A Guide to Traveling by Train in India
India is such a geographically vast country, the best way to reach the innermost regions of the country is through trains. The Indian rail transport one of the largest and busiest rail networks in the world. It connect almost every city and village in India, covering a total distance of 63,465 km (39,435 miles) in length and 6,800 stations.
Train travel has become quite popular with tourists. As compared to Air travel it is still very economical and more accessible. A train journey in India is a really thrilling and exciting way to discover a new country with it’s splendid view of like the rich countryside of India. It’s also an opportunity to get to know and experience the cultural diversity of the country by traveling along side people from all the parts of the country.
Here’s a rough guide to the different forms of Indian train travel and the Indian train system.
Types of Trains
The massive network of Indian Railways is divided into five zones, namely western, eastern, southern, northern, and the central railway. The trains can be classified in broad gauge, meter gauge, and the narrow gauge, based on the width of the tracks. The broad gauge trains travel much faster than the meter gauge trains because the rails are wider.
There are a number of types of long distance trains in India. Look out for these words in the name of the train which usually indicates the speed of the train and how many stops it has on route.
Passenger trains stop at most stations. They are very slow and should be used only for short trips. They are also very crowded as they are very cheap. They don’t usually have all the classes of seating and only have basic second class facilities.
Express or Mail trains are considerably quicker. Reservations often have to be made weeks in advance to get overnight sleeping facilities.
Super fast trains namely Shatabdi and Rajdhani, stop only at very big stations. These trains are fully air-conditioned and travel much faster than any other train on the same route. They are always given right of way, and they stop only at major stations. They are more expensive but but undoubtedly the best passenger trains in India. Unfortunately they only operate between big cities in India, mainly the metropolitan and are in high demand, so you have to book well in advance to get a seat.
According to Indian Railways, passenger trains travel at an average of 27km per hour, express and mail trains travel at 47km per hour, and the Shatabdi Express and Rajdhani Express travel at 130km per hour.
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. There are 8 different classes on Indian Railways, but not all of them are available on every train.
Second Class (General Compartment)
Around 2 to 4 coaches of this class or category are found in most long distance trains, usually 2 just behind the engine and 2 at the end of the train. It has open plan cars with wooden or padded plastic seats. They are the most crowded and not very well maintained coaches of the train. They have no sleeping facilities and are not recommended for long distance overnight journeys.
You 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 may be seen as a boon, but on the downside more often than not there are no seat numbers assigned and even if it’s assigned it’s not guaranteed that you’ll get that seat all for yourself. An empty seat is open for anyone, including you, to occupy!
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. The facilities are bare minimum.
It’s not the most comfortable or best way to travel but quite acceptable for daytime journeys of up to a few hours.
Sleeper Class (SL)
This class is the main chunk of a typical express and mail train. There are about 10 to 15 Sleeper Class coaches attached per train. This is the way most of the Indian population travels long-distance. Sleeper class consists of open plan seats that convert into berths at 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 main seat whereas the middle berth is the back of the seating during day time. The upper berth is undisturbed and can be used for sleeping even in the daytime. Then on the other side of the aisle there is a row of twin seats facing each other which convert into ‘Side Berths’.
Reservations for this class is a must and can be made from 60 days prior to the travel date. Sleeper class can be quite crowded (although in theory all berths must be reserved, so it can’t get overcrowded), and it’s fairly grubby and basic. On the other hand, you get a better view of the countryside then in AC coaches, where the windows are sealed, tinted, and sometimes dirty. The facilities are pretty basic. Bedding is not provided, so bring your own as the plastic seats can get quite sticky and uncomfortable to sleep on especially in the summer. For a budget traveller the 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. Arranged the same way as the sleeper class with 6 seats converting into berths (3+ 3) and two side seat converting berths. This class is more comfortable than the Second Class Sleeper and is also a bit more spacious.
The windows are tinted and do not open,so you might not be able to enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of the scenery as you pass by like you would in the Second Class Sleeper. 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. Most of the facilities are comparable with Sleeper Class. Here again, you will find the Indian middle class as your co-passengers.
AC 2-Tier sleeper (2A)
Many express trains have a couple of coaches of this class. More luxurious than 3A. AC2 provides 4 seats by day facing each other convertible to bunks at night. It has the bays of two on the other side of the aisle. Each bay is curtained off for privacy, and an attendant distributes pillows, sheets and blankets in the evening.
It’s relatively clean and uncrowded, and a good choice for most visitors to India. It’s a good asylum for those who don’t want to join the crowd or expect luxury rather than economy.
AC First Class (1A)
The First Class air-conditioned class is the highest luxury class in the India railway system for the regular routes. The cost is roughly comparable with the economy class airfare. This class consists of spacious, carpeted and lockable 4-berth and 2-berth compartments with a washbasin.
You’ll find the elite class of Indians and business executives traveling in this class. You can travel in this class for days without even having eye contact with a co-passenger. People tend to mind their own business or the usual stuff of newspaper reading, staring at the laptop screen, acting sleepy and so on.
AC Chair Car (CC)
Generally attached to the day running trains only. Comfortable air-conditioned seating cars. Looks more like economy class in a plane, but with a slightly wider seats. Costs a bit less than 3A. Many day running express trains have this class. A good choice for daytime travel..!
AC Executive Chair Class
AC Executive Chair Class is only found on the most important ‘Shatabdi Express’ trains. As the name suggests it’s more luxurious and spacious than the AC Chair Car. The Shatabdi is a day running train with no sleeping berths and has these two classes of coaches.
First Class (FC)
Non-air-conditioned coaches with lockable 4-berth and 2-berth compartments. Bedding is not included in the fare, but may be available for a small extra charge if booked in advance. Non-AC 1st class accommodation has now almost disappeared, as Indian Railways have largely phased it out in favour of AC 2-tier. It is generally grubbier than either AC1, AC2 or AC3 as it is not sealed against the dirt.
Most of the long distance trains on the India railway system have this facility. The pantry car serves meals, snacks, coffee, tea (chai), and cool drinks. “Room service” is available, where the wait staff brings your order to your seat, although you can go the pantry car and order your meals directly. You will need to pay for what you buy.
The menu is basically vegetarian, although egg omelets are served. Chicken curry and other non-vegetarian dished are available at the stations for about a $1 per person. Prices are slightly higher for food than the local restaurants charge, but the food is pretty decent on an express train.
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