the great advice of the station official my husband had tracked down, we found ourselves standing in exactly the right place when the train rolled in. We'd booked a first class carriage and since these are always in high demand and very limited supply, you won't generally know your berth numbers much in advance. Since the railway system has to allocate sleeping space and it's not really appropriate to put people of different sexes who don't know one another into the same cabin, the berth allocation can be kept a tightly guarded secret until the day of travel. There's always the risk that a high ranking government official will turn up and demand a place and so things can get a little tense.
With four of us on the same booking it was logical that the system should allocate us a four birth cabin together, and fortunately that's what we got. It sounds so obvious that you'd probably wonder why I even comment on it, but if you book 2nd Class Air Con berths, it's not unusual to find that they spread four people around in an illogical way – perhaps with one stranger stuck in the midst of your four bunks and one of your party shoved in the next section. We had our berths confirmed by the station master but if you don't find someone like him and if there's no booking list displayed (there usually is, but we didn't find it) you will also be able to check the list of names on the door of the carriage.
Every previous time that we've taken a first class sleeper there have only been 3 or 4 cabins in total so the train from Haridwar was a surprise because a whole carriage was assigned to first class. Perhaps there's a steady flow of wealthy Hindu pilgrims making the journey and I guess if it's economically viable to run a whole carriage, the railways won't want to say no. The main difference between first and second class sleepers – apart from the price for first being typically nearly double that of second – is that you get a door. Generally the berths are slightly wider and slightly less rock-like but you can't really take that for granted. Oh, and in first they've taught the cockroaches to curtsey.
I used to enjoy second class sleepers because they really offer you a window on the lives of others. Then I got to the stage where I came to the conclusion that most of the population of India comes without a volume control button. People think absolutely nothing of bouncing onto a train full of sleeping travellers in the middle of the night, banging around and shouting to their friends. It's like being in a European youth hostel full of Italian students.
Aileen and Joyce were pretty excited when they saw our cabin. I don't think either had ever slept on a train before and they wanted to push all the buttons and pull all the levers to check how everything worked. I suggested that whilst the train was stationery we should make up the beds because once it started moving it would be much more difficult. Aileen and I took the two bunk beds leaving Tony and Joyce on the bottom – Tony because he seems to spend half the night in the toilet and Joyce because she has a bad back and is very short and I didn't fancy her having to climb up the ladder.
Service with different railways differs. In some districts they will make your bunk up for you but normally you find a pillow and bundle of linens and a blanket folded neatly on your seat. One day someone will design a sheet sleeping bag type contraption which will make things much easier but in the meantime travellers will have to do their best to figure out how to make up a bed with two sheets and a blanket when the aforementioned bed is suspended off the wall.
Temperature is always a tricky issue in a sleeper. I foolishly always opt for the top bunk and then over-heat. There is a strange hissing air conditioning system but I prefer to use the fans which are on the ceiling although at top bunk level these barely stir the air and at lower bunk level they freeze the occupants.
I have a pathological fear of Indian railway toilets which is illogical and silly because they are probably some of the least scary examples of local sanitation, mostly because everything that comes out goes out – if you know what I mean. Consequently they're normally not too bad, especially in the posher carriages. I also fear getting locked in one since they often have locks on both the inside AND the outside of the door. I do find myself humming the old ditty "When the train is in the station, please refrain from urination, have respect for public property" since I was brought up with strict instructions to never use a train toilet when the train wasn't moving. However, since we'd previously observed an old lady squat at the side of the platform and poo directly onto the train line, I didn't think anyone was going to be precious about using the cubicles when the train was stopped.
Once we set off, we had a few snacks, shuffled off to clean our teeth and make ready for bed. Each berth has a small reading light so I read for a while but I was soon lulled to sleep by the rocking of the train. Aside from overheating and messing around with the fans in the night, I slept pretty well and our first timers survived my husband's snoring and woke pretty fresh the next morning. There's very little risk of over-sleeping on an Indian train because the staff start clattering around long before you reach your destination. One of the most interesting things first thing in the morning is to watch the communities that live beside the track, waking up and preparing for the day. Sadly this does include the opportunity to watch a lot of people emptying their bowels very close to the track but it's not unusual to get a happy wave as they go about their business.
The Haridwar overnight train rolls into Old Delhi station which is well served by the Chandni Chowk Metro station and by banks of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers waiting to take you wherever you want. Be sure to fight and argue about the prices.