Indian Railway - A Guide to Trains in India
Ahh the good old Indian Railway. Love it or hate it, the best way to travel around India is without a shadow of a doubt on the incredible Indian Railway. We’d go as far as saying you can’t complete a trip to India without experiencing the bustle and atmosphere of trains in India. Especially on the sleeper class train! But train travel in India can be very overwhelming so we hope this post helps a little.
We travelled all over India for nine weeks and during that time we endured our fair share of train journeys. We developed a love/hate relationship for trains in India but we wouldn’t change a thing. Our train travel in India experiences are some of our great memories (mostly good) from the trip. Travelling by train gives you the opportunity to meet local people and other travellers. Eat food you’ve never seen elsewhere. Drink gallons of fresh chai tea and watch the beauty of India’s rural countryside go by.
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Unless you pay at least double the price for the higher class carriages or you are travelling in the middle of the night, you can forget the thought of being able to find your own private section of a carriage to read a good book or get some shut eye. Trains in India are generally busy so the friendly locals will find you. Will want to know all about you. Where you are from. Why you are here. Share food with you. Ask for a photo and then add you on Facebook. It’s all part of the train travel in India fun!
If you’ve never ridden trains in India before then the image in your head might consist of an over crowded, packed to the rafters carriage. With people hanging out of the windows and sitting on the roof. These days, train travel in India is mostly nothing like that unless the masses are on their way to a big religious festival. We were slightly disappointed by this as those sights would have made for some great photo opportunities! 🙂
Today the Indian Railway is a mostly safe, civilised and comfortable, albeit busy, way to travel.
What we didn’t realise before arriving in the country is that the Indian Railway has a reliable seat booking system. So we had allocated seats on every trip. I imagined we’d have to scramble onto trains in India with hundreds of others. Our backpacks getting in ours and everyone else’s way, while trying to squeeze in to find that last available seat. But no, those days have passed. Train travel in India is in fact a well organised and mostly stress free experience. Once you get your head around the Indian Railway class and booking system!
Providing we had booked in advance, we just needed to leisurely turn up 30 minutes or so before departure. We’d recommend anyone doing the same. Many of the stations are huge. So it can take some time to firstly understand what platform you need and then going to find it. If possible, don’t turn up too close to your departure time. Train travel in India requires you to be more organised than that.
Indian Railway: classes explained
It’s a bit overwhelming but there are 8 classes of carriage on the Indian Railway. Yes you read that right. Train travel in India includes 8 classes! It can be a bit confusing to start with but you’ll soon get used to them as we did. You’ll be pleased to hear that most of the trains in India use only a selection of these classes. On all our trains over the nine weeks it was always the same five classes being AC1, AC2, AC3, SL and 2S. Which made our train travel in India experience less overwhelming.
We’ll order all the Indian Railway classes in ascending order of cost at the time we travelled. Mostly because it’ll make it simpler for you but also because the cheaper classes at the top will most likely be the only available unless you’re booking months or several weeks in advance.
Trains in India will mostly show just the two or three letter abbreviations but we’ll also include their full meanings.
2S (2nd class seats)
This is the lowest and cheapest class of carriage on trains in India. So the poorest of India’s population mostly use this class. Open plan cars with padded plastic or even non padded wooden seats. Sometimes reserved and shown as 2S but if unreserved then shown as II.
If reserved then this Indian Railway class is OK for short distance daytime travel if on a tight budget. We used this class a couple of times for that purpose, but we do not recommend using for long overnight journeys. It wouldn’t make for a very comfortable nights sleep!
SL (Sleeper Class Train)
Again this sleeper class train is for the less monied Indian population due to it’s low cost. Non-air conditioned cars consist of open plan berths for six people on one side of the aisle and then small berths for two people on the other. At night, the six berth can be transformed into two 3-tier bunks and the two berth into a 2-tier bunk. Bunks are lightly padded with a plastic covering but no bedding is provided.
In most cases you’ll find that the majority of cars on a long distance Indian Railway journey will be sleeper class train. This is the class we took on most of our trains in India and will most likely be the same for you if you are travelling spontaneously. Trains in India often get fully booked far in advance, especially the higher classes.
