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Train Stuff in India

everything you need to know about train travel in India

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The basics of booking train tickets

The railways offer a few different ways of booking tickets; you can book tickets online or at a reservation office.  Fairly recently, Indian Railways also launched a scheme where you can book a ticket through SMS, but this is such a complicated process that I will not include it in this tutorial.

There are quite a few websites that allow you to book tickets online, of which IRCTC and Cleartrip are notable.  IRCTC, short for "Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation" is the railways' official website to book tickets and its URL is www.irctc.co.in.  Cleartrip, on the other hand, is a private website that aims to simplify the booking process.  While it does have its fair share of bugs, it does manage to provide a far less troublesome booking experience than IRCTC.

What is the difference between booking tickets online and booking them at a counter?  In the following table, I provide a brief overview of both:

Booking at a counter Booking online
Requires travelling to the nearest reservation office Can be done from any computer or internet-enabled phone
Booking times: 8 am - 8 pm (Monday - Saturday) and 8 am - 2 pm (Sunday) Booking times: 12.30 am - 11.30 pm (All days)
Modes of payment: Cash, credit card (at some offices) Modes of payment: Credit card, debit card, internet banking, cash cards
Refunds for cancelled tickets can be made at any reservation office Refunds for cancelled tickets are credited back to the card used for booking
Regular, break journey and through tickets can be booked at a counter Only regular point-to-point tickets can be booked online

Seat/berth numbers known before payment; transactions can be declined by the passenger if seats of his/her choice aren't available

Coach and seat/berth numbers are revealed only after payment - if the passenger is unhappy with his/her seats, s/he has to cancel the ticket
Tickets can be booked under various specialised quotas - foreign tourist, defence etc Tickets can only be booked under the general, tatkal, ladies and lower berth quotas online
You can book tickets under various specialised concessions at a counter; student, allopathic doctor, artisan etc The only concessional tickets issued online are the child and senior citizen concessional tickets
More reliable for urgent bookings like tatkal Not so reliable during peak hours as the site often crashes

Booking a ticket through IRCTC is marginally cheaper than booking one through Cleartrip.  However, IRCTC does not accept any non-Indian card with the exception of Amex, while Cleartrip accepts various international credit cards.

For a tutorial on booking a ticket through IRCTC, click here

To book train tickets on Cleartrip, you need to have a valid IRCTC account which you've synced with your Cleartrip account.  This process can be extremely complicated if you don't have an Indian mobile number.  For a guide to this process, read this article on the IndiaMike forum.

Booking a ticket at a reservation office/counter

Any fairly important station should have a computerised reservation office that will allow you to book tickets.  Large cities may also have what are known as satellite reservation offices spread across the city.  This allows passengers the convenience of a shorter journey to the closest reservation office, especially when the railway station and main reservation office are located far away.

Reservation offices are open from 8 am to 8 pm from Monday to Saturday, with a fifteen minute break at 2 pm.  On Sundays, the office is open from 8 am to 2 pm.

 Some reservation offices have seats that allow you to sit while you wait, such as the one in the image below:

 However, not all offices have seats, so you might have to stand in the queue.

When you reach the front of the queue, you meet the reservation clerk.

 However, you do not walk up to him/her and say something like, "I want three tickets on the morning train to Mysore!" - you will be shooed away quite brusquely. Instead, you need to give him/her a reservation form.

Reservation forms are thin slips of paper with details of your desired reservation.  There will usually be a box of unfilled reservation forms in the office.  An unfilled reservation form looks like this:

 ..and you need to fill it with the details of the train you want to take, your date of journey, the class you want to travel by, along with details of passengers travelling - their names, ages, genders and seat/berth preferences.  Note that merely mentioning a particular seat/berth preference is no guarantee of getting it.

How do you fill up a reservation form?  Here's what you need to do:

(I have highlighted different sections of the form with boxes of varying colours; your actual form will not have these highlights)

 Use a blue or black pen to fill in the form.

Box 1 (Red): There are a few options for you to tick.  Of the four, three are self-explanatory - the only confusing box might be the "Upgradation required" one, which is a rather badly-worded box.  Simply put, the railways have a free upgrade scheme, wherein certain randomly selected passengers in a lower class get a free upgrade to a higher class if there are vacant seats in the higher class and a waitlist in the lower class, when the train's chart is prepared. If you would like to be considered for a free upgrade, tick this box.

Box 2 (Yellow): Mention the train's number in the "Train Number and Name" row - the name itself isn't necessary.  However, if you don't know the train's number, you could just mention the train's name.  Fill in the code of the class you want to travel by in the "Class" box.  I reproduce the codes below:

Class Name Class Code
First AC Sleeper/Executive Class 1A
Second AC Sleeper 2A
First Class Non-AC FC
Three-tier (third) AC Sleeper 3A
AC Sleeper Economy 3E
Sleeper Class Non-AC SL
AC Chair Car CC
Second Class Sitting 2S

Make sure the train you're taking has the class you want!

For the "from" and "to" boxes, enter your origin and destination stations (duh).  You can also use station codes if you know them.  Your answers to the "Boarding at" and "Reservation Up to" field below will usually be the same as the "from" and "to" fields, unless you're making a reservation with a change in boarding point, or are booking a through ticket or break-journey ticket.

Box 3 (Green): Enter the names of passengers travelling (there is a fifteen character limit), their genders, ages and seat/berth preferences.  A maximum of six passengers can be booked on a single ticket. In many cases, booking clerks do not look closely at the berth preference column, so if you strongly want a particular seat or berth, it's a good idea to remind the clerk verbally while s/he's processing your reservation.  If there are children under the age of 5, enter their details in the section just below the green box, though their details will not reflect on the ticket.

Box 4 (Orange): The "onward reservation" section is only important if you're booking a through ticket or a break-journey ticket.  If you aren't, just leave it blank.

Box 5 (Blue): Add your name, address, telephone number and sign in this area.

Let's assume Average Joe, a 25 year old male, wants to travel from Pondicherry to Yesvantpur (a station in Bangalore) on the 9th of November 2013.  The sole train on that date is the 12256 Garib Rath Express, which only has Three-tier AC Sleeper.  This is what his completed reservation form would look like:

Submit the completed form to the clerk, who will then tell you the availability status for your date of journey.  Some reservation offices also have enquiry terminals that you can use to find this out.

In most cases, you cannot walk up to the clerk to make enquiries, though this may be relaxed if there isn't a crowd at the counter.

If all goes well, your ticket will be generated by the clerk after you pay the fare.  Make sure to check your ticket carefully - if there are any mistakes, you should get them corrected immediately.

How long will this process take?

Well, that depends on how long the queue at the counter is, apart from whether your reservation is glitch-free.  If you've filled in the form right, and the train you want is available on your date of journey, the actual reservation itself should not take more than a minute or two, and in quite a few cases, I've walked into a reservation office and walked out with a ticket less than five minutes later.  However, if you're booking a tatkal ticket at 10 am or otherwise heading to the office at peak times, you might have to wait well over an hour before you reach the counter...

Last updated on 14 November 2013.