Indian Train System Explained

A network of over 65,000km and 7,000 stations. Exploring India by rail by far the best means, but not without challenges and major variations in comfort and convenience.


Here's fairly rough guide of what to expect regarding the various forms of Indian train travel....

A typical long distance Indian train has the following coach configuration: The driver and his assistant at the front in the engine carriage. The guard is at the tail end of the train is in overall charge. Trains run Diesel or Electric depending on the route.

Second Class (General Compartment) - 2 to 4 coaches in a train, usually 2 just behind the engine and 2 at the end of the train will be allocated general compartment. You'll need not make a reservation to travel in second class. Just buy the ticket from the counter at the railway station, even when the train is standing at the platform ready for departure. This is one of the cheapest ways to travel in India and perfect for a short trip and a great feel of India. The catch is you will not have any seat reservation or sleeping berth. If you manage to get a seat there is no guarantee that you can hold on to it. You need to "reserve" the seat you occupied by keeping your luggage or any other personal objects on the seat when you go to toilets etc.

[book]An empty seat is open for anyone, including you, to occupy! The facilities are bare minimum. Food is available from vendors. 4 toilets (squat type) with water are attached to each coach. Fans are provided. Two washbasins are also provided at both the ends. Bring a small chain and a padlock to secure your luggage beneath a seat or to the luggage rack.

Depending on the season, route etc. second class coaches may get overcrowded: you can end up breathing through your neighbour's nose! These coaches get phenomenally overcrowded during the Indian summer season. There is a large passenger overflow into second class from other classes due to the overbooking of reservation seats.

You can see some of the poorer of India in these compartments. If you want to get a feel of the raw India, travelling by one of these is your best bet. People are generally accommodative and more than happy to talk to strangers. A foreigner generates a lot of curiosity. You take the first step in winning the co-passengers' confidence. Use your commonsense to judge the situation.

An indication of their interest in you is that you will be bombarded with questions. Be prepared to answer a lot personal questions. The first would invariably be ‘from where you are coming?' ‘What is your profession?' Then it could be how much you earn a month. Your answers can lead to sub questions! This is how they socialise. Surprisingly they may not ask your name. They think this is too personal a question to be asked! A poorer Indian thinks that all western tourists are infinitely rich: they have loads of money that they don't know what to do with. Otherwise why should they travel around and waste a lot of money? It is surprising that even the well-to-do class of Indian society also at times think along this line. An average Indian is an infinitely inquisitive question bank. Don't get offended. This is their culture. Asking such questions is not considered impolite. Go with it rather than fighting or getting upset about it. Go with it.

Sleeper Class (SL) - This class is the main chunk of a typical express train. About 72 passengers are accommodated in each coach. There are about 10 to 15 Sleeper Class coaches attached per train. You need a prior reservation to get into them. Reservations can be made from 60 days prior to the travel date. Seats are made into berths in the night. The seats are grouped into sort of semi-private sections of 6 seats, 3+3 facing each other. Upper berth (UB), Middle berth (MB) and the Lower Berth (LB). The lower berth is the seat for all three during daytime. The upper berth is undisturbed and can be used for sleeping even in the daytime. The lower berth passenger gets the window seat during the daytime. Generally you can see a lot of co-operation among the "6 member berth family" in berth swapping, setting the middle berth etc during the journey. Then on the other side of the walkway there is a row of "Side Berths". They are twin seats facing each other. If you are more than 5.5 feet, these side berths are slightly short for sleeping. But both of these are window seats and you will offer little trouble for the other passengers if you want to get out of your seat. Don't get offended if an old passenger asks to exchange your lower berth with an upper berth.

Generally the younger people consent to this as a courtesy to the senior passenger. Try to avoid if possible the first and last 16 seats of the 72 seats in each coach. These are close to the doors and toilets. You may be annoyed by the traffic near the door and toilets, and disturbed at night by the light. Chains are provided to secure your baggage (bring your own padlock). Your luggage can be pushed under the seat.

