India by Rail: A Travel Guide

Lonely Planet Guide dubs India as “confounding”. Sheer diversity in terms of topography, culture and creeds definitely makes India a confounding destination especially for overseas travelers. From cotton wool mountain peaks in the north to the vast starches of ocean in the South and from the harsh desert in the west to the pristine natural beauty of East; it won’t be an exaggeration to say that India offers ‘too much’ possibilities when it comes to traveling.

Palace on Wheels

One of the foremost luxury trains in India, Palace on Wheels parked at Safdarjung Station: Photo courtesy: palace on wheels

Of the many ways to travel this vast land, Indian Railways truly embodies the spirit of this incredible country carrying millions of passenger everyday and connecting almost all destinations in India. It is said that you haven’t traveled in India if you haven’t seen India by Rail and it also said that you could see the myriad hues of India, its culture and creeds and the spirit in microcosm when you hitch a ride on the trains in India.

Since the first run in 1853 between Mumbai and Thane, Indian Railways has come a long way. There are various categories of trains ferrying commuters and travels across towns and cities. When it comes to tourism in India, luxury trains stand out as one of the most elegant way to cover some of the most prominent tourist destinations in India. Since the introduction of the Palace in Wheels in Rajasthan, several similar and more opulent trains have been introduced by State Tourism Development Corporations to attract tourists, especially overseas travelers.

If you are planning to travel India by rail, here’s a comprehensive guide to help you plan and book your railway tickets in India.

But first let me introduce you to Indian Railways, classes of compartments and other essentials.

There are several types of passenger trains in India. There are locals/suburban trains that ferry local commuters and then there are superfast and express/mail trains that cover long distances cutting across state borders.

Then there are mountain railways and luxury trains which are special tourist attractions. Whereas mountain railways ferry passengers to hill stations traversing scenic landscapes, luxury trains cover prominent tourist destinations in India and cost a fortune to the guests.

Metro Train

Now running in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, however it’s the Delhi Metro which is the best mode of getting around in Delhi whether you be tourist or a traveler. Take a metro for local transportation as it is cheap, hygienic and fastest way to reach from one place to another.

Suburban/Local Trains

Available in most parts of India, however it’s the Mumbai Suburban rail service referred to as “Mumbai Local” which is one of the wonders of India. The Mumbai locals ferry average daily ridership of 7.24 million passengers which is more than the total population of 140 countries.

Suburban trains mainly operate in the urban areas of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Thiruvanathapuram, Kollam, Kochi, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Pune and between Kanpur & Lucknow. These trains usually halts at all stations and have unreserved seating accommodation.

Passenger Trains

These are the short distance trains that connect various cities in India. These are slow running trains that make multiple stop and these are ideally suited to reach small town and villages.

Express/Mail Trains

These are the most common kind of trains in India. They have more stops than their super-fast counterparts, but they stop only at relatively important intermediate stations.

Superfast Trains

Superfast trains both in fully AC and partially AC versions are premium trains that make very few stops at important cities only. These trains are costlier and cover greater distance in lesser time. These are ideal for economic travel for long distances.

Shatabdi Express

The Shatabdi trains are air-conditioned intercity trains for travel during day. They have seats and executive class seats. Some of them 3-tier AC berths. They are the fastest trains in India, travelling at about 130–160 km/h.

Jan Shatabdi Express

Jan Shatabdi Express are a more affordable variety of the Shatabdi Express, which have both AC and non-AC classes. The maximum speed is 130 km/h.

AC Express

These are fully air-conditioned trains linking major cities in the country. They have high priority and are one of the fastest trains in India, travelling at about 130 km/h (82 mph). They have only a few stops.

Garib Rath

Air-conditioned no-frills trains with seats and 3-tier Economy AC berths introduced especially to cater to economically weak population who can’t afford costly ac train service in Rajdhani or Shatabdi. The maximum speed for this train service that connect major cities in India is 130 km/h.

Rajdhani Express

These are air-conditioned trains linking major cities to New Delhi. They have high priority and are one of the fastest trains in India, travelling at an average speed of 130 km/h (82 mph). They have only a few stops. In the Railway budget of 2014, the it was proposed that the speed of Rajdhani express, and Shatabdi Expresses would be increased up to 200 km/h.

