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From Kolkata to Dhaka by Train.
Standing in the bustling and almost steaming waiting room of Kolkata (Calcutta)’s Railway Reservation Centre, it began to look like my dream of travelling out of India by train was not going to happen.
It was also clear, that being in the Foreigners Queue for this train, was a distinct disadvantage. Usually, foreigners get off lightly with preferential treatment while travelling by rail in India – we even get a special quota – but on this train from Kolkata to Bangladesh, the vast majority of passengers are foreigners: they are Bangladeshis. So, surrounded by extremely curious (but not unfriendly) Bangladeshis, my train experience from India to Bangladesh began.
My determination to secure a ticket paid off. Four hours of standing in line, a “waitlisted” ticket and a return to the same railway reservation centre a few hours later, I finally had a confirmed ticket in hand for the Maitree express leaving to Dhaka the next day. Note – Maitree Express tickets can not be bought online. More on how to book tickets below!
A little history: The partition of India in 1947 disrupted rail links between former East and West Bengal, and former regular train services between Kolkata and Dhaka were stopped. It was not until 2001 that talks began to renew rail links between the two countries, and in April 2008 the inaugural Kolkata to Dhaka Maitree Express ran. Maitree means friendship – the train signifies growing and strategic ties between the two countries in current times.
Travelling on the Maitree Express.
The next morning I woke up before dawn, to head to Kolkata railway station. Note that this is not the main Kolkata railway station that is the sprawling Howrah on the other side of the Hooghly River, but rather Chitpore, a quiet, suburban station located in the north of the City.
Before boarding the train, I’d already made friends for my trip – a Bangladeshi family who had been staying in my guesthouse in Kolkata who were returning to Dhaka. They were the first of many generous friends that I’d make on that journey and in my time in Bangladesh.
At Kolkata station we queued, waiting to pass through customs and exit Indian immigration before boarding the train. The station is set up with a security “terminal” that you have to pass through before you can board: our passports, and tickets were first stamped by the Indian authorities, before through security. It turns out that many of those travelling to Bangladesh by train were doing so with a lot of Baggage.. huge holdalls were hoisted on and off of trolleys again and again.
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Once on the train I met my travelling companions – who, as it turned out, had all been in same situation as me the day before. We were officially the “waitlist’ compartment: i.e. the train was fully booked and we were put on the waitlist and booked into the same compartment once our seats had been confirmed. The compartment was an Indian Railways style first-class compartment, with four berths, for six of us to sit in for the journey.
We left Kolkata on time at 7am, and after clearing the Kolkata suburbs travelled towards Gede at the Indian border, which we reached by 09.30am. At the border there was no getting down, passport or security check – all of that happens on the Bangladeshi side on arrival in Dhaka. My stomach growling (I’d eaten nothing since 4am) I began asking around about food on the train. There was none, and what chai had been brought on board at Kolkata by Indian Railways had sold out. Help arrived in the form of biryani as we crossed the border and entered Darshana – the first Bangladeshi side. A few people ran off from the train in order to grab the biryani – you have to get off the train to get it – and bring back supplies. It was here that I learned to eat biryani with my hands!
The rest of the journey we travelled through Bangladesh’s lush green landscapes, halting often for passing trains. Much of the railway in Bangladesh is single-track with few passing places – and it’s for that reason that of the 8-9 hour journey, 6+ of those hours are spent on the Bangladesh leg of the trip.
Outside our windows, children ran through paddy fields, women carried pots on their head through villages, and we saw many a local train pass with locals sitting in doorways, windows, and kids happily clambering up onto the rooftop for a free ride. (There’s no rooftop riding on the Maitree!)
On our approach into Dhaka, the train crosses not one, but two of Bangladesh’s mighty rivers: the Padma (Ganges) and the Brahmaputra. It’s possibly the only time in Bangladesh that you’ll cross these rivers by bridge as opposed to launch / ferry – as road bridges are being planned but have yet to be built.
How to Buy a Ticket for the Maitree Express.
Ah, the million dollar question! (Or it was for me at least, as every website, book and person I asked before travelling to Kolkata in India gave me a different answer). Here I’ll attempt to set the record straight.
I took the Maitree Express train in December 2017. As far as I know this information is still current, but if you have specific questions your best bet would be to phone the Eastern Railways Foreign Tourist Bureau in Kolkata (+91(0)3322224206).
