Train Stuff in India

everything you need to know about train travel in India

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Let's start with some of the most basic questions about the Indian Railways.  It must be said, though, that elementary questions are often the most difficult to answer...  

What is the Indian Railways like?

Erm, it's complex.  And large.  Really, really massive.  With a total route length of 64,600 km and over 80,000 stations (as of March 2012), it is the fourth largest rail network in the world, and one of the busiest.  On an average day, over 11,000 passenger trains criss-cross the country, carrying over 23 million passengers.  There are several different types of trains, and ten different classes of travel.  I'm not sure this totally answers the question, but I doubt any answer could...

There's a well-written and long introduction (not by me) to the Indian Railway system on the Indiamike website - access it here.

I want to travel from x to y, do you think there's a train connection?

If you're travelling between important cities and towns, there will - in all probability - be a direct train connecting the two.  In most cases, it is possible to travel between a pair of stations in the country - even if they're distant or isolated - with two or less changes of train.  With luck, the train connections and travel times will also suit your needs.

If you want to search for trains between two places in India, this article should help you.

Are the trains popular?

Yes!  Trains are, by and large, the most preferred mode of travel between cities.  Flying can be prohibitively expensive, and buses are far less safe and comfortable than trains, often at higher prices, which means that people gravitate to trains.  The flip side of this is that trains tend to get booked out fast, sometimes filling up even a couple of months in advance.  How early trains get filled up depend on the route in question, the time and duration of journey, and the class of travel, not to mention the train itself.

How fast are trains?

Well, different types of trains have different average speeds; the slowest Passenger trains usually averaging less than 40 kmph, with the country's fastest trains averaging between 85 and 90 kmph.  A typical Express train averages around 50 kmph - while hardly stellar, often still much faster than buses and road transport.  Keep in mind that a large number of trains are overnight - you get onto the train, find your sleeping-berth, fall asleep and wake up at your destination, also saving on hotel bills.  

There are many long distance trains covering over 2,000 km, and travelling from one end of the country to another can take a few days.  The longest journey you can make without changing trains is from Kanyakumari in the south to Dibrugarh in the Northeast, a journey of around 4,300 km taking approximately 85(!) hours.

How comfortable are trains?

Remember that there are ten different classes of travel, each offering a different level of privacy and comfort at a specific price range.  You could relax in a roomy cabin with an attendant on call, or be squished up in an overcrowded carriage with hundreds of other passengers - both on the same train!  In short, the amount you're willing to spend on a train journey decides the class you will travel by, which in turn determines how comfortable your journey will be.

Aren't trains extremely overcrowded?  

If you're travelling by any reserved class of travel, you will have a specific seat or berth number allotted to you.  Pictures like this that occasionally surface are highly dated and exaggerated - in fact, this picture, though frequently circulated, is quite obviously not of an Indian train.  The system of advance reservations makes train travel a fairly comfortable and civilised process.  You will find your name(s) on the reservation chart pasted near the door of the train.  If you do find somebody else in your seat/berth (not very common when travelling by the air-conditioned classes, not unusual in non-AC classes though), showing them your ticket and requesting them to move should usually work - if not, check with the Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE).

If you decide to travel unreserved, you might find your coach extremely crowded..

Do I need a reservation to board a train?

Absolutely, unless you plan to travel in the crowded unreserved coach of the train.  Reservations for trains open 120 days before the train leaves its originating station, and you will need to buy a ticket for the class and train to be able to travel peacefully.  It is important to remember that merely buying a ticket for a particular class on a train doesn't necessarily get you on the train, unless your reservation is confirmed.  The railway reservation system is complex, and when all confirmed seats or berths for a particular train/class combination have been sold out, you can still buy tickets, but you might be placed on an "RAC" (Reservation Against Cancellation) list, which guarantees you a seat on the train but not a sleeping-berth.  Once the RAC list is filled up as well, you will be placed on a waitlist, which guarantees you nothing unless enough passengers with confirmed reservations cancel their tickets.  For an overview of this process, read this article.  Popular trains can have all their confirmed seats or berths sold out weeks or even months in advance, so you need to book early.

How do I book tickets/make reservations?

If you're booking a regular point-to-point ticket, your ticket includes the reservation - you do not need to make reservations separately after buying your ticket.

For more information on booking tickets, head to the section on tickets.

What if I can't plan my travels early?  Is it possible to just hop on the train and buy a ticket on board?

Well, if you can't plan your travels early and all confirmed seats/berths have already been sold out, you could just buy a waitlisted ticket, thought there is no guarantee that it will get confirmed.  See the section on waitlists for more information.

If you do not want to deal with the worries of waitlisted tickets, you have a few options:

  • You can buy tickets under the tatkal or premium tatkal ("immediate") quotas.  The tatkal quota is a set of seats/berths that opens for booking at 10 am (for AC classes, 11 am for non-AC classes) the day before the train leaves its originating station.  There is a surcharge for tickets booked under this scheme, and these tickets are non-refundable.  For more information on the tatkal scheme, see this article.  Premium tatkal, a newer scheme introduced on particularly popular trains, is a quota of seats/berths that opens for booking at 10 am the day prior to the train's departure.  Unlike the regular tatkal quota, prices for premium tatkal tickets increase as seats/berths get booked under the quota - these can get very expensive, so make sure to check the final fare before booking your tickets!
  • You might be eligible for tickets under a special quota.  See the section on booking tickets for more information about this.
  • Check if any 'premium special' or 'suvidha' trains run on your route - these are trains operated with a dynamic fare policy (i.e. as tickets get sold and the date of journey gets closer, prices for tickets increase) and also have extremely restrictive cancellation clauses.  Bookings for these trains open 14 days before departure, and they usually do have tickets available until the last minute - though tickets can get quite expensive.

Sometimes, after the reservation chart of a train has been prepared, a few vacant seats or berths may remain on the train.  If this is the case, you can catch the train without a prior reservation.  However, you cannot simply get on the train and pay the Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE), unless you want to be fined for travelling without proper tickets.  The procedure to get on a train without a prior reservation (and not get fined) is detailed in this article.

Are trains reliable?

In terms of punctuality, you mean?  That's a tricky question - some trains are extremely reliable; others so erratic that you would never want to plan any event close to your journey.  

For the most part - at least, in my travelling experience - trains are reliable to arriving within fifteen minutes of their scheduled arrival time.  In the last twenty train journeys I've made over the past six months;

  • six trains reached my destination early,
  • three trains reached my destination exactly on time,
  • seven trains reached my destination marginally late (less than 15 minutes behind schedule),
  • three trains reached my destination rather late (1 - 2 hours behind schedule)
  • one train reached my destination horribly late (5 hours 37 minutes behind schedule, but that was due to a disruption on the line)

To a large extent, the punctuality of trains depends on the priority they're accorded.

For more on this, check out the next section of this website.


Articles in this gallery:

Types of trains
Classes of travel
ICF and LHB coaches
Confirmed tickets, the RAC list and waitlists - the basics of the reservation system
Getting on a train without a prior reservation
What is a train's "chart"?

Last updated on 16 November 2013.