Travelling by train in India is a great way to get around. Trains are cheap and comfortable, and service almost every city and town, with most major cities served by a large number of trains every day (some taking different routes to the same destination). Some cities may also have multiple long distance termini (Delhi has Delhi Junction, New Delhi and Delhi Cantonment). The vastness and complexity of the network can be daunting, especially to the first-time traveller, but hopefully this post will make it a little less so.
Trans are also a fascinating way to view regular Indian culture. There are often up to 5 different classes on one train, meaning that the one train will carry a cross section of society; from businessmen and well-to-do tourists, right down to the poorest labourers.
The information and advice below is by no means official, it’s just my observations from a 3 week rail journey through the country.
As I mentioned, most Indian long distance overnight trains have 5 classes:
- 1AC: First class air conditioned compartments for 2 or 4 people (the 2 person compartments are usually allocated to couples). The compartments are usually clean and comfortable, with fans and air conditioning, and can be locked from the inside. A corridor runs along one side of the car. The lower bunks convert to facing bench seats during the day, upholstered in either vinyl or cloth, with plenty of space. 110v power outlets are available (1 per 2 bunks). A bed roll is provided (towel, sheets, pillow and blanket).
- 2AC: First class air conditioned 2 tier bunks. There are 3 sets of 2 tiered bunks per row, with 2 sets running across the car and 1 set running along the car. There are privacy curtains to separate the sets of bunks from the corridor, which runs down the middle of the car. This class is usually clean and comfortable, with fans and air conditioning. The lower bunks convert to facing bench seats during the day, upholstered in either vinyl or cloth. 110v power outlets are available (1 per 2 bunks), but are often switched off between 23:00 – 05:00. A bed roll is provided (towel, sheets, pillow and blanket).
- 3AC: First class air conditioned 3 tier bunks. There are 3 sets of 3 tiered bunks per row, with 2 sets running across the car and 1 set running along the car. There are privacy curtains to separate the sets of bunks from the corridor, which runs down the middle of the car. This class is usually clean and comfortable (although a bit cramped), with fans and air conditioning. The lower bunks convert to facing bench seats during the day, upholstered in either vinyl or cloth. 110v power outlets are available (1 per 3 or 8 bunks depending on the age of the carriage), but are often switched off between 23:00 – 05:00. A bed roll is provided (towel, sheets, pillow and blanket).
- Sleeper Class: Second class non air conditioned 3 tier bunks. There are 3 sets of 3 tiered bunks per row, with 2 sets running across the car and 1 set running along the car. A corridor runs down the middle of the car. This class is often dirty, and seats/bunks may be in poor condition. Ventilation is primarily provided by doors and windows, which generally stay open for the duration of the journey. The lower bunks convert to facing bench seats during the day, upholstered in vinyl. 110v power outlets are available (1 per 6 – 8 bunks), but are often switched off between 23:00 – 05:00. No bedding is available.
- Second Class: General unreserved seating. This class is often dirty, and seats may be in poor condition. There is no limit to people boarding this class, and the cars are often overcrowded, with standees common (even on long journeys). Ventilation is primarily provided by doors and windows, which generally stay open for the duration of the journey. No power outlets are available. On most trains, there are is no inter-car access from 2nd class cars, so if you board a second class car, you’re stuck in that car until the train stops again.
Some trains only operate daytime journeys. These trains often only have one or more of the following classes:
- Executive Chair Car: 2+2 seating in an air conditioned saloon carriage. Seats have tray tables, arm rests and power points (1 power point between 2 seats). The seats recline.
- Chair Car: 3+2 seating in an air conditioned carriage. Seats have tray tables, arm rests and power points (1 power point between 2 or 3 seats). The seats recline.
- Non-AC Chair Car: 3+2 seating in an non air conditioned carriage (however there are fans and the windows open). Seats have tray tables, arm rests and power points (1 power point between 2 or 3 seats). The seats recline.
I traveled mostly in 1AC class, which was very pleasant, but twice the price of 2AC. 2AC is more than acceptable, and next time I visit, I will most likely use 2AC. Many trains do not have 1AC cars.
- MEMU: Mainline Electrical Multiple Unit. These are very similar to a suburban train, and run on medium distance runs. They have only second class seating, but do have toilets.
- DEMU: Diesel Electric Multiple unit. Very similar to a MEMU, but powered by diesel or compressed natural gas (CNG).
- Passenger: The slowest type of long distance train, stopping at most stations.
- Mail: Run between important cities and stop at less stations than Passenger trains.
- Express: Stop at less stations than Mail trains.
