Train travel in India can be a stressful experience, even before you enter one of the country’s chaotic railway stations or board your assigned railway car and see the hole you’ll be using as a toilet. I learned this the hard way: Prior to my first travel to India in early 2009, I made a list of all the gaps Dora and I would need to bridge over the course of our itinerary and began researching existing railway connections that would bridge them for us.
Although researching how to travel India by train and booking Indian trains has become easier since I had to do it, the process is still rather long and complicated — and this increases the likelihood of pitfalls along the way. Minimize your chances of encountering complications before and while you travel India by train by learning how the Indian train system works prior to departing your home country.
Researching Indian Train Routes
Once you’ve decided which Indian cities you want to visit, the first step toward travel in India by train is to research which routes you’ll need to take. Unfortunately, this isn’t always as easy as going from Point A to Point B.
Thankfully for any of you booking your first trip to India, the official Indian Railways Passenger Enquiry service is a lot more efficient than it was when I had to use it. Instead of blank fields where you enter the three-letter code of each station you want to travel between — codes you’d find using a separate station look-up page — there are now pre-populated drop-down menus of the most popular railway stations in the country.
Beyond this, however, researching routes can be difficult. For starters, several cities in India have multiple train stations. If you need to travel between Delhi and Agra by train, for example, you always leave from New Delhi Railway Station, abbreviated NDLS. Trains to Jaipur and other destinations in Rajasthan, on the other hand, depart from Delhi Junction Railway Station, abbreviated DLI and also known as Old Delhi station.
A further consideration to make is that not all popular destinations are located near similarly-named train stations. If you want to get Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills by train, for example, you must actually first travel to the city of New Jalgapuri, from whose station you catch the so-called “Darjeeling Toy Train” to the hill station of Darjeeling, which isn’t reachable by normal train.
After you research each route you might take as you travel India by train, write it down (or, alternatively, type it into a word processing document) for future reference, making note of the station codes, the train number, date of departure and price.
Classes of Service Onboard Indian Trains
When you use the Indian Railways website to help you plan your travel in India by trains, one of the search parameters you can set is class of service. For research purposes, set this to “All Class.” Doing so pulls up a list of all the weekly Indian trains that run between your city pairs and specifies which days of the week they run and a list of which classes of service are offered on each train.
Broadly speaking, Indian trains are divided into air-conditioned and non-airconditioned cabins. The air-conditioned cabin is subdivided into first (1AC), second (2AC) and third (3AC) class service, while non-airconditioned trains and cabins include first class, second class and the confusingly-named “Sleeper” seat which in spite of its name, does not convert into a bed of any kind.
Which class you travel in is largely a matter of personal preference, but if the length of your trip exceeds two or three hours in length, I would recommend strongly that you invest the extra 500 rupees or so in booking at least 3AC class. Doing so not only provides you with the comfort of air conditioning, but also gives you a clean, comfortable bed. Even if you don’t end up sleeping, it’s nice to lie out flat and enjoy yourself during a long Indian train journey.
When and How to Book Indian Trains in Advance
I advise against booking in advance whenever possible. For train travel in India, however, it is sometimes necessary to book in advance, particularly if you want to sit or sleep in an air conditioned car.
One example of a route you almost certainly need to pre-book is Mumbai-Goa. The route is extremely popular with locals and tourists who travel in India alike. Outside the monsoon season, 3AC class sometimes books up more than a month in advance. Trains covering the short distance between New Delhi and Agra, on the other hand, run every half hour during the day so even if one or two are full, you’re sure to be able to snag a seat.
To get a general idea of whether or not you should book a seat on your route, use the Berth Availability tool on the Indian Railways website. Consult the document you created after you did your initial research. Didn’t write anything down? Get thee back to the station lookup tool.
As a general rule, if the desired class of service on your desired train is more than half full a month before your trip, it’s a good idea to book. If, on the other hand, plenty of seats to beds remain as the date draws nearer, buy the ticket after you’ve begun travel in India. A good practice to get into is to buy tickets to leave a city as soon as you arrive there — before you even exit the railway station.
If you do need to buy Indian train tickets online before you travel to India, the process is now much simpler than it was for many years. When I did this in 2009 it was a tedious, slow process, one only possible on the Indian Railways website, whose booking software only works during Indian business hours and requires you to manually select a credit card processor from a list of dozens. These days, however, a company called Clear Trip allows you to book Indian Rail reservations online using an interface that’s very similar to most Western travel websites.
Onboard an Indian Train
Of course, booking an Indian train ticket is only half the battle. The next quarter is making it through the railway station to your waiting train. Once you’ve done that, you’re just about home free. Although your first few days in Mumbai or New Delhi — or the increasingly-regular international news reports of rail accidents — might have you fearing otherwise, travel in India by train a is a relatively comfortable, organized affair.
Some aspects of life on the train are strange to Westerners — namely the toilets, which are little more than perforations in the bottom of the train. Wondering why they advised you against using the toilet while the train is parked at the station (and why you could smell the station from a mile away anyway)? Yep, this is why.
Most trains in India are also not equipped with trash cans so if you ask for one, don’t be surprised if the railway employee simply throws your trash out the window for you. This is practice is common as a result of the Hindu caste system, which states that the poor should be responsible for disposing of trash.
This is not to say that delightful things don’t happen on the train — they do! Specifically, a cup of hot, spicy chai tea on an Indian train can be yours for just Rs. 5. A hot, healthy vegetarian or non-vegetarian meal, usually from someone walking right behind the chai salesman, costs about double that.
After your first experience of travel in India with Indian trains, you’ll be a seasoned expert — you need only make it onto the train.