Travelling by train is a quintessential Indian experience. Trains offer more space and 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 world's eighth-largest employer on earth, with roughly 1.3 million workers. There are more than 7000 train stations across the country.
Useful trains are listed here, but there are hundreds more. The best way of sourcing updated information is online, through sites such as Indian Railways (www.indianrailways.gov.in/railwayboard), Erail (https://erail.in) and the very useful Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/India).
If you can't get online, there’s also the long-running, comprehensive timetable booklet Trains at a Glance (₹70), available at many station bookstands and better bookshops/newsstands, and published annually.
You may have to show your passport as ID on board, but usually showing a digital copy of your reservation (rather than a printout) is enough.
Trains can be delayed at any stage of the journey; to avoid stress, factor some leeway into your plans.
Refunds are available on any ticket, even after departure, with a penalty – rules are complicated, so check when you book.
Get a reservation slip from the information window, fill in the name of the departure station, the destination station, the class you want to travel in 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.
Stations in larger cities, including Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, have dedicated ticket counters for foreigners (usually as part of a separate office called the International Tourist Bureau, which sells tourist-quota seats on certain classes of train). This makes buying tickets in person much easier.
Booking online should be the easiest way to buy tickets – though it still isn't quite as straightforward as you'd expect. The reservation system is open from 12.30am to 11.45pm (IST) every day, so keep this in mind if you're buying tickets from abroad. Bookings open 120 days before departure for long-distance trains, sometimes less for short-haul trips.
The government-run IRCTC (www.irctc.co.in) takes bookings for regular and luxury trains. Using the site involves a frustrating, complex registration process, and at the time of writing the site was having problems accepting international cards (though this may change). An IRCTC number may be needed for other booking sites.
An Indian mobile SIM will make life incalculably less frustrating when booking online; however, foreigners can verify their IRCTC account from abroad by entering a foreign mobile number, which will trigger an email from IRCTC with a link that will allow them to enter their mobile verification code (for which there's a small fee) online after submitting a registration form. Enquires should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following are useful for online international bookings; all have apps that are sometimes more user-friendly than the websites themselves:
12Go (www.12go.asia) Handy ticketing agency, though only for India's 1000 most popular routes (confirmed tickets only); accepts international cards and is your best booking option if you're travelling on one of the chosen routes.
Cleartrip (www.cleartrip.com) A reliable private agency and one of the easier ways to book; accepts international cards but requires an IRCTC registration, linked to your Cleartrip account.
Make My Trip (www.makemytrip.com) Reputable private agency; accepts international credit cards.
You must make a reservation for chair-car, executive-chair-car, sleeper, 1AC, 2AC and 3AC carriages. Book well ahead for overnight journeys or travel during holidays and festivals.
Waiting until the day of travel to book is not recommended, though on short journeys, buying a 'general' 2nd-class ticket and piling into the next available train is a handy, flexible and very cheap option.. as long as you don't mind sharing seats or potentially standing up.
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 sometimes posted on the side of each reserved carriage. Many stations have signs marking the approximate spot where each carriage stops (again, ask station staff for assistance).
Chair Car (CC)**
2nd Class (II)**
* Rajdhani/Duronto Trains
** Mail/Express Trains
You can live like a maharaja on one of India's luxury train tours. Accommodation on board, tours, admission fees and meals are included in the ticket price. As well as the following, consider the Golden Chariot, a luxurious round-trip journey from Bengaluru highlighting the romance of Karnataka; the train was under renovation at time of writing but services are due to resume in 2019 (see www.goldenchariottrain.com for the latest developments).
Palace on Wheels (www.palaceonwheels.net) Eight- to 10-day tours of Rajasthan, departing from Delhi. Trains run on fixed dates from September to April; the fare per person for seven nights in a single/double cabin starts at US$4550/3500. Try to book 10 months in advance.
Royal Rajasthan on Wheels (www.royal-rajasthan-on-wheels.com) Modelled on the Palace on Wheels and running along similar routes through Rajasthan. Lavish one-week trips take place from September to April, starting and finishing in Delhi. The fare per single/double cabin for seven nights starts at US$6055/9100, plus taxes.
Deccan Odyssey (www.deccan-odyssey-india.com) Seven-night whirls around Maharashtra, Goa and beyond cost from US$6100/8750 per single/double.
Mahaparinirvan Express (aka Buddhist Circuit Special; www.irctcbuddhisttrain.com) An eight-day trip running from September to March and visiting India's key Buddhist sites as well as the Taj Mahal, and Lumbini in Nepal. Trips start and finish in Delhi and include some hotel stays. Rates begin at US$945 per person. Note: because the trip includes Nepal, foreign passengers must have a Nepali visa and a double/multiple-entry Indian visa; visa fees are not included in the price.
Indian Railways holds back a limited number of tickets on key trains and releases them at 10am (AC) and 11am (non-AC) one day before the train is due to depart. A charge of ₹100 to ₹500 is added to the price of each ticket.
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 that 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.
As well as the regular general quota (GN), a special (albeit small) tourist quota is set aside for foreign tourists travelling between popular stations.
These seats can now be booked up to 365 days ahead through the IRCTC (www.irctc.co.in) or at Tourist Reservation Bureaus in large cities; you'll need to show your passport and visa as ID, and payment is either with a card (some bureaus accept international cards) or in rupees (sometimes they'll ask for ATM receipts), UK pounds or US dollars.
Online, there's a ₹200 service charge per ticket, plus a ₹100 registration fee, and you can book only 1AC, 2AC or executive-chair tickets. In person, there's no service charge and you can book cheaper train classes such as sleeper, too.
Trains are frequently overbooked, but many passengers cancel and there are regular no-shows. So if you buy a ticket on the waiting list you’re quite likely to get a seat, even if there are a number of people ahead of you on the list. Check your booking status at www.indianrail.gov.in/pnr_Enq.html by entering your ticket’s PNR number. A refund is available if you fail to get a seat – ask the ticket office about your chances.
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 seats. More expensive sleeper categories provide bedding. Similar to Rajdhani, though slightly faster, are Duronto Express trains, which link major state capitals.
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 cheapest comfortable option, and the open windows afford great views (and photo opportunities).
Known as 'general' class; lucky passengers cram onto shared, padded bench seats. Unlucky ones stand in the aisle or sit in the overhead luggage racks. Not always packed but always extremely cheap; offers flexibility, as reservations aren't necessary.