The Indian Rail Network is one of the most complex, yet successful transport systems in the world which caters to a huge population of over a billion residents, as well as the countries many visitors.
Indian Railways has certainly proved its mettle, having successfully stretched across the nation and provided access to some of the most remote places in India. Apart from the connectivity, Indian Railways embodies the diversity, which India so vividly stands for. For anyone travelling to India, a train ride is a must! Sharing food & gossip with co-travellers, tasting the local gastronomic delights on passing stations and being rocked to sleep by the constant rhythmic motion of the train are all Indian experiences you won’t forget!
Our guide to India railways will help you plan your journey and understand what to expect.
The Indian railways online booking portal www.irctc.co.in is open from 8.00 a.m to 11.00 p.m through the week. Another useful site for international visitors is www.cleartrip.com which allows bookings with an international credit card. Tickets booked online must supported with a physical print out to be presented at the time of journey. You can book on stations as well as use agents across the cities. Booking opens only 2 months prior to date of travel and it is advisable to make a booking as soon as you know your planned dates of travel as trains get very busy.
What Type of Seats to Choose
Different classes based on the number of tiers and air conditioning, decide the experience of your journey. The most basic class has people clamouring for space in every corner. One can bid adieu to any comfort or social ethics here as these are mostly used by the masses, more for the sake of economy rather than comfort. The 2nd and 3rd Tier AC trains are extremely economical and comfortable with enough space to share a conversation and a joke with a co-traveller rather than mind your toes getting squashed. First class is most comfortable but also isolated from all the fun. Below is a run down of classes courtesy of Wikipedia.
1A / First class AC: This is the most expensive class, where the fares are on par with airlines. Bedding is included with the fare in IR. This air conditioned coach is present only on popular routes between metropolitan cities and can carry 18 passengers. The coaches are carpeted, have sleeping accommodation and have privacy features.
2A /AC-Two tier: Air conditioned coaches with sleeping berths, ample leg room, curtains and individual reading lamps. Berths are usually arranged in two tiers in bays of six, four across the width of the coach then the gangway then two berths longways, with curtains provided to give some privacy from those walking up and down.
FC / First class: Same as 1AC, without the air conditioning. This class is not very common.
3A / AC three tier: Air conditioned coaches with sleeping berths. Berths are usually arranged as in 2AC but with three tiers across the width and two longways as before giving eight bays of eight. They are slightly less well-appointed, usually no reading lights or curtained off gangways.
3E / AC three tier (Economy): Air conditioned coaches with sleeping berths, present in Garib Rath Trains. Berths are usually arranged as in 3AC but with three tiers across the width and three longways. They are slightly less well-appointed, usually no reading lights or curtained off gangways.
CC / AC chair car: An air-conditioned seater coach with a total of five seats in a row used for day travel between cities.
EC /Executive class chair car: An air-conditioned seater coach with a total of four seats in a row used for day travel between cities.
SL / Sleeper class: The sleeper class is the most common coach, and usually ten or more coaches could be attached. These are regular sleeping coaches with three berths vertically stacked. In broad gauge, it carries 72 passengers per coach.
2S / Seater class: same as AC Chair car, but with bench style seats and without the air-conditioning.
UR / Unreserved: The cheapest accommodation, the seats usually made up of pressed wood, but the cushioned seats have been rapidly replaced. Although entry into the compartment is guaranteed, a sitting seat is not guaranteed. These coaches are usually very crowded.
Seat61 has a good illustrated guide of the different train classes.
Finding your seat
Trains in India are very long so make sure you are standing in the right part of the platform for where you expect to find your carriage. Some stations have an electronic board with helpful information so you can find out your car number, platform and engine number (and where to stand on the platform). If in doubt ask somebody and you are sure to be pointed in the right direction.
This is one of the most important parts of a train journey. Most trains are not well equipped, so carry your own tissue paper and sanitizer. Prepping up your sensory organs is also a good idea, so you don’t see or smell much! With that word of advice, remember the number of co-passengers is almost 35 for one loo, so don’t complain too much.
Food makes an important part of the journey and scepticism kept aside, be ready to share and dig into others’ food if you strike a good rapport. Taste local delights from people’s kitchens and make some friends for life. Be cautious though, as they have been stray incidents of people being poisoned and robbed. Use your instincts as in any other situation.
Vendors make their way up and down the train at all hours and there is always a Chai seller ready to pour you a steaming hot drink.
Apart from a speedy lesson in getting acquainted to India, the railway network is a great way to carry a lot of luggage to avoid excess baggage costs on flights. Get familiar with some terminology to book and travel on the Indian railways.
Tatkal – A certain amount of seats open up only 2 days before date of travel if you have missed booking earlier, try this. Though, seats run out really fast at this stage, it’s worth a try.
RAC – Reserved Against Cancellation. This means that one can get on the train without a confirmed seat but will be given a seat only if someone cancels.
WL – Wait Listed – One cannot get on the train as this status amounts to not being booked as compared to RAC
Planning a trip to India? Check out our selection of homestays for an authentic Indian experience.