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How the reservation system works - confirmed tickets, RAC lists and waitlists

A large number of people find the reservation system of the Indian Railways rather complicated, with some justification - there are so many different classes of accommodation, quotas, fare structures, types of trains and seat layouts - among other aspects - to confuse even a fairly experienced user of the system.  

To start with, I must emphasise that merely purchasing a ticket on a particular train doesn't guarantee you a sleeping-berth or seat, unless your reservation is confirmed.  Many people don't correctly read and understand availability messages when buying tickets online, leading them to believe that they have a confirmed seat or berth when, in fact, they're actually on a RAC list or waitlist, leading to a rather unpleasant situation when they finally board the train.

Let's start with a very brief summary of the reservation process:

  • If seats or berths are available for your journey at the time you make your reservation, you will be allotted confirmed seats or berths, depending on the class you're travelling by.
  • If all confirmed berths are sold out when you make your reservation, you might be placed on a RAC list.  RAC, short for Reservation Against Cancellation, guarantees you a seat on the train, with a small twist - you have to share a berth with another passenger.  However, if enough passengers with confirmed reservations cancel their tickets, or if there are no-shows on the train, you will be given a berth to yourself.  RAC exists in specific cases, only in classes with sleeping accommodation.  
  • Once all confirmed seats or berths are sold out and the RAC list (if there is one) has been filled up, you will be placed on a waitlist.  A waitlisted ticket guarantees you nothing - unless enough passengers with confirmed (or RAC) reservations cancel their tickets to get your ticket onto the waitlist or RAC list.

Confirmed Seats or Berths

As I mentioned earlier, if there are seats or berths available for your journey leg, you will be given a confirmed seat or berth.  Your ticket will clearly indicate your coach and seat/berth number unless you're travelling by First AC Sleeper or First Class Non-AC, in which case your ticket will just state that your reservation is confirmed.  

You do not have the option of selecting specific seats or berths through a seatmap whilst booking.  You can, however, specify the type of seat or berth you want at the time of making your reservation.  The types of seats or berths you can request vary by class.  Here are the options you have, categorised by class of travel:

Class of travel                       Seat/Berth options:              

First AC Sleeper (1A)

and

First Class Non-AC (FC)

  • Lower Berth (LB)
  • Upper Berth (UB)
  • Coupe Preference* (CP)
Second AC Sleeper (2A)
  • Lower Berth (LB)
  • Upper Berth (UB)
  • Side Lower Berth (SL)
  • Side Upper Berth (SU)

Three-tier AC Sleeper (3A)

and

Sleeper Class Non-AC (SL)

  • Lower Berth (LB)
  • Middle Berth (MB)
  • Upper Berth (UB)
  • Side Lower Berth (SL)
  • Side Upper Berth (SU)

AC Sleeper Economy (3E)

  • Lower Berth (LB)
  • Middle Berth (MB)
  • Upper Berth (UB)
  • Side Lower Berth (SL)
  • Side Middle Berth (SM)
  • Side Upper Berth (SU)

Executive Class (1A)

and

AC Chair Car (CC)

and

Second Sitting (2S)

  • Window Seat (WS)
  • No Choice

*You have the option of requesting a two-berth coupe when travelling by First AC Sleeper and First Class Non-AC, though your request may not necessary be accepted.  This option is only possible if you book your ticket at a counter, not online.

With the exception of First AC Sleeper and First Class Non-AC, coach and seat/berth numbers are allotted automatically by the Passenger Reservation System (PRS) when you reserve your ticket.  This is how the system works to satisfy your seat or berth preferences:

  • If your seat/berth preferences are available in a contiguous block (next to each other), the PRS gives you the seats/berths you want, all together.
  • If your seat/berth preferences aren't available, the PRS will allot you alternative seats or berths, working to keep you in the same bay (i.e. as close to each other as possible)
  • If there are no groups of seats/berths in the same bay, the PRS will allot you berths in different bays, but will try to keep you in the same coach.
  • If the only seats/berths available are across different coaches, the PRS will do just that.  This is a very rare situation.
  • If there is a clash between your seat/berth preferences and keeping the group together, the PRS usually opts for the latter.
  • If you're travelling alone, the process is much simpler - if your preferred type of seat or berth is available, the PRS will allot it to you; if not, you will be given an alternative seat or berth.

In theory, the PRS starts by allotting seats or berths from the middle of the coach, but there are plenty of exceptions to this rule.  Also, if the quota for your journey leg is small, most of these issues don't arise.  An example:

The Foreign Tourist Quota (FTQ) in Second AC Sleeper on the 17603 Link Express (Kacheguda - Hospet - Vasco) is exactly two berths; berths 37 and 38 in coach A2.  If two passengers book tickets under this quota, irrespective of their berth preferences, they will be allotted berths 37 and 38 in that coach.

