A Guide to Indian Trains

The majority of my travel in India is by train, and I absolutely love it. I wrote up this train guide for some friends, but I realized that others might find it useful as well.

Purchasing Tickets

Be aware that you should buy a train ticket as early as possible. Tickets can be purchased up to 90 days in advance, and they get sold out fairly quickly. The easiest way to book train tickets is online with credit cards (both Indian and foreign cards are accepted) through http://www.makemytrip.com and http://www.cleartrip.com. You can also look up schedules and train numbers and names on those websites. The IRCTC (Indian Railways) website is really slow, but thanks to these new sites, you never have to use it (though these websites are connected to the IRCTC website, so if the IRCTC website is down, you won’t be able to purchase your tickets through these other websites).

There are lots of different classes but I'm too lazy to type up the differences. Check out http://seat61.com/India.htm.

My general rule of thumb (that you of course don't have to follow): for trips 5 hours or longer, I take Sleeper Class. For trips shorter than that, I take Unreserved Second Seating (which, as the name suggests, you do not have to reserve in advance. You just show up at the train station about an hour before you want to board and purchase the ticket then). Note that you are not guaranteed a seat on this class. I have stood for over an hour before finally grabbing a seat on a luggage rack. And if you do get a seat, it's wood and pretty uncomfortable. I never took a class above Sleeper because I'm cheap, but rumor has it the A/C classes are pretty nice.

If you take sleeper class or A/C class (basically anything with a pad or bed), get the upper berth. It is by far the best. People use the lower berth for seating and it's awkward to ask them to move if you want to sleep (and they often ignore your request anyway). And the middle berth can't be set up without asking the sitters to move as well. Plus the upper berth has more privacy …kinda.

If you choose not to buy the tickets online but to do so in person, you need to know all the information about the train, especially the train number (usually 4 digits) and name (i.e. Chhattisgarh Express). So you'll have to use the IRCTC website (http://www.irctc.co.in) or http://www.makemytrip.com or http://www.cleartrip.com anyway to find the train number and name for your departure and destination. I recommend writing down a couple of options just in case the train you want is full.
If there is a waitlist, not all hope is lost, necessarily. It is probably worth buying the ticket, if the waitlist isn’t too long. If your waitlist number is below 20 in sleeper class as of a few weeks before departure, you're likely to get on the train. Sleeper passengers cancel all the time. This is not always true of the higher classes. If your ticket is RAC, you will certainly be allowed to board the train, but you might have to share your berth.

Definition of RAC (copied and pasted from Seat61.com): “After a train becomes fully booked, a certain number of places in each class are sold as 'Reservation Against Cancellation' ('RAC').  After all the RAC places have been sold, further prospective passengers are 'Waitlisted'.  If you have an RAC ticket, two things may happen:  Firstly, a passenger with a confirmed reservation may cancel before the departure of the train, in which case you will be promoted to a confirmed seat/berth on the train, and your name will be shown against a specific seat or berth on the reservation list on the day of travel at the boarding station (so remember to check it!).  A waitlisted passenger will then be promoted to RAC in your place.  Secondly, even if nobody cancels, passengers with RAC tickets can board the train and travel.  They will normally be given a place to sit (but not a berth) in a carriage of the relevant class, for example two RAC passengers might have to share a 2-seat space that would normally convert into a berth for one person.  If one of the confirmed passengers fails to show up for the train, the on-board staff will allocate the spare berth to the first RAC passenger (and the second RAC passenger may then find himself with a berth to himself, solving two RAC passengers' problems!).  Obviously, if there are no no-shows, the RAC passengers will have to sit up all night, or perhaps take turns using the berth to snooze.”

To check your waitlist or RAC status, you can enter your PNR number (you'll see it on your ticket) here: http://www.indianrail.gov.in/pnr_Enq.html. Or you can text your PNR number to 139 and it will give you your status.

If there are no tickets available or the waitlist seems high, here are a few tricks to get you a ticket:

1. TATKAL - TATKAL tickets are not released until two days before departure and are typically more expensive; this is because you are paying for the entire duration of the trip, even if you’re only traveling for a portion of it, plus a TATKAL fee of Rs 50 to 250, depending on the distance. But honestly, sometimes you have no other option, especially for last-minute travel plans, in which case TATKAL is a godsend. Thanks to online booking, these tickets go ridiculously fast. Booking opens at 8am, and if you need a TATKAL ticket, you'd better be on a computer with Internet or in line at the railway station at exactly 8am 2 days before departure. (Actually IRCTC’s online booking system is often down at 8am due to the heavy traffic—and since all travel booking sites are connected to IRCTC, this means all online booking is down—so if you're really desperate for a ticket, show up at the railway station at 7:30am or earlier to line up.)
2. Tourist quota - I actually never used this because I’ve never been in India on a tourist visa and you need to show a tourist visa to take advantage of this. I think this quota may only be offered for popular tourist routes (like Delhi-Agra), and you might need to go to a special tourist ticket window in a railway station. These tickets cannot be booked online.

3. Women's quota - There is often a women's quota, but the ticket-wallah won't necessarily tell you about it. If there are no more tickets, ask if there are any women's, or ladies’, quota tickets left. (Note: don't confuse women's quota with a women's car. This is what I thought it meant, but when I boarded the train, there were plenty of men! But that shouldn't bother you.) This also needs to be purchased in person, but not at a special ticket window.