Overcrowded train IndiaThese coaches are provided with 4 toilets (1 western style, carry your own toilet paper). The squat type is more hygienic in a train. Using them in a moving train needs some experience. This is a stainless steel toilet bowl with footrests set into the floor. There are two latches for the toilet. One is a twin latch that can be opened and closed from both inside and outside. The other can be operated only from inside the toilet. Lock this one when you are inside and leave the other one open. This gives the indication from outside that it is occupied. Early mornings are a bit crowded at the toilets. You can use the washbasin located outside the toilet for teeth cleaning, face washing etc. The toilets are more or less similar for all classes.

Your name is listed on a chart stuck next to your coach's door outside. A copy is also displayed at the departing station "Reservation Chart" notice board about an hour before departure. These coaches are indexed as S1,S2, S3 etc. Lookout for a square white paper label to the side of the door with the coach number marked on it. The same is printed on your ticket also. Most of the stations have a notice board indicating the position of the coaches from the engine. If this is not displayed ask any staff you see at the station for your coach's location. If you can find out the location of your coach prior to the arrival of the train you can avoid madly running up and down along the length of the train with your pack. No bedding will be provided in this class, but without AC it is unlikely to get too cold.

The middleclass mass of India travel by this class. Next to your seat might be a newly married Tamil couple (who can speak reasonably good English), an old lady (who is not very happy with you in the beginning), her middle-aged daughter (who speaks only Hindi) and her inquisitive young boy (who wants to know where are you from). For a budget traveller Second Class sleeper is probably the most suitable mode of transport.

AC 3-Tier Sleeper (3A)- This is the air-conditioned version of the Second Class Sleeper. Most of the express trains have about 2 to 3 coaches of this type. More comfortable than Second Class Sleeper and also a bit more spacious and as with all the following increasingly more expensive classes less likely to be rammed packed and thus much easier to relax and sleep. The windows are tinted and do not open, so you cannot enjoy the sights outside like in Sleeper Class - but it's easy to walk to the next carriage and hang out the door and return when you have had enough for the noise and heat. This is recommended if you need to travel in a bit more comfort, especially during the summer. Bedroll available inside the coach free of charge. Most of the facilities are comparable with Sleeper Class.

AC 2-Tier sleeper (2A) - Many express trains have a couple of coaches of this class. More luxurious than 3A. You can find the well-to-do Indian class in these coaches. This is a good asylum for those who don't want to join the crowd or expect luxury rather than economy. All the facilities available in SL are available here also. Bedroll available inside the coach free of charge.

First Class AC (1A) - The highest luxury class on regular routes. Cost comparable with economy class airfare. A number of important long distance trains have these coaches. The elite class and business executives travel by 1A. You can travel in this class for days without even having eye contact with a co-passenger. People tend to mind their own business (the usual stuff of newspaper reading, staring at the laptop screen, acting sleepy etc).

AC Chair car (CC) - Generally attached to the day running trains only. Looks more like economy class in a plane, but with a slightly wider seat. Cost is a bit less than 3A. OK for decent day travel. Many day running express trains have this class.

First Class (FC)- This is the legacy first class coach. Only a few meter gauge express trains have them. This is first class but non-AC! Cost between 2-Tier AC and 3-Tier AC. Spacious. You need to ask the station manager prior to getting on the train for a bedroll. Cost Rs20 per bedroll.

Express Trains - There are a number of special trains called Rajdhani (means capital) and Shatabdi (means centenary) express. These trains have only the luxury class coaches. And they are the fastest of all trains in India and well worth taking. Rajdhani Expresses run between Delhi and many important cities. Shatabdi Expresses run between important cities. Shatabdi is a day running (no sleeping berth) train.

Break Van - These are the luggage vans attached at the end of each train. If you have any jumbo size articles (bicycle, Motorbike, camping equipment. etc) you can carry it in the break van of the train in which you are travelling. Luggage need not be booked with your reservation. Just come to the boarding station a bit earlier than the departure time and book your luggage in the break van. The Luggage Office is located near the platform. You need to show your ticket as proof that you are travelling in the same train. Go personally to the break van to supervise the loading and unloading of your luggage. This helps you to avoid any "missing" luggage. If you are not having anything put in the luggage van, but your luggage is more than the free allowance, you need to pay the additional charge at this office. Typically the free allowances are 35kg for second class, 40kg for II Sleeper & III AC sleeper, 50kg for II AC sleeper, 70kg for I AC. About 10kg more than this is OK. If you exceed above that, extra luggage charges must be paid.