- Shatabdi: Meaning “century”, a type of premium express train on daytime runs of less than 600km. These trains have only Executive Chair Car and Chair Car accommodation. Meals are included in the fare at appropriate times (very decent food!). These trains are fast and get priority over other train types.
- Jan Shatabdi: Jan means “common people”. These trains are cheaper than normal Shatabdi trains, but only have Non-AC Chair Cars. Meals are not served.
- AC Double Deck Express: Daytime express trains with all double deck AC Chair Cars. Meals are not served.
- Duronto: Meaning “restless”, these trains are fast non-stop express trains between major cities. These trains do not make any timetabled stops between their origin and their terminus and are given priority over most other trains.
- Rajdhani: Meaning “capital”, these trains connect state capitals and are premium overnight trains. These trains only have 1AC, 2AC & 3AC cars. Meals are included in the fare at appropriate times and served to your berth (plentiful and tasty). These trains are fast express trains and get priority over other train types.
Wherever possible, I recommend Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains. They are more expensive if you’re buying individual tickets, but if you’re travelling on a 1AC or 2AC rail pass, there is no extra charge to pay.
Planning your Journey
Indian Railways is a massive system and planning a journey can be quite daunting. Trains between two cities can take different routes and journey lengths can vary by as much as 12 hours. There are a couple of sites that can simplify this
- Indian Railways: Official Indian Railways site with some good search features
- Trains at a glance: Official Indian Railways timetables in PDF format
- Cleartrip: An independant website with a great search function
- Seat61: An independant website with a lot of good information, including a section on rail passes.
Tickets can be purchased up to 60 days in advance of the train leaving its originating station. Tickets on some trains sell out very quickly, so I advise that you buy as early as possible.
Tickets can be bought online at the “trains” section of the Cleartrip website or from the Indian Railways website. Tickets can also be bought at almost any Indian Railways station at the reserved ticket counter.
There is also a Foreign Tourist Bureau at New Delhi station, which is probably the best place for a foreigner to buy tickets. It’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days per week and is located on the second floor near the main entry to platform 1 at New Delhi station. The agents all speak excellent English, are polite and know a few tricks to get you tickets, even if a train appears full.
If you see the above sign, you’re in the right area; go up the stairs and turn right; walk along the corridor until you come to the glass fronted office in a second floor corridor. As the sign says, don’t trust touts – if someone tries to tell you that the office is closed, has moved or they can get you cheaper tickets, politely tell them “no thanks” and keep walking up to the ticket office.
Tickets are also available from authorised agents, but is hard to tell which ones are official and which ones are scammers, so I would advise against buying from anywhere except the Indian Railways official websites, Cleartrip, the Tourist Bureau at New Delhi or a railway station booking office.
Train travel is very cheap in India, and if you are only doing a few trips, it will probably work out cheapest to buy individual tickets. If you’re planning to do a lot of travelling, rail passes are available for foreign passport holders (anyone travelling on a passport which is not Indian). Rail passes give unlimited travel in the selected class for the duration of validity.
Railpasses are available in 1AC, 2AC, Sleeper Class and General (Second Class). They can be purchased from authorised agents (listed here) or the Foreign Tourist Bureau at New Delhi station. I purchased mine from SD Enterprises in London (the only English speaking agent aside from the Foreign Tourist Bureau). It was a fairly straightforward process, and the pass was mailed out to me in Australia for an extra US$10 postage. The main advantage of purchasing from an agent before travelling, was that the agent also booked the tickets to go with the pass, meaning I was able to ensure tickets on the train that I wanted.
There’s an app for that!
I found a very useful app (Android, not sure about iPhone) simply called Indian Railways. This is not an official app, but queries the Indian Railways website to give comprehensive information on trains (including the on-time status of your approaching train). It can also tell you the current status of your booking, including car and berth number when the charts have been prepared. All you need to know is the train number or your PNR.
Another very useful app was the M-Indicator app, which is for all suburban transport in Mumbai (train, metro, monorail, bus and ferry). It has maps, timetable information and a journey planner. It will even tell you which side of the carriage the platform will be on.
Delhi Metro has an official app which is useful in a limited capacity. The journey planner works well, and there is a tour guide section with a short introduction to popular tourist attractions and which station is closest. I did find the “distance to station” information in the tour guide section was inaccurate (one location suggested it was 300m from the metro station, but I ended up walking 900m).
Other cities have their own official and unofficial apps of varying degrees of usefulness and usability.
Security on trains
The AC cars (1AC, 2AC, 3AC, Chair Car and Executive Chair Car) are very safe. The non AC cars have cheaper seats, and this leads to a more… unpredictable clientele.
