Travelling by train is a quintessential Indian experience. Trains offer a smoother ride than buses and are especially recommended for long journeys that include overnight travel. India’s rail network is one of the largest and busiest in the world and Indian Railways is the largest utility employer on earth, with roughly 1.5 million workers. There are almost 7000 train stations scattered across the country.
We’ve listed useful trains but there are hundreds more. The best way of sourcing updated railway information is to use relevant internet sites such as Indian Railways (http://enquiry.indianrail.gov.in) and the excellent India Rail Info (http://indiarailinfo.com), with added offline browsing support, as well as the user-friendly Erail (erail.in). There’s also Trains at a Glance (₹45), available at many train station bookstands and better bookshops/newsstand; however, it’s published annually so it’s not as up to date as websites. Nevertheless, it offers comprehensive timetables covering all the main lines.
You can book through a travel agency or hotel (for a commission), or in person at the train station. Another hopefully straightforward way is to book online through IRCTC (www.irctc.co.in; accepts Mastercard & Visa), the e-ticketing division of Indian Railways, or portals such as Cleartrip (www.cleartrip.com), Make My Trip (www.makemytrip.com), Yatra (www.yatra.com) and Redbus (bus only; www.redbus.com) are also useful; you'll usually need an Indian mobile number, though you may be able to enter a random number then use an email. Man at Seat 61 (www.seat61.com) has lots of good information, and explains in detail how to register an IRCTC account if you don't have an Indian mobile number.
However, online booking of train tickets has its share of glitches: travellers have reported problems with registering themselves on some portals and using credit cards. Big stations often have English-speaking staff who can help with reservations. At smaller stations, the stationmaster and his deputy usually speak English. It’s also worth approaching tourist-office staff if you need advice.
You can only book six train tickets online per calendar month, and after that you can only buy them in person. If you book online and accept a waitlisted ticket and it isn’t confirmed before the train leaves its destination, the money is refunded to the credit card and the ticket is worthless.
Get a reservation slip from the information window, fill in the name of the departure station, destination station, the class you want to travel and the name and number of the train. Join the long queue for the ticket window where your ticket will be printed. Women should take advantage of the separate women’s queue – if there isn’t one, go to the front of the regular queue.
Larger cities and major tourist centres have an International Tourist Bureau, which sells tourist quota seats on certain classes of train, and allows you to book tickets in relative peace.
Bookings open up to 120 days before departure and you must make a reservation for chair-car, executive-chair-car, sleeper, 1AC, 2AC and 3AC carriages. No reservations are required for general (2nd class) compartments; you have to grab seats here the moment the train pulls in.
Trains are always busy so it’s wise to book as far in advance as possible, especially for overnight journeys. There may be additional services to certain destinations during major festivals but it’s still worth booking well in advance.
Reserved tickets show your seat/berth and carriage number. Carriage numbers are written on the side of the train (station staff and porters can point you in the right direction). A list of names and berths is posted on the side of each reserved carriage.
Refunds are available on any ticket, even after departure, with a penalty – rules are complicated, check when you book.
Trains can be delayed at any stage of the journey; to avoid stress, factor some leeway into your plans.
A special (albeit small) tourist quota is set aside for foreign tourists travelling between popular stations. These seats can only be booked at dedicated reservation offices in major cities, and you need to show your passport and visa as ID. Tickets can be paid for in rupees (some offices may ask to see foreign exchange certificates – ATM receipts will suffice).
Indian Railways holds back a small number of tickets on key trains and releases them at 10am one day before the train is due to depart. A charge of ₹10 to ₹500 is added to each ticket price. First AC tickets are excluded from the scheme.
Even when a train is fully booked, Indian Railways sells a handful of seats in each class as ‘Reservation Against Cancellation’ (RAC). This means that if you have an RAC ticket and someone cancels before the departure date, you will get his or her seat (or berth). You’ll have to check the reservation list at the station on the day of travel to see if you’ve been allocated a confirmed seat/berth. Even if no one cancels, you can still board the train as an RAC ticket holder and travel without a seat.
If the RAC quota is maxed out as well, you will be handed a waitlisted ticket (marked WL). This means that if there are enough cancellations, you may eventually move up the order to land a confirmed berth, or at least an RAC seat. Check your booking status at rbs.indianrail.gov.in/pnr_Enq.html by entering your ticket’s PNR number. You can't board the train on a waitlisted ticket, but a refund is available – ask the ticket office about your chances.
Fares are calculated by distance and class of travel; Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains are slightly more expensive, but the price includes meals. Most air-conditioned carriages have a catering service (meals are brought to your seat). In unreserved classes it’s a good idea to carry portable snacks. Male/female seniors (those over 60/58) get 40/50% off all fares in all classes on all types of train. Children below the age of six travel free, those aged between six and 12 are charged half price, up to 300km.
Go to www.indiarailinfo.com or erail.in and type in the name of the two destinations. You’ll promptly get a list of every train (with the name, number, arrival/departure times and journey details) plying the route, as well as fares for each available class.
|Distance (km)||1AC||2AC||3AC|| |
|Chair Car (CC)||Second (II)|
In India, riding the rails has a romance all of its own. The Indian rail network snakes almost all over the country, almost all the time, and trains have seats to suit every size of wallet. However, booking can be a hassle – booking online is usually best.