How do I buy a Ticket for the Maitree Express?
The only option is to buy a ticket in person at the Eastern Railways Foreign Tourist Bureau in Kolkata – number 6 Fairlie Place. It opens at 10am, and I suggest you get there early (i.e. 9am or before). When I arrived at 09.15 there was already a long queue… NO ONLINE reservations can be made and you won’t be able to book a ticket from any other location in India.
What will I need to buy a Maitree Express ticket?
You’ll need to have a photocopy (xerox) of your passport picture page and Bangladeshi visa – which you must have acquired in advance. Getting a visa on arrival is NOT an option for those travelling by train to Bangladesh – more on visas here. Take your original passport and visa with you too, and cash for the ticket. My first class AC ticket cost 1271 Indian Rupees, the cost of AC Chair Car (Similar to Shatabdi AC Chair Car) is around 800 Rupees.
What is the Ticket Booking Process?
Once the Railway booking office opens at 10am, there will be an almighty rush to enter, and you’ll be allocated a number. Once inside the booking office, you wait for your number to be called. The lower your number, the earlier you are called. Due to needing to leave the queue to get last minute xerox copies, I got stuck at the back, was assigned around number 80, and had to wait until 1.30pm in the ticket office until my number was called. So, get in the queue early and don’t leave!
When can I book my Ticket?
Reservations open up 90 days before departure but in reality you’ll probably be booking a lot closer to your travel date, given that tickets can only be booked in Kolkata at the reservation office. In general, book as soon as possible for your best chance of getting a confirmed seat as the trains sell out.
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When does the Maitree Express Run?
The Maitree Express Schedule was also something of an enigma. Reports have circulated that the train now runs with increased frequency (four times per week) but I found this to be untrue: the Maitree Express timetable is for the train to depart Kolkata on Tuesdays and Saturdays only.
In addition to the Kolkata – Dhaka train there is a Kolkata – Khulna train that runs twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. If you want to travel by train to Bangladesh (and particularly to the Sundarbans) you could try this route instead. Train bookings are handled in the same way.
One similarity of the Maitree Express with Indian Railways booking systems, is that they operate a waitlist system. It does not seem to be offered easily though, I had to play the damsel-in-distress / solo-female-traveller card a bit before they offered me a waitlist ticket. I was told my chances of confirmation were 90%; sure enough at waitlist position 6 my ticket was confirmed. If you are issued a waitlist ticket, then you’ll need to check after 5pm if it has been confirmed. You can either go back to the reservations office to check, or you can type in your 10 digit “PNR” on the ticket into one of the Indian Railways check reservation status apps. I use this one. For obvious reasons, there’s no Tatkal for the Maitree Express.
India to Bangladesh by Train: Know Before you Go!
There are a number of things I wish I had known – in the quest of making your experience a little more comfortable, here they are!
- The trains do get sold out – so book early (see above)
- No Catering is available on board the train – the only opportunity to get food is at Dars(h)ana, on the Bangladesh side of the border. The choice is Biryani, Biryani or… Biryani. You’ll need to go out onto the platform to get it. So bring food/snacks with you (and perhaps your sports shoes for running for food…).
- It’s not the best train ride for photographers. I had to lay my dreams of snapping happily around bends from open doorways aside: This being an international train, across a sensitive border, it is patrolled by the border force on either side of the border at all times. Doors are locked shut. I managed to get some sneaky shots through the open window of the WC – the only window that opened. Oh, the glamour! 😉
- The train leaves from Kolkata Chitpore station not Howrah. It arrives at Dhaka Cantonment by 4 or 5pm.
- There are no opportunities for currency exchange at Kolkata Chitpore or at the border. Try to get some Bangladeshi Taka in advance in the Sudder St area of Kolkata, although black market rates may not be great.
- There is no non-AC class on the Maitree Express.
In short, I loved taking the Maitree Express – it felt like riding on a little piece of history between the two countries, and it was certainly a hassle-free and comfortable way to travel. By all accounts the bus trip requires a lot of hassle at the border, changing buses and takes much longer. I was very happy with my choice of taking the train!
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Have you taken the Maitree Express or travelled overland between India and Bangladesh? What tips would you add? Let us know in the comments below!
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Kolkata to Bangladesh train