Pantry Car - Most long distance trains have this facility. You can get meals, snacks, coffee, tea (chai), cool drinks etc. Staff come to your seat to take orders. Also you can go to the car and order directly. You need to pay for what you buy, except on Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains where meals are included. This is basically a vegetarian facility with egg. Chicken curry and other meals are available at stations for about 1USD per head. Prices are slightly higher for food than the local restaurants. You can get decent food in an express train.

TTE - You have to show the ticket to the TTE (Travelling Ticket Examiner) on request. He wears a dark blazer with a name badge over his white shirt and always carries a chart board with a huge clip over it. You can see a beeline of passengers behind him at boarding stations asking him questions about the status of the waiting list. You can ask him any questions from swapping your seat to the next coach where your friend's berth is, arrival & departure times, which train is the best to reach Shimla, how many children he has (it will be appreciated!) etc. If you want to extend your journey in the same train he can do the same and give you the receipt. He can also upgrade your class based on availability and you can pay and get the receipt during the journey itself.

If there is a medical emergency within the train inform the TTE. He along with other key staffs are trained to administer first aid. Also he can easily locate any doctors from the passenger list. Indian railways encourage medical practitioners to prefix their name with Dr. when booking the reservations. All the passengers are insured by the railways against accidents within the railways premises as per the rules. Typically a TTE is in charge of about 4 coaches. He travels along with you. For very long distance trains a new TTE takes charge every day. He locks the coaches from inside during the nights. Many night running trains have a few policemen as night guards. For any complaint or request during your travel, approach the TTE.

Vendors - Anything is available for sale inside a train and at stations. From safety pins to quiz books to bananas to shoe polishing services to dried fruits - you name it! But not all of them may be the railway's approved vendors. A train is a big bazaar on the move. It is part and parcel of the system. When a train reaches a station the vendors cover the windows like bees on the honeycomb, everyone shouting what they sell. All the services are thoughtfully customised so that they can be easily sold through the 4inch gap of the window grille! If you are sitting at the window seat, co-passengers may request that you pass their purchases. Generally the train stops for two minutes at a station, but at key stations it can be up to 30 minutes. A frenzy of activity (buying, selling, getting in, getting out) takes place in two minutes before the train slowly starts with a long whistle. Carry a bunch of coins and small change during travel.

Reservations - You can make a reservation at any of the Indian Railway reservation counters in India. There are hundreds of them all around the country. Large cities have counters located at multiple places for passenger convenience. If booking from abroad, you can plan your journey, check seat availability and book tickets relatively easily online at or Clear Trip. Through this website you can directly book most trains and print out an e-ticket. You need to carry to same photo identity (passport photo copy is okay) that you used to book the ticket to validate the e-ticket for travel. A reservation charge is levied on the total cost of tickets booked over the Internet. You have to register for free and log-in to the site before booking. VISA and Master Cards are accepted. A refund is made on the card if you cancel the ticket later, up to 4 hours before departure of the train. Note down the 10-digit PNR and the Transaction ID. You can do a maximum of 4 bookings a month. Each ticket can be for a maximum of 6 passengers.

There is an Indrail pass available for foreign tourists which can be bought abroad. If you are not travelling so much then it is not worth getting one. Larger hotels in India have a travel desk attached to them. They collect about Rs30 per seat for standing in the queue and booking it for you. This is an easy way to book tickets if you are not curious to go to the reservation counters personally and stand in queue. There are special quotas for foreign tourists. Enquire about this at the reservation enquiry counter for availability on your route. Counters are generally open 8.00am-8.00pm weekdays and 8.00am-2.00pm on Sundays.

