The Himalayan Queen, the Grand Trunk Express, the Deccan Odyssey… the very names of India’s trains are evocative of timeless style and old-school adventure.
Introduced by the British East India Company, tracks were first laid across the country in the late 1800s to transport troops. Only after independence in 1947 did the focus switch to passenger trains – now, Indian Railways is the biggest employer in the country.
Today, there’s always an element of adventure to a journey on the rails. Here's everything you need to know before travelling by train in India.
Booking opens 60 days before travel, and long-distance trains get filled up quickly, meaning that only the shortest journeys can be organized on the day. It’s often possible to book at your hotel reception, but be aware that you may have to pay a small “admin” fee.
If you organize your trip at a train station, avoid any touts, head straight for the booking desk and leave yourself plenty of time – it’s not the fastest system in the world.
You can also book online, though it’s not as simple is click and pay. First, you’ll need to create an account on IRCTC (Indian Railways’ official website), which will require an Indian phone number for confirmation. You can get around this by emailing the company with a photocopy of your passport.
Once you have your IRCTC login, you may find the website a little clunky, so it’s much easier to use another travel booking site such as Cleartrip to actually buy your tickets (you’ll still need to enter your IRCTC login details at payment stage).
If there are no tickets available at the time of booking, you’ll be given a reserve ticket, either “RAC Waitlist” or “Waitlist”.
With an “RAC” (reservation against cancellation) ticket, you can board the train, though you might not get the seat/class you were after. The ticket will be confirmed if enough people cancel and, as many people book far in advance, there is a high chance of this happening.
“Waitlist” means that all confirmed and RAC tickets have been sold. You’ll get a number with your waitlisted ticket – if your number is lower than ten, there’s a good chance that your ticket will be confirmed. To find out whether you have got a seat on the train, you can check at the station on the day, where you’ll find a seating chart posted up on the station notice board, or look online to see whether your status has changed.
Indian trains are generally divided into eight classes – though they are not all available on all trains (it usually depends on the distance and line you’re travelling on).
There are three air-conditioned sleeper classes: AC1 (first class) is the most expensive, with four-bed booths, but most tourists choose AC2 (two-tier bunks) or AC3 (three-tier bunks) for long or overnight journeys.
These three classes offer a blanket, sheet and pillow for the journey and have fold-out bunks so you can get some decent shuteye. With two-tier bunks, AC2 is a little quieter and more comfortable than AC3; choose a side berth for the best window view or a top bunk in the main berth for the greatest chance of sleep.
SL (sleeper class) is cheaper but, ironically, you may not get that much sleep. Seating is arranged in open berths with three tiers of bunks, but bedding isn’t provided. While it is a reserved carriage, there tend to be more people than bunks. Although it gets quite crowded, sleeper class is actually a great option for daytime journeys, as it tends to be quite sociable.
CC (air-conditioned chair car) has upright, aircraft-style seating, which is a good bet for short trips, as are the other chair classes, FC (first class) and EC (executive).
2S (second class) is the cheapest option, with upright benches, but it’s unreserved which means that there’s often a scrum for seats. You’ll only really want to book second class if you’re on a tight budget and taking a short journey.
You may well find that some of your best memories are of the conversations you have on train journeys. People are very willing to chat, and one of the most enjoyable ways to pass the time is to get to know the people around you.
Indian train schedules are renowned for being, well, a little relaxed. Trains can be delayed for anything from a couple of minutes to a number of hours, so be sure to organize any connections with plenty of contingency time built in. Platform announcements will let you know whether your train is running on time.
While the majority of people are trustworthy, thieves do operate on trains, and if you’re asleep on an upper bunk you’ll have no way to stop them looting your stuff. You’ll notice that many locals attach their bags to the underside of their seats with a chain and padlock, and it’s advisable to follow suit.
Many trains provide on-board meals, but the food is fairly variable in standard (and cleanliness). Trains pause for around twenty minutes at each stop on long distances, so there’s time to jump off and buy some food or a chai on the platform. Alternatively...
It’s now possible to order takeaway meals to Indian rail stations. The food is delivered to the platform, so you can collect it before you board or at a stop on the way or at your destination. There are a number of online takeaway services specifically tailored to train journeys. Try railrestro.com if you have a confirmed ticket – simply enter your PNR (booking) code and choose a restaurant near your desired station. Bored of curry? You can even call up a local Domino’s for a pizza.
India is such a vast country that most travellers only manage to experience a small section of its culture. Through a train window, you can catch glimpses of truly rural India, from the deserts of Jaisalmer to rice paddies in Maharashtra and mist-capped hill stations.