India by train – a comprehensive how-to guide

India has an extensive train network that can get you nearly everywhere – some 63,000km of routes and nearly 7,000 stations making it the third largest in the world. Not only is it an incredibly economical way of getting around the country, traveling by train also provides an experience of India and its people that you simply can’t get at in a plane 30,000ft above the earth. No trip to India would be complete without at least one journey by train, preferably one that is overnight.


A few details

There are a few things you’ll want to understand before you dive in and start searching for trains: seating classes, quotas, and waitlists.

Seating classes

India Railways offers no less than eight seating classes throughout its network (though usually only two to four on any given train). Here is a quick overview of the seating classes with their official accommodation class codes. Guidebooks and websites all seems to use their own version of these codes so 1A could be A1, 1AC, or AC1. Focus on the number (seating class) and whether it comes with air conditioning (AC).

  • First Class Air Conditioned (1A) – Coaches are divided into lockable and carpeted compartments with either two or four berths. A berth is simply a bed attached to the wall of the compartment. Lower and middle berths can be secured vertically during the day (so they’re out of the way) and then brought down (usually at night) for sleeping. This level of service (1A) is only found on the most important long distance trains and it’s not possible to request a specific type of compartment (two or four berths). Pillows, sheets, and blankets are distributed at night.
  • 2-tier Air Conditioned Sleeper (2A) – Coaches are divided into open bays with two upper and two lower berths on the left side of the aisle and one upper and one lower berth on the right side. Lower berths are used for sitting during the day and converted to beds at night. Each bay is curtained for privacy and pillows, sheets, and blankets are distributed at night. Found on nearly all long-distance trains.
  • 3-tier Air Conditioned Sleeper (3A) – Similar in every way to 2A, except three levels of berths (lower, middle, upper) are found on the left side of the aisle, meaning there are two additional passengers in each bay.
  • First Class (FC) – non air-conditioned coaches with locking four and two-berth compartments. No bedding is included in the fare, but is often available for a small fee. This seating class is being phased out in favor of 2A coaches.
  • AC Executive Chair Class (1A) – Air conditioned coaches with upright seats, much like you’d find in trains throughout the west. Only found on the the Shatabhi Express trains (e.g. Delhi to Agra). Note: this seating class uses the same code as First Class Air Conditioned.
  • AC Chair Class (CC) – Air conditioned coaches with upright seats often found on intercity trains traveling during the day. This is a good choice for for daytime travel.
  • Sleeper Class (SL) – Open air coaches (meaning no windows and no AC) similar in configuration to 2A. This is the standard choice for Indians traveling long distances, so it can be quite crowded. Bedding is not provided, so be sure to bring a sleeping bag or sack.
  • Second Sitting (2S) – Open air coaches with either wooden or padded bench seating. An okay choice for short distance daytime travel.

Tip: 3-tier AC (3A) or higher is the best option for most travelers for overnight journeys as are any of the AC chair cars for daytime journeys.

Tip: Upper berths provide the most privacy (but you do have to hoist yourself up, which can take a little practice). If you get a lower berth you’ll be sharing it with the other passengers during the day and have to negotiate with them if you decide to sleep before they’re ready to do so.

Quotas

Indian Railways has set up a complicated system of reserved seats for different groups of people (tourists, women, senior citizens, high officials, etc.). Here are the three you most need to know about:

  • General – Open to everybody!
  • Tatkal – Meaning “immediate” in Hindi, these are for latecomers, allowing you to book tickets just 2 days before the actual date of journey for a small surcharge, between Rs. 75 and Rs. 300.
  • Tourist – Seats set aside specifically for foreign tourists, but they must be purchased at a train station (be sure to bring your passport) which can be impractical if you’ve already reached your destination and aren’t near a station. For example, the nearest train station to Orchha is in Jhansi which is 20km away. Even so, sometimes this may be the only way of getting a seat for your desired departure date.

Waitlisting

It’s quite likely that you’ll find the perfect train only to discover that either your preferred seating class or the entire train is fully booked. This can be a common and frustrating experience, especially if you’re purchasing tickets as you go. Be sure to check availability for a higher or lower seating classes as well as other trains departing on the same day.