Due to our many journeys in the sleeper class train, we can write about the experience in more detail.
As a budget backpacker, sleeper class train would be our first choice for daytime train travel in India.
It’s very cheap and the most exciting of carriages. In sleeper class train you are thrown into a world of interesting Indian cultures and traditions. It’s possible to engage in conversations with Indians from all over the country.
On one journey a family invited us to eat dinner with them in their berth. We ate an array of curries and freshly baked breads, all recently prepared by the wives. Delicious! The husbands found our British politeness extremely amusing as we were constantly expressing our gratitude. Well you would never experience that kind of generosity on a British train!
There are plenty of opportunities to buy food and chai tea from one of the many vendors walking through the carriages.
Most of the vendors are not allowed in the higher classes so they miss out. A fond memory is the welcome cry of ‘Chai, chai, garam chai’ coming down the aisle. Some of our best chai teas were drank on those trains in India.
Because there’s no air conditioning, external carriage doors are often left open to allow a breeze to pass through. We loved standing at the open doorways, holding tight obviously, to get a full view of the extraordinary scenic countryside and exchanging waves with smiling children as you pass through rural villages. A real highlight of train travel in India.
At night, sleeper class train is not quite as fun, so if you can, we’d recommend booking class AC3 or higher. The bunks in sleeper class train are often worn out with little padding which makes for a not so comfortable sleep. Plus no bedding is provided so your own sleeping bag and makeshift pillow will be needed if you want to keep warm. All we had for pillows were our rolled up jumpers but it did the trick for a few hours of restless sleep.
Safety is also a concern at night.
Lots of people randomly roam these carriages. So in the dark it can be a little concerning. If you end up on an overnighter in a sleeper class train, we recommend that you buy a chain and lock so you can secure your luggage while you sleep. We slept on many overnight sleeper class train journeys and we didn’t experience any problems but is certainly something to consider. Especially if you are travelling alone.
Windows are not sealed in sleeper class train so the cold night air and dirt easily get in. We weren’t prepared for one particular night journey to Jaisalmer. We didn’t realise just how cold the nights got in that part of the country. So when we boarded at 3am and the train got moving, the temperature in the carriage was unbearable. A regular freezing cold breeze would blow through the carriage and bringing with it dirt and dust from the tracks below. Luckily is was only a 5 hour journey so we sat it out until we reached our destination. We thought all train travel in India would be hot and humid! We were wrong.
There is also no privacy on sleeper class train as bunks and berths do not have curtains like they do in the other higher classes. And we haven’t even mentioned the mice and cockroaches. We’ll leave it there 🙂
CC (AC Chair class)
This class is similar to what you are probably used to in your home countries. Comfortable airline seating in rows of 3 + 3 with arm rests and air conditioning. Perfect for daytime journeys in hot climates.
EC (AC Executive chair class)
We never came across this class but is the most spacious of the chair classes on trains in India. Comfortable soft material lined seats arranged in rows of just 2 + 2 with armrests, plenty of legroom and air conditioning. Food and drink is also included in the fare price!
FC (First Class)
This class does not deserve it’s first class status but has now almost disappeared due to being phased out by Indian Railway in favour of AC2. So you probably won’t come across it. But if you are interested, it consists of private lockable 4 and 2 birth compartments which can be made into bunks. However there is no air con, no provided bedding in the fare and no sealed windows, so are pretty mucky.
AC3 or 3A (Air-conditioned 3 tier)
The open plan layout in AC3 is the same as sleeper class train above but with air-conditioning, provided bedding and window/bunk curtains for privacy. With sealed windows, AC3 is also cleaner so you’re less likely to be sharing a bunk with dust, dirt, mice and cockroaches! We didn’t experience any of these nasties on the three Indian Railway journeys we took in AC3. Plus because of the sealed windows and closed doors you can appreciate the quietness when compared to the noisy sleeper class train.
All of the above make it our budget recommendation for long overnight journeys on trains in India. It’s possible to get a really good night’s sleep in AC3 and the cost is still relatively cheap. Because it’s more expensive than some of the other classes, you feel less concerned about safety or belongings going missing in the night. And the locals you’ll be travelling with seem more familiar with Westerners so you don’t get pulled into a conversation every few minutes as you can in sleeper class train.
