What class should a lone woman travel on a sleeper train to be safe at night?
Non-airconditioned classes tend to have less strict ticket checks starting with the lowest class and gradually increasing till the highest class. Unreserved coaches are usually jam-packed with no place to sleep; you often have to travel standing even at night and not advised. Three-tier non-AC (three bunk beds in one 'column') and second class / two-tier non-AC (also called sleeper class; two bunk beds in one 'column') is the most common class of travel and it is safe for women if travelling in a group. Air-conditioned classes tend to have stricter staff supervision, ticket checking, and more numerous police patrols. (First class non-AC enjoys the same benefits too.) Although AC coaches are more expensive, for solo women travellers it might be worth the peace-of-mind. Look out whether the destinations you want to travel to/from are serviced by 'Duronto Express' or 'Garib Rath' named trains as these offer air-conditioned coaches at non-AC prices, and travel almost non-stop between destinations thus sometimes getting you up to a day earlier than other trains (which means, one less day spent overnight).
For solo women travellers, safety in second/sleeper class depends on what region you are travelling in: as a rough guide, most trains running or originating south India are 'safer' than ones running or originating in north India. Rather than outright theft, what will probably be of greater concern for solo women travellers would be getting stared at or harassed by men trying to hit on you; it's a sad fact but it happens more in the north than it does in the south. If available, check whether there are women-only or 'ladies compartments' on the train you're travelling in. Cases of theft or robbery are much more common in the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar-Madhya Pradesh region than they are anywhere else.
In case issues arise, contacting the ticket checker (known as 'TTE' on Indian trains, will help to know this term in case you want to ask someone where he is; 'TTE' stands for 'Train Ticket Examiner') the best thing to do. TTEs are higher ranking officials, usually speak English well enough to be understandable at the very least, and will be able to coordinate with railway police personnel onboard if so required.
As an Indian and a woman who has travelled a lot on Indian trains, I must tell you that train travel in India, even for solo women travellers, is largely safe. Sure, there are reported instances of theft, harassment - but where do you not hear them?
My advice: travel either by 2 tier or 3 tier A/C coaches. In sleeper or non-A/C classes, especially in North India, you may travel with people unused to seeing foreigners, so you may get a lot of stares and questions. As far as I know women-only compartments are available only in general class and sleeper class. If I were you, I would avoid these. The ladies compartment is usually the first bay, right next to the entrance. This used to be protected by a "closed" shutter, but I think that is no longer the case. Apart from being very claustrophobic, this is usually crowded and noisy, with women and children. I consider them to be all the more risky affair than the "open" compartments.
Most trains do not have a gender specific quota, and as far as I know women only compartments are available only in Sleeper or non-A/C classes. Selecting this criteria might just reduce your chance of getting a confirmed berth.
- Avoid Sleeper class. It's always crowded, and vendors keep streaming in and out.
- AC coaches are safer and they also have an attendant (though may be be difficult to get hold of most of the times).
- Second AC has two berths per side. There are curtains on all sides for privacy, but this may or may not pose some other problems.
- Third AC is ok, with no curtains and three berths per side. This is the one I prefer.
Avoid First AC like plague. Politicians and their goons use them (not exclusively, of course) and there have been incidents of molestation and rape.
No matter what class you book, avoid the side upper/lower berth. This exposes you to the people using the passage way. The creeps tends to feel you up/try to molest you at night.
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