Duronto Express

These are the non-stop (except for operational stops) point to point rail services introduced for the first time in 2009. They connect the metros and major state capitals of India and are faster than Rajdhani Express. They provide first AC, two-tier AC and three-tier AC accommodation. Some of them provide Sleeper Class accommodation

Luxury Trains

Luxury Trains are specially designed trains that usually cater to high end foreign clientele to promote tourism in certain states and destinations which are known for their cultural and tourism potential. The first luxury train to be introduced in India was the Palace on Wheels in 1982. The carriages that were used in the train were the original personal carriage used by erstwhile maharajas, Nizams and Viceroys of India.

Maharajas' Express

Embark on a royal sojourn with Maharajas’ Express, the most luxurious way to travel in luxury in India

Currently, there are 5 lluxury trains that operate in India which include the uber-luxurious Maharajas’ Express, winner of Leading Luxury Train in the World award for 2 years in a row and Deccan Odyssey that is operated by Cox & Kings, the oldest travel agency in the world.

Mountain Railways

These pretty little things are reminder of the bygone era of train travelling. Used by the locals and operating in mountainous region, 3 of these “toy trains” are inscribes as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and operate in West Bengal (Darjeeling Mountain Railways), Tamil Nadu (Nilgiri Mountain Railways) and Himachal Pradesh (Shivalik Mountain Railways: Shimla – Kalka).

The other mountain trains and routes are Matheran Hill Railway in Maharashtra, Kangra Valley Railway in Himachal and Lumding – Halflong – Badarpur section in Assam.

Short Distance Classes:

  1. AC Executive Chair Car (XC): Present in Shatabadi Express (the most premier passenger train service in India), these are the extremely comfortable, spacious, clean and the fastest way to travel medium to long distances during daytime. The seating are reserved
  2. AC Chair Car (CC): These are also present in Shatabdi as well as intercity trains that ply during daytime. However they are not as spacious as Executive Chair Car.
  3. Second Class Chair Car (2S): This is what most of the passengers prefer when it comes to intercity travel. The seats could be reserved in advance but don’t be surprised if you see an extra passenger or even 2 on the seats meant for 3. Even commuters with general tickets get on board as the fine of paltry INR 15 get their ticket upgraded.

Accommodation Classes

In long distance passenger trains there are 5-6 classes in which you could travel. They are:

  1. AC 1 Tier (1A): The costliest and most comfortable class to travel in Indian Railways, AC1 coaches includes lockable 4 berths and 2 berths compartments. Cleanliness is at its best and service is mostly up to the mark. Floors are carpeted and passengers are provided with pillows, bed sheets and blankets. This class is not present in all trains but only in important long distance trains plying on major rail routes. Toilets are much cleaner and provided at the end of the both sides. There are 2 at either end and Western style toilets are available.
  2. AC 2 Tier (2A): These classes come with 4 berths and 2 births coupes. The difference from 1A is that instead of lockable coaches, the coupes have curtains for privacy. Floors are not carpeted but you’ll find these coaches very clean. Pillows, blankets and bed sheets are provided to the guests. Just as AC 1, Toilets are much cleaner and provided at the end of the either side. There are 2 at either end including Western style toilets are available.
  3. AC 3 Tier (3A): These are 6 berths and 2 berths coupes. Other than that all facilities are similar to 2A type. You may find toilets a little less clean as the journey proceeds. This class of compartments is present in most of the long distance trains.
  4. AC 3 Tier Economy (3E): Denoted by G, this class of compartments is the cheapest way to travel in air conditioned long distance trains in India. The difference from 3A is that these have a middle berth in the side coupes as well making it 6 berths and 3 berths seating/sleeping.
  5. Sleeper Class: This is how bulk of India travels long haul. These are inexpensive open air windowed compartments. Seating/sleeping is 6 berths and 2 berths arrangement. Whereas these coaches are airy, they could get really hot in scorching Indian summers. The toilets get dirty pretty quickly and more often than not, you’ll have to share your seat with fellow passengers during day time.