AC3 was the highest class we got to experience as higher classes were always fully booked before we made a booking. Even a few weeks in advance!
AC2 or 2A (Air-conditioned 2 tier)
AC2 is very similar to AC3 but instead of the main berths being 6 person, they’re 4 person. This allows for more headroom. A 3 tier bunk can feel quite claustrophobic and unless you’re a small child, it’s not possible to sit upright. Plus less bunks brings less people to keep you up at night with loud snoring and talking.
As with AC3, an attendant distributes clean pillows, sheets and blankets in the evening.
AC1 or 1A (Air-conditioned first class)
You’ll have to pay much more for it since it’s twice the price of AC2 but AC1 is the most comfortable and civilised way to train travel on the Indian Railway. We tried to book an AC1 just once for the experience but on all of the dozens of trains we took, AC1 was always fully booked.
The aisle runs down the side of the car instead of the middle, with access to private and lockable 4 and 2 people births. Births include air con, bedding, carpet and private wash basins. I bet you didn’t expect this on trains in India? Couples are often given preference for the 2 people births and families to the 4 but that’s not guaranteed. In AC1 you’ll be mostly travelling with army officers, bank managers and monied tourists.
Checking Schedules and Booking Tickets for Trains in India
Checking and booking Indian Railway trains can be a bit of a daunting task. With 6,800 stations and 63,000Km of track, the Indian Railway network is the third largest in the world. Only beaten by Russia and China. Indian Railway is also the world’s biggest employer with over 1.5 million staff! You can pretty much get from any city or town to another by trains in India.
So where do you check and buy tickets?
There are two official Indian websites, Indian Railways (website) & Indian Rail. They’re a bit bewildering to use so our recommendation would be to head to Cleartrip. It’s a private agency website and really easy to use. Just head to the ‘Trains’ section, fill in the usual details and you’ll have access to train schedules and fares. However an account is needed if you want to purchase tickets on Cleartrip.
Like we said above, Indian Railway trains often get fully booked. So if at all possible we’d recommend booking as far ahead as you can. We usually booked a couple of weeks ahead and most of the time only had sleeper class train availability with the occasional AC3. It’s a little frustrating having to plan when to arrive and leave a destination so far in advance. It gives you no freedom for being spontaneous. This is one of the downfalls of train travel in India.
Indian Railway reservations are usually open 120 days before departure.
So if you’re planning only a short trip to India then get those seats booked! This is even more important around Indian holidays and religious dates because train travel in India is very popular with locals. It was wedding season when we were travelling around Rajasthan so the trains were very busy with Indian families. This made for some awesome wedding street parades and parties but with that came very limited Indian Railway seat availability.
On just a couple of occasions, if we happened to be passing, we bought tickets at the station a few days before departure. Stations are usually crowded, especially in large cities. So expect long queues and to be pushed in front of a few times. Not everyone in India understands the queuing system so patience is important!
To avoid the queues at stations, some of the popular cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Agra, Calcutta and Varanasi have an international Tourist Bureau where tourists can purchase train tickets. Just make sure you do your research so you know exactly where the correct site is because scams are rife. We heard stories of travellers on route to the correct bureau being approached by scammers telling them that it’s moved, closed or burnt down. This is all part of their plan to take you to an independent agency where they’ll make a commission. If this happens to you, just smile and calmly ignore them. Even if they look like an official and flash an Indian Railway badge at you. It’s all part of their plan. Another downfall of train travel in India.
Once you’re booked on, the rest of train travel in India is easy.
Like we said, turn up 30 minutes or so before departure to find your platform, section of platform and coach. They print a list of all the passenger names in each coach and hang it next to train doors. You can find your name and double check you’re getting on the right train carriage.
The Indian Railway really is a well organised and reliable system. I don’t know how they do it with so many trains in India running at one time. Over the nine weeks we only had one late train. And we were glad it was because it was the one time we were late ourselves! Train travel in India is something you cannot avoid. But why would you. It’s part of the Indian adventure!