Note that you can still board a train with a "waitlist" ticket if you purchase a hard-copy ticket in person at a station. If you buy an electronic ticket online and don't get off the waitlist, your ticket will be automatically cancelled, and if you're found on the train anyway they will fine you and kick you off. So if you absolutely cannot get a confirmed ticket and you must take a certain train, just buy a waitlist ticket at a station and board anyway. You won't have a seat, so be prepared to sit on your bag for hours!

At the Railway Station

When you enter the railway station, if you already have your tickets, the first thing you need to do is figure out your platform. There should be a huge board with all the trains and platforms. Some stations have an electric board, but some are old-fashioned flippy boards (you know, where the individual letters flip to change), and some even just use a whiteboard or chalkboard. In some stations they only have the trains posted in the local language or the local language plus Hindi. I was surprised to find that it is not always posted in English. If you cannot read the script, you can go to an “Enquiry” booth to ask. Or you could ask a fellow traveler. Sometimes the platform number changes, so just make sure to pay attention to announcements (or re-check the board close to boarding time).

RAC - see above explanation. Where to check your RAC status, if you were unable to check online or by text message? There is usually a board on the platform covered in lots of sheets of papers. These papers are the seating chart, called simply “the chart.” I had trouble finding it the first time, but it's actually not hard to find. It should be right on the platform. You can ask a railways employee where the board with RAC status information is. I think it is organized by car number.

If you are going on the Unreserved Second Seating class, get ready to fight. People crowd around the car doors, and you need to push and shove to get on the train. There is a mad rush of scores of people trying to get into the car, and EVERYONE is pushing to get on that train! In fact, you should probably figure out where on the platform the SS car will stop and wait at the edge before the train even comes. And when you see it approach, fight your way to the front of the crowd. If you don't fight, you probably won't get a seat, and you might not even get on the train! (I had to jump onto a moving train once. You seriously can't hesitate.)

Trains are sometimes late. Several hours late, even. So you should factor that possibility into your travel plans. To check if your train is on time or delayed, you can use Indian Railways’ Spot Your Train website: http://www.trainenquiry.com/indexNS.aspx. Or you can text AD[space]four digit train number[space]area code of location of departure to 139. For example, AD 2075 011 (011 is the area code for Delhi). But be aware that these services are not always correct. You might be told that your train is on time, only to find out at the station that it is actually two hours late.

On the Train

You will need to travel with your passport (and you’ll need it to check into the hotel at your destination anyway), because the conductor will ask to see your ID with your ticket.

On the train, many travelers lock their bags to a luggage rack with a bike chain lock. I never lock my bag to anything, because the luggage rack isn't necessarily near your berth or seat and I prefer to have my bag with me at all times. I do have little locks on the zippers, though. I always keep my bag in my berth with me. If I was in the upper berth, I just put my bag on the top pad and slept on it or right next to it with my arms around it. And I often used my smaller bag, which held my valuables, as a pillow. In an Unreserved Second Seating car, never let your bags out of your sight for even a moment.

The conductors never announce each stop, so you need to pay attention. Since trains are often late and can become increasingly late as the journey continues, knowing the time the train is supposed to arrive at your destination isn't always enough. You should ask your fellow compartment-mates what stops come right before the one you want. They almost always know. And you will usually find another person getting off at the same place, so you can follow him/her.

It is quite common for people in your compartment to offer you some food. The general advice always given is never to accept this food. However, it could be fine (especially if it’s packaged), and your compartment-mates might be insulted if you refuse their offer. Use your best judgment in the situation.

What to Bring with You

Any overnight train - sweatshirt or blanket. Even in the summer, it can get chilly at night.

Sleeper class - sheets. There is only a pad and nothing else. Sometimes it can be rather dirty. To be honest, I don't know how often these pads are washed, if they are washed at all. So definitely bring something to lie down on. Also take out an additional piece of clothing to act as a pillow.

Any A/C class - you will be provided with sheets and a blanket. Or so I've been told. But the A/C blasts really high, so it's really cold and you should bring a sweatshirt. Or so I've been told.

Bottles of water and food - there are usually several chai-wallahs and food vendors who walk through the cars. I recommend buying chai on the train because it is a very Indian experience. The food is definitely hit-or-miss, so I usually buy some crackers ("biscuits") for the train ride. It is never clear how much time the train is stopping for at each stop (it isn't announced; but if you are smart enough to print out your route, it should say the arrival and departure times for each station), so I never leave the train once I'm on it. Buy your food and water before boarding in your point of departure.

Local Trains

Local trains are a completely different ball game. (Note: when I say local trains, I am not including metros/subways.) You can find local trains in some of the big cities, but you'll probably only use them in Mumbai and Chennai. No advance reservations are needed. You just wait in a really long line (or at least it's really long during rush hour) to buy a really cheap ticket, between 4 and 8 Rs, and then board.

The Mumbai local trains are sort of scary the first time. If you’re a woman, use the Ladies Only car. I made the mistake of going into a general car. I have never been so tightly squeezed into a box before. There were probably a couple hundred people in each car, with people bulging out of the sides. ...and since all of these people were men, this led to me being groped. The Ladies Only car, on the other hand, was half empty. I even got a seat!

I hope this guide has been helpful for anyone planning a train trip in India.