In First AC Sleeper and First Class Non-AC, coach and berth numbers are not allotted automatically by the PRS when your reserve your ticket; rather, they are decided manually by the staff when the train's chart is prepared, about four hours before the train departs.  This is done for two major reasons:

  • Since these two classes have cabins and coupes that can be bolted from the inside, the staff try to ensure that a woman travelling alone isn't paired with a strange man in a two-berth coupe (or three strange men in a four-berth cabin!).  However, depending on the demographics of the coach that particular day, this may or may not be possible.
  • To ensure that VIPs travelling - if any - get the best berths (usually the two-berth coupes) 

So, which seats and berths are the most popular?  In trains with sleeping accommodation, I'd say the popularity of berths - in order of most difficult to get to least difficult to get - is:

  • Lower berths,
  • Side-lower berths,
  • Upper berths,
  • Middle berths,
  • Side-upper berths.

(Not every class has all these types of berths)

In trains with sitting accommodation, window seats get sold out earlier than other seats for reasons that are fairly obvious.

The RAC list

RAC or Reservation Against Cancellation is a sort of midway stage between having a confirmed berth and being on a waitlist.  To put it bluntly, RAC is a form of legal overcrowding - if you're on the RAC list when the train's chart is prepared, you will have to share a berth with another passenger, usually a side-lower berth.  How does this work?  Well, the side-lower berth acts as two seats during the daytime - one for the passenger in the side-lower berth and the other for the passenger in the side-upper berth, like in the image below:

In the night, the passenger who has the side-upper heads up to sleep.  The backrests of the two seats are then pulled down to form a berth for the passenger in the side-lower berth, like this:

However, with RAC, two passengers have to share the berth during the night, unless there's a no-show, in which case one passenger gets the no-show's berth and the other gets the side-lower berth to himself or herself.

(In some cases, an inner lower berth is used as the RAC berth, but the principle is the same - two passengers share the berth unless there's a no-show).

The RAC system exists only in the following classes:

  • Second AC Sleeper (2A)
  • Three-tier AC Sleeper (3A)
  • AC Sleeper Economy (3E)
  • First Class Non-AC (FC)
  • Sleeper Class Non-AC (SL)

The RAC system is only followed if the quota for the journey leg is fairly large, and is only seen in the General and Remote Location quotas.  If your journey leg falls under another quota (Pooled Quota, Roadside) or if you're booking through a specialised quota like Tatkal, Foreign Tourist, Ladies, Lower Berth and Defence among others, there is no RAC to worry about.

If your ticket is in the RAC when you book it, keep checking its status - more often than not, RAC tickets get confirmed before the train's chart is prepared.  

If you finally end up with RAC seats and do not wish to travel because of this, you are eligible for a full refund of your fare less clerkage charges of INR 30 per passenger.

Waitlists

If all confirmed as well as RAC places (if applicable) have already been sold when you buy your ticket, you will be placed on a waitlist.  There are several different types of waitlists.  A waitlisted ticket isn't worth the paper it's printed on if it doesn't progress to the RAC list or get confirmed by the time the train's chart is prepared, as waitlisted passengers aren't permitted to board any reserved coach of a train.  

In short, if you have a waitlisted ticket, you depend on the cancellations of passengers (a) with confirmed reservations (b) on the RAC list (if applicable) and (c) ahead of you on the same waitlist.  These apart, there are a few other factors that determine the chances of your waitlisted ticket's confirmation.  If you have a waitlisted ticket and want to know whether it will get confirmed, read this article.

Keep in mind that even if your ticket gets confirmed before the train's chart is prepared, you won't be allotted coach and berth numbers until that happens.  This is done to try and keep groups together.  Imagine, for example, that you are a group of five people whose tickets were initially on the RAC list (or waitlist) but got confirmed later.  Assume that the pattern of cancellations went like this:

  • First, a passenger travelling alone cancelled his ticket,
  • Second, another passenger travelling alone cancelled her ticket,
  • Third, a group of six passengers cancelled their tickets,
  • Fourth, a group of two passengers cancelled their tickets.

When the train's chart is prepared, the PRS will probably assign your group of five to five of the vacancies created by the group of six, so that you're all seated together when you finally travel.  If, on the other hand, you were assigned the coach and berth numbers of passengers immediately as they cancelled, the likelihood of the group being split would be much higher.

Last updated on 14 November 2013.