Indian Railways has developed a complicated (yet elegant) two-tiered system of waitlisting to ensure that trains are filled to capacity: Reserved Against Cancellation and Waitlisted.

  • Reserved Against Cancellation (RAC) – A certain number of RAC seats are allocated for each seating class and are sold once the seating class is fully booked. Passengers on the RAC list at the time of departure may still board and travel on the train and are provided a seat (but not necessarily a berth) in the relevant seating class. This means if you end up with an RAC seat in 3-tier AC (3A) on an overnight journey, you may be sitting upright all night with another RAC passenger (or taking turns sleeping). Chances are generally good that an RAC passenger will end up with the seat or berth he or she intended to book from the beginning.
  • Waitlisted (WL) – Once RAC seats are exhausted, passengers can still purchase tickets. Passengers that are WL at the time of departure cannot board the train and are entitled to a refund.
Availability of AC 3 Tier (3A) seats from Kolkata to Varanasi, one month out. Green: the number of seats still available. Yellow: number of RAC still available. Pink: number of waitlisted passengers.

Now that you understand the two-tiers of the Indian Railways waitlisting system, here’s how seats are confirmed:

  • As passengers with confirmed reservations cancel — or — when unused seats that were previously set aside as part of the quota system are released on the day of departure, these seats are given to RAC passengers who are then confirmed and assigned a seat/berth.
  • As RAC seats open up, WL passengers are automatically promoted to RAC.
  • This process repeats each time a seat becomes available up until the day of departure when the final seating chart is produced.

For example, if there are 6 RAC and 20 WL passengers and 8 seats become available, all 6 RAC and the first 2 WL passengers are confirmed and assigned seats. Of the remaining 18 WL passengers, the first 6 are promoted to RAC and the last 12 remain WL unless more seats become available, at which time the process repeats.

It doesn’t matter whether you purchased an RAC or WL ticket, it only matters where you end up on the day of departure when the seating chart is finalized. As noted above, if you end up with an RAC seat, then you can board, otherwise, you’ll need to get a refund and book a new ticket.

You can check your current standing (whether you’ve moved up on the list) or whether you’ve been confirmed and assigned a seat/berth at any time using the PNR (passenger number) printed on your ticket. Both Cleartrip and the official Indian Railways website allow you to look up your PNR status.


Researching your journey

Now that you understand the different types of seats and berths available, the three main quotas, and how the waitlisting process works, you can start searching for trains to your destination. Here are the tools and resources you can use to research connections, departure times, and seat availability:

  • Guidebooks – These provide a great starting place for understanding how to get from one city to another. Use them as well to determine which stations best serve your travel plans since the big cities all have multiple stations, some of which aren’t located in the city center.
  • Websites – The first thing that you should know is that the official Indian Railways website is awful. It’s hard to use, it crashes often, and it doesn’t accept non-Indian credit cards, so you can’t actually purchase a ticket. Instead use a commercial site like Cleartrip (who gladly accepts foreign credit cards) to search for and purchase tickets. Cleartrip also provides a great availability calendar that allows you to quickly see the number of seats available or waitlist status of trains between two cities for a 15-day period.
  • Local travel agents – These folks can help you figure out which trains you should take if the routing isn’t clear. For example, if there isn’t a direct train and you need to book two separate legs. They’re also helpful when there are waitlists and when you’re not able to search or book online. They can also advise you on other transport options that may make more sense (e.g. bus or plane). Travel agents are found nearly everywhere you’re likely to venture as a traveller.
  • Printed timetable – If you’re in India, pick up a copy of ‘Trains at a Glance’ for about Rs. 45 at bookstalls and train stations. It’s helpful for trip planning when internet connectivity isn’t available, which is more often than you might expect. With the aid of a map, a guidebook, and this timetable you should able to plot your course and chose a train. Of course, you’ll need to check actual seat availability online or with a travel agent.

