To those who have not experienced it, train travel in India looks like an adventure. Passengers clinging on to the roofs, retro carriages! How exciting.

However, to those who have – a club that I have just joined – this romanticised view is a fairytale fed to foreigners. And rightly so, or we might never experience one of the world's most remarkable travel systems.

India's train network stretches across more than 40,000 miles of track, employs around 1.4 million people, and boasts more than 17,000 trains – though my journey only involved one locomotive travelling around 370 miles from Mumbai to Goa. I booked a ticket in a second-class carriage on this 12-hour sleeper train with a feeling that an enjoyable journey lay ahead, despite protests from my Indian relatives, who made it sound as though I'd be lucky to survive the trip.

I was 16th on the train's waitlist – an ingenious, if nerve-racking, invention that ensures that no train has empty seats if there are willing passengers to take them. In theory, India's train passengers are a fickle lot who cancel their tickets days before the journey, freeing up "reservation against cancellation" (RAC) spaces for those on the waitlist. RAC status gives passengers the right to board their chosen train. But, as I discovered when I was granted RAC status less than two hours before departure, it does not give them the right to a seat or bed.

Despite having to share a bunk around half the width of a single bed, the drinks sellers' near constant shouts of "pani, pani, pani!" ("water, water water!"), and the regular stops to allow yet more passengers to board the already-heaving third class carriages, I slept soundly and arrived in Goa happy and well rested.