When searching for the availability of a particular train online you may encounter a result like WL 40/WL 10. This may look a bit confusing for a new user, but if you know the Indian reservation system this is a useful bit of data. There are two kind of waiting list for Indian trains. Seats are reserved on a first come first served basis. Once all seats have been reserved you go into the 'Reservation against Cancellations' category popularly known as RAC. This is nothing but a waiting list in the conventional sense. You can still get inside a train with an RAC status ticket. You have a confirmed seat but the berth will be allotted based on the availability due to cancellations. After the RAC category is full, the real waiting list (WL) comes into the picture. WL40/WL10 means your actual waitlist position is 40th. Due to cancellation of tickets booked before you, the current status of your waitlist is 10. In other words, 30 bookings have already been cancelled before your enquiry/reservation (40-10=30).

Based on experience, regular travellers know how many sets normally get cancelled on a route. It's a bit of a chancey issue, but about 200+ seats get cancelled for a Second class sleeper per train. You can take a chance accordingly. When you are searching for the seat availability if you come across with something like AVAILABLE- 0068, it means 68 seats are available for the day indicated. Check the status of your ticket just before getting on a train. You can do this through the internet, the reservation enquiry counter or by phone (Interactive Voice Response System); you can see the telephone numbers on the reverse of the ticket. You need to use the 10-digit PNR printed on the upper left hand corner of the ticket. You will not have a seat allotted for you if the status is still under the WL. Contact the TTE to find out your chance of getting a berth. However you can travel with this ticket in the General Compartment.

Cancellations - You can cancel a reserved ticket and get the refund across the reservation counter. Generally the cancellation charges vary from less than ¼ USD to slightly more than 1 USD, depending on the class. If you cancel a reservation at least a day (excluding the day of travel) before the start of journey, only the cancellation fee mentioned is charged. If you cancel within one day but 4 hours before the train departure, 25% of ticket cost plus the above-mentioned cancellation fee is deducted from the refund amount.

You can cancel the reservation even after the train has left without you! But the refund amount varies accordingly. Typically you will loose about 50% of the ticket cost. For a waitlist ticket, no the cancellation fee is charged if cancelled in advance.

Refund amounts are displayed at all the reservation counters showing various percentages based on class, time of cancellation, distance etc. Tickets reserved at one station can be cancelled at another location. If you have booked over the Internet or using a credit card the refund will be credited only to your card account. Lost tickets will not be refunded. You can get a duplicate for a lost or torn ticket if you know the 10-digit PNR and other details. A charge from 10% to 25% is collected based on the distance for the duplicate ticket. And if you find the original, you can claim a refund of the additional money you paid for it with a 5% charge! Produce both tickets at the reservation counter. For cancellation and reservation of tickets the same form can be used.

Tatkal Scheme - This is an emergency reservation scheme introduced in selected (about 100) trains. Such trains are indicated with a T at the end of their train number. The reservation for these seats starts five days (at 8am to be specific) before the day of the journey. These are in fact the same express trains with 2 or 3 such special reservation coaches attached. All the Tatkal (means immediate) tickets come with a premium of Rs50 to 200 extra depending on the class. You need to produce a photo identity card (passport, Driving license, Credit card etc) at the reservation counter. The same will be required inside the train by the TTE. The ID number is noted on the ticket. This is basically to prevent the bogus booking and black-market sale of hot tickets! If you are booking Tatkal tickets for a group of people (max 6 per ticket), any one member's ID is sufficient. These tickets can't be cancelled or refunded.

You can use credit cards also for booking tickets at the reservation counters. Lookout for the special Credit Card counters at the reservation office. You need to pay Rs.30 additionally as service charge. But generally the credit card queues are shorter than the pay cash queues. Use your discretion.


Footprint: India - David Scott

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:-) Highly Recommended

Considered by many, including myself, as the best guide to India. Comparing this to the LP and Rough Guide, the FP has far more information, thumbnail sketches of places, and up to date details of hotels of a variety of prices from backpacker to luxury - and some great finds. Info is up to date and accurate. The LP 'bible' is fine as a basic guide, but you will quickly get frustrated by joining the 'LP queue' everywhere. The Footprint has so much more information than the LP (or RG for that matter) and as well as giving you all the practical stuff you could ever want, actually breathes life into the culture and history that underlies all of India.

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