Keep in mind, that city names can vary from what you might be used to (e.g. Bombay vs. Mumbai) and that there will be times when getting there by bus or plane may be the better option. For example, if better to take a bus or plane between Mumbai and Udaipur.


Booking your ticket


Once you’ve figured out which train and class of service you’d like to book, you’ll need to purchase your ticket. Yes, reservations are required on all long-distance trains – you can’t just show up and hop on. In fact, popular routes fill up quickly and often a week or more in advance. So, it can often be difficult to purchase the tickets you’d like with little notice, especially during holidays or festivals.

When you’re ready to purchase a ticket, here are your options:

  • Online – This is by far the easiest solution. You’ll need to use a site like Cleartrip which accepts non-Indian credit cards (and charges a small fee). You won’t be able to purchasing tickets using the Tourist Quota, but you can access the General and Tatkal quotas. Make sure you have access to a printer — you’ll need to present your ticket once on board.
  • Local travel agents – Again, these folks can be helpful when you’re having difficulty booking online or if you need advice on waitlists. They also charge a small fee on top of the price of the ticket.
  • Train station ticketing office – Another option if you’re close to a station. Pick up a reservation slip and fill in the names of the departure and destination stations, the train number, and your desired class of service. You’ll need to join the line to the ticket window. In larger cities there are dedicated windows for foreigners and sometimes separate queues for women.

Boarding your train

You’ve purchased your ticket and have arrived at the train station ready for your next adventure.

Your train, coach, and seat number will be printed on your ticket. You will need each of these numbers to get seated in the right place going to the right city.

Finding your train

When you arrive at the train station, you’ll need to find which track your train will depart from, which you can often do using the display monitors in the lobby of most stations. Stay put in the lobby area until about 10-15 minutes before your train’s departure in case of delays or track changes. The loudspeakers used to announce these changes, if they exist, can be difficult to hear from the platform because of their poor quality or placement and the general commotion on the platforms.

Note: In December 2010, Indian Railway converted from a four to five-digit train numbering scheme, however as of March 2011, it was still common to see the old four-digit train numbers in use. You can figure out the new number for most trains by simply adding a 1 or 2 to the beginning of the old four-digit number. For example the old train number for the Manahagari Express, which departs from Mumbai CST for Varanasi, was 1093; the new number is 11093. This is not a hard and fast rule, but can be helpful if you encounter the old numbering scheme.

Finding your coach

While you’re figuring out which track the train will depart from, you’ll also need to figure out where along the platform your coach will be. Don’t underestimate the importance of figuring this out ahead of time:

  • Yes, coaches are numbered, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be connected in numerical order. This is India!
  • Indian trains can be long – 18 to 24 coaches — and each coach is approximately 70ft / 22m in length. Do the math and you’ll realize this means the train can be nearly 1/3 mile or .5 km long – not a distance you’ll want to run with luggage.
  • Unless your train originates from your departure city, you’ll only have a few minutes to board once the train comes to a stop. You’ll need these precious minutes to find your way through the mass of humanity that is people disembarking and boarding at the same time.

Here’s how to find your coach:

  • Along with the track and current departure time, some train stations display a picture of the train with each of its coaches in order so you can determine where your coach will be in the line-up. Use this picture to position yourself on the platform.
  • Some stations have small LED displays along the platform with the coach number that you can use to position yourself before the train arrives.
  • If your train originates from your departure city, then it should be sitting on the track and you’ll be able to walk up and down the train to find your coach, with relative calm.
  • If your train originates in a different city, first, determine which direction your train is coming from then position yourself at the mid-point of the platform. As the train rolls into the station, keep an eye on each passing coach number. If your coach passes you, then turn around and start walking quickly toward the front of the train. If you haven’t seen your coach the moment the train begins to slow, then start walking toward the back of the train until you find your coach.

Finding your seat

Once you’re on board, finding your seat should be relatively easy, using the numbered decals throughout the coach. However, if you’re boarding a coach with sleeping berths, these can be obscured by the curtains for each bay.