But to experience “India” by rail and to live India in microcosm, you should atleast try once in your lifetime to travel in sleeper class. The sheer cacophony of hawkers selling products ranging from tea, snacks to books and toys, from kids coming up to sing and dance and the endless chatters, traveling in this class is an experience of a lifetime.

If you happen to have a newspaper, don’t be surprised if your fellow passenger asks for it to read it. You might be reading the paper, but your fellow passenger won’t ask for all of it, just a page from inside. You may find 5 persons reading the same newspaper and different page, but the amazing thing is that you’ll get your newspaper back all intact. You’ll also see people making acquaintances, sharing stories and even food.


These are the most uncomfortable long distance class to travel in. Here, people are little herded. I mean they do it themselves. The seating in wooden bench, each shared by more than 5-6 people, is uncomfortable would be a mild way to put it. Passengers sit everywhere: On the seat, on the luggage rack, in the aisle, near the toilet and on the gate. It could turn out to be a nightmarish situation, if you have no prior experience of traveling in this class.

My Advice: Don’t go for them even if you are traveling short distance.

Fare & Schedule

The complete list of fare and schedule for reservation in India Railways along with facility for online ticket reservation is available at and

Reservation Types

RAC & Waiting List

RAC means reservation against cancellation. This status on your ticket means that you have been authorized a seating in the side lower berth against a cancelled ticket. The same side lower seat is shared by 2 and you only have seating privilege. If you have an RAC than you can travel in the train but you can only sit. Approx 15 seats in each berth are left alone for RAC.

A waiting list (WL) is when you are not authorized to travel on train if the ticket status doesn’t either change to RAC or confirmed at the time of train’s ticket chart preparation.

Quotas and How to Book Train Ticket in India

Foreign Tourist Quota

This quota is ideal for you if you are a foreign tourist or an NRI looking for economic ways of traveling around in India. This avail this quota, you need to hold tourist visa to India.

This form of reservation could only be done at a limited number of places, on a limited number of trains and applies to a very small number of seats/berths. There is no guarantee that it hasn’t already been booked by somebody else when you get to India.

To reserve your seat against this quota, use the Indian Railways website online and see if the berth is available for the train you are looking to board for your journey.

IndiRail Pass

The Indrail Pass allows you to travel as you like over the entire Indian Railways system, without any route restriction. These passes, created along the lines of the Eurail Pass, can only be purchased by foreign nationals and NRIs on payment of U.S. Dollars ($), Pound Sterling (£) or Euro.

The pass holder is not required to pay any reservation fee, super fast charges or surcharge for the journey. IndiRail passes are available from half a day to 90 days.

An IndiRail Pass gives you the option to travel as many times as you want for the relevant period, including all reservations, sleeper berths and bedding, so there are no supplements or surcharges to pay.

You could have the IndiRail Pass in advance by buying them through General Sales Agents abroad at Oman, Malaysia, UK, Germany, UAE, and Germany, Nepal & Indian Airlines overseas outlets at Kuwait, Bahrain and Columbo.

Tatkal Quota.

Tatkal is a ticket booking scheme for passengers who plan their journey on a very short notice. The booking under this quota begins one day in advance of the departure day of train. One can avail Tatkal scheme through online booking or from the railway reservation counters. You also need to carry an identity proof (PAN Card, Voter IDs etc) which has to be produced before the traveling ticket examiner (TTE) when you undertake the journey.

Train Ticket Booking

You can book your rail ticket in India from the Railways Counters at several railway stations, book it online through railways website or through online travel agents like Cleartrip.

From Online Travel Agents

For users who don’t have an Indian mobile no: Please register for a new IRCTC account on Cleartrip by providing a dummy 10 digit mobile number, and email/IRCTC username which haven’t been used on IRCTC. If you have already registered with IRCTC’s site, and have OTPs, you will not be able to use that on Cleartrip. You will need to make fresh registration on Cleartrip, and use the newly received OTPs for activation.

And remember:

The train lurches ahead slowly, so everyone gathers in the vestibule, the doors always open.

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