Bookings currently open 120 days before departure (this is subject to change) for long-distance trains, sometimes less for short-haul trips. Seats fill up quickly – reserve at least a week ahead where possible, though shorter journeys are usually easier to obtain.
Express and mail trains form the mainstay of Indian rail travel. Not all classes are available on every train, but most long-distance services have general (2nd-class) compartments with unreserved seating and more comfortable reserved compartments, usually with the option of sleeper berths for overnight journeys. Sleeper trains offer the chance to travel huge distances for not much more than the price of a midrange hotel room.
Shatabdi express trains are same-day services with seating only; Rajdhani express trains are long-distance overnight services between Delhi and state capitals with a choice of 1AC, 2AC, 3AC and 2nd class. More expensive sleeper categories provide bedding. In all classes, a padlock and a length of chain are useful for securing your luggage to baggage racks.
These websites are useful for online international bookings.
Cleartrip (www.cleartrip.com) A reliable private agency and the easiest way to book; accepts international MasterCard and Visa credit cards. Can only book direct journeys. If booking from outside India before you have a local mobile number, a work-around is to enter a random number, and use email only to communicate.
IRCTC (www.irctc.co.in) Government site offering bookings for regular trains and luxury tourist trains; Mastercard and Visa are accepted.
Make My Trip (www.makemytrip.com) Reputable private agency; accepts international cards. Again, you'll need an Indian mobile number. You'll then need to create an IRCTC User ID: choose a User ID (username), put in your name, birth date and address. For the 'Pincode' (postcode) '123456' will work. For the State choose 'Other'.
Yatra (www.yatra.com) Books flights and trains; accepts international cards.
When booking online, it pays to know the details of your journey – particularly station names, train numbers, days of operation and available classes. Start by visiting http://erail.in – the search engine will bring up a list of all trains running between your chosen destinations, along with information on classes and fares.
Step two is to register for an account with IRCTC (www.irctc.co.in), the government-run ticket booking service. This is required even if you plan to use a private ticket agency. Registration is a complex process, involving passwords, emails, scans of your passport and texts to your mobile phone. The ever-helpful Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/India.htm) has a detailed guide to all the steps.
Once registered, you can use a credit card to book travel on specific trains, either directly with IRCTC, or with private agencies. You'll be issued with an e-ticket, which you must print out ready to present alongside your passport and booking reference once you board the train.
Booking in country is a notoriously convoluted process, but you can avoid the hassle by booking online.
You must make a reservation for all chair-car, executive chair-car, sleeper, 1AC, 2AC and 3AC carriages. No reservations are required for general (2nd-class) compartments. Book well ahead for overnight journeys or travel during holidays and festivals. Waiting until the day of travel to book is not recommended.
IndRail passes permit unlimited rail travel for a fixed period, ranging from half a day to 90 days, but offers limited savings and you must still make reservations. Sample prices are US$19/43/95 (sleeper/2AC, 3AC & chair car/1AC) for 24 hours. The easiest way to book these is through the IndRail pass agency in your home country – click on the Passenger Info/Tourist Information link on www.indianrailways.gov.in/railwayboard for further details.
You can live like a maharaja on one of India's luxury train tours, with accommodation on board, tours, admission fees and meals included in the ticket price.
Palace on Wheels (www.palaceonwheels.net) Eight- to 10-day luxury tours of Rajasthan, departing from Delhi. Trains run on fixed dates from September to April; the fare per person for seven nights starts at US$6500/4890/4325 (in a single/double/triple cabin). Try to book 10 months in advance.
Royal Rajasthan on Wheels (www.royalrajasthanonwheels.co.in) Runs lavish one-week trips from October to March, starting and finishing in Delhi. The fare per person per night starts from US$875/625 for single/twin occupancy in deluxe suites.
Deccan Odyssey (www.deccan-odyssey-india.com) Seven nights covering the main tourist spots of Maharashtra and Goa. Fares per person start at US$5810/4190 (Indian tourists ₹371,900/268,360) for single/double occupancy. There are also several other shorter luxurious trips on offer.
Golden Chariot (www.goldenchariottrain.com) Seven-night tours seeing the south in sumptuous style from October to March, starting in Bengaluru (Bangalore). Fares per person start at single/double US$5530/4130 (Indian tourists ₹182,000/154,000).
Mahaparinirvan Express (aka Buddhist Circuit Special; www.railtourismindia.com) Running September to March to Buddhist sites over eight days, starting in Delhi, with overnight stays in hotels. Rates start from US$1155/945 per person in 1st class/AC 2 Tier class.The trip includes Nepal (the visa fee is not included in the price).
The most expensive class, with two- or four-berth compartments with locking doors and meals included.
Two-tier berths arranged in groups of four and two in an open-plan carriage. Bunks convert to seats by day and there are curtains, offering some privacy.
Three-tier berths arranged in groups of six in an open-plan carriage with no curtains; popular with Indian families.
Comfortable, reclining chairs and plenty of space; usually on Shatabdi express trains.
Similar to the Executive Chair carriage but with less-fancy seating.
Open-plan carriages with three-tier bunks and no AC; the open windows afford great views.
Wooden or plastic seats and a lot of people – but cheap!