Hiring porter

If you’d rather not deal with all of this coach finding madness, there is a solution! Hire a porter. For a small fee, the porter will make sure you and your bag end up in the right place.


Enjoying the journey

Food and drink

There are no restaurant cars on Indian trains, and except for a few of the premier routes (Rajdhani Express and Shatabdi Express), food is not included in your fare — but that doesn’t mean you’ll go hungry.

Generally speaking, an attendant will come through to take orders for veg or non-veg meals. About an hour or so later your meal will appear in small foil containers. The food may not be very inspiring, but it’s cheap. In addition there will be a steady stream of vendors selling drinks (water, tea, soft drinks) and snacks (chips, peanuts, and even hot soup). Be sure to listen for the signature call of the Chaiwalla as he walks down the aisle selling chai tea  — it’s a quintessential detail of Indian train travel.

It’s always a good idea to bring extra food and a bottle of water to replace or supplement what’s available on board, especially if you have specific dietary requirements. Be sure to also bring enough small bills/change to make purchases on board.

Entertainment

Don’t expect any entertainment on board, except for the passing Indian landscapes and conversations with fellow passengers. If that’s not enough, then bring a good book and some music and be prepared to catch up on your sleep (if you’re traveling in one of the sleeper coaches).

Electrical outlets are provided in most classes, in case you need to recharge your mobile, MP3 player, or netbook.

Sleeping

Bedding is provided on all air conditioned sleeper coaches (1A/2A/3A) but not in Sleeper Class (SL). In all sleeping compartments the lower berth is converted into a seat during the day, so if you’d rather sleep, be sure to book an upper berth.

When it comes time to sleep, you’ll first want to arrange your sheets and blanket (if provided), deposit your shoes on the floor, and then hoisted yourself up using the small “ladders” on the aisle end of each berth.

Don’t be surprised if you board during the middle of the day and find passengers fast asleep. If you are traveling during the day and would prefer to remain seated upright, book one of these classes: First Class Air Conditioned (1A), First Class (FC), AC Chair Class (CC) or Second Sitting (2S). Otherwise you may be forced into a horizontal position for the length of your journey.

Toilets

Don’t expect western standards of hygiene, but the toilets in air conditioned coaches are generally good by Indian standards (but less so in Sleeper and non-AC 2nd Class). Both western and Indian squat toilets are usually available, but you’ll need to supply your own toilet paper. And don’t use the toilets when you’re stopped at a station. Yes, that’s the ground you see when you look down.

Trash

This is not one of those “when in Rome” moments. Don’t throw your garbarge out the window. Instead either deposit it in one of the receptacles at the end of the coach or collect and place it on the ground under the lower berth next to the aisle for the attendants to collect (and be sure to tip a few rupees for this service).


Be sure to share your India train travel tips and experiences with us!

Hire a train porter in India

Traveling by train is a quintessential India experience, but finding and boarding your coach can be a challenge. The coaches aren’t always in numerical order, the trains can be quite long (1/3 miles  / .5 km), and if the train doesn’t originate in your departure city, you only have a few minutes to get on board.

Travel tip: Hire a porter. For about Rs. 50 (about $1) per bag, the porter will transport you and your baggage to your seat.

Known as “Coolies” and wearing their official red smocks and brass arm badges, they can be found outside train stations, often near the car park. If your taxi drops you off immediately in front of the station, you may need to walk away from the station a bit to find a Coolie.

Be prepared to show your ticket (with train, coach, and seat numbers) and after you’ve agreed on a price, get ready to follow at a quick pace. The porters are quick and efficient.

Keep in mind that you’re not paying for somebody to carry your bags, an uneasy idea for westerners; you’re paying to get to the right spot at the right time, which is challenging for all of the reasons mentioned above. It’s some of the best rupees you’ll spend.

Thank you to HTT reader, Kevin, for reminding us about this great and inexpensive way to protect your sanity while traveling by train in India.

Elephants at the Amber Fort in Jaipur, India

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Elephants transport tourists along a narrow passage through the Sun Gate of the Amber Fort outside of Jaipur, India.

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