Whatever class you travel, I do recommend locking your luggage and even taking a bike lock to secure your case to the bed. It only takes a second for an opportunistic thief to take something and ruin your holiday.
PNR is king!
If you don’t know anything else about your journey, make sure you know your PNR (passenger name record) number. this number identifies you on the conductor’s manifest and if quoted, will give you all of the information you need to know about your booking.
There are 3 categories of ticket status for reserved trains:
- CNF: Confirmed. You will definitely get a seat/berth in the class you have booked.
- RAC: Reservation Against Cancellation. You may board the train, and you will have a place to sit, however you may not be in your selected class and you may have to share a sleeping berth (probably end up sitting all night). If someone in the class you have RAC in cancels or fails to turn up, you will get a berth of your own.
- WL: Waitlist. You may not board the train unless you are upgraded from the waitlist. A position is given on first come, first serve basis and this is your position on the list. You don’t want to have a high number, as you’ll probably be looking for another train
How to find your carriage & seat/berth
Sometimes, your seat or berth number will be listed on your ticket. More often than not, it will not be allocated until the seating chart is prepared (about 2 hours before the train departs its originating station). Once the chart is prepared, you can use the Indian Railways app to find your berth number. Failing that, the seating chart is stuck to the external carriage wall beside the door of each carriage, showing who is allocated to which berth. This is sorted by berth number, so it can take a while to look down the list.
Most major stations have LED displays along the platform, which alternate between the train number for the next train to arrive and and which car will pull up at that display. These signs are generally placed at regular intervals along the platform and are suspended from the veranda covering the platform.
- 1AC: H
- Composite 1AC/2AC: HA
- 2AC: A
- 3AC: B
- Sleeper: S
- 2nd Class: G, GEN, GN or UR
- Executive Chair Car: E or EC
- Chair Car: C or CC
For example, if there were five 3AC cars on the train, they would be numbered B1 to B5.
AC cars are generally grouped together, with H cars at one end of the group and B cars at the other end. Then come the S cars and the GN cars. There is often also a GN car before the H or HA car.
A typical consist on a Mail train may be: GN – HA1 – A1 – B1 – B2 – B3 – B4 – B5 – GN – GN – S1 – S2 – S3 – S4 – S5 – GN – GN. It is possible to walk through from one car to another, except for 2nd class cars, which have no interconnecting doors. This means that in this consist, it is not possible to move from the Sleeping Class cars to the AC cars (except by using the platform at stations).
Food on trains
Most important trains have a “Pantry Car” which is like a big kitchen on wheels. Attendants will go through the AC cars, taking orders for meals. Meals are delivered to your seat/berth and the meal is paid for when the tray is collected. Meals are generally very good quality and reasonably priced. The name of the Indian Railways on train catering service is “Meals on Wheels”.
On Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains, meals are included in the price of the ticket and will be served at appropriate times. Bottles of water are also provided.
On trains with no pantry car, there are often vendors walking through the cars selling food (not official railway workers), or food can be purchased on platforms.
IRCTC (Indian Railways Catering & Tourist Corporation) operates Meals on Wheels and also operates cafeterias at major stations. If you’re eating a meal at a station, it’s a good idea to eat at the IRCTC cafeteria as the food is often of a better quality than the private cafeterias.
Most large cities have a suburban railway of some sort. These are very cheap ways to get around, and very interesting to travel on! The trains are simple inside, usually with bare plastic seats and no air conditioning (ceiling fans provide cooling). Doors and windows generally stay open all of the time. In Mumbai, the trains get exceptionally crowded on some lines, despite trains running every few minutes.
Tickets are sold at ticket offices at every station, and are priced according to distance (usually from 5 to 15 rupees per trip). Rail passes are valid for travel on suburban trains in some cities.
There is often at least 1 “ladies’ car”, where adult male passengers are not permitted to travel (these are usually the least crowded cars on the train).
There is no clear rule on photography on stations. On a couple of Metros (Chennai, Bengaluru and the Mumbai Monorail) I was told that I could use my mobile phone camera, but not a regular camera. On most heavy rail stations I was observed by railway police to be taking photographs and completely ignored. At some stations I was ordered to stop taking photographs and even threatened with a ₹500 fine (although there were no signs prohibiting photography).
The only advice I will give is that if there is a visible sign telling you not to take photos, don’t. If you are told to stop, put your camera away and move on (there are plenty of other places to photograph trains). To access any platform, you need a valid ticket. If you have a rail pass, this will gain you entry. Platform tickets are available from all stations for 10 rupees (valid for 2 hours).
I hope that this has been informative, as I said it is not official, and only from what I observed during my travels. I also have a general post on travelling in India.