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A guide to understand the Indian Train System

Updated on May 11, 2013
The Indian train system can be confusing at first
The Indian train system can be confusing at first

Everything you need to know about Indian trains

When you first come to India and want to travel by train it can be a bit of an overwhelming experience. There is no one really to explain to you what it means if your ticket has written ‘RAC’ on it, there seem to be a hundred different classes on the train and many a times it can be tricky to get a ticket at all unless you opt for ‘Tatkal’. I have divided this article into three different hubs and will explain to you how to get a ticket while travelling in India (including tourist quota and last minute tickets), how to book an online ticket for the Indian Railway from home and in the article below everything else that you should know about Indian trains (classes, seats, safety, hygiene and food) when travelling in India for the first time.

First of all – travelling by train in India is a cheap, safe and fun way to reach a destination while learning a lot about India’s people and customs. No other way of travelling will give you as much exposure to local people and what could be better than leaning back and letting landscapes move by your window while enjoying a superb Indian meal? But the experience you will have while travelling by train is vastly dependant on choosing the right train, the right class and the right berth – if you care for your comfort.

Sitting on the luggage rack in a luckily empty General Class coach
Sitting on the luggage rack in a luckily empty General Class coach

The classes

Let me start with explaining the different existing classes on Indian trains and what that hands down means for your comfort, safety and pocket.

General class (2S = Second Sitting)

General Class is the simplest of all the Indian railway classes and could be described as the poor man’s class. The tickets are so cheap that I would nearly call them free, but unless you love standing for many hours, squeezed in a big crowd constantly fighting for space with no access to a toilet (as you can’t move), no way to leave your luggage unattended and no hope for a seat you should not even consider travelling by General Class.

Once, during my early journeys to India, when I was in a constant competition with myself to win the smallest-budget-backpacker-in-the-world contest I ended up stranded in Ahmedabad with no train tickets available for the next two days. Now that’s the thing with General Class tickets – they are always available, as they are not sold according to seat numbers. I survived the 8 hour journey standing and pushed against the wall in the pass-through between two coaches and thus at least safe from the kicking feet that await you at every station when young men acrobatically swing themselves from the door frame onto the backrests of the seats to make an entrance as above-the-crowd jumpers. The last 3 hours of the journey I actually even got a seat – purely to the mercy of the kind-hearted people of India who offered me a seat despite the rules of the survival of the fittest. But despite the genuine hospitality I even encountered in this situation it is not an experience to repeat, so I would personally recommend to forget about travelling by General Class if you can afford it – and that you can!

Sleeper Class (SL)

The next step up is Sleeper Class (SL) and that is already a whole different league! You have your own berth (at least during the night) in a sort of open compartment in which you will find two beds above each other on the pass through side and two rows of three berths each facing each other on the other side. Sleeper Class is still very cheap and fairly comfortable if you are a budget backpacker who doesn’t mind to rough it out. Real advantages of Sleeper Class are the open windows and doors during the journey which make it much more pleasant to look outside and enjoy a fresh breeze in your face. With that comes on the downside a swarm of flying merchants, beggars and constant noise and commotion that flood the SL coaches on every station. Additionally it can get really hot if you are travelling during the hot season, as Indian trains tend to have sometimes long waiting times at and between the stations that turn the metal bodied coaches into long ovens with small fans that add to make it convection mode. Especially if you are on a slow train it also can get incredibly crowded during the day when people who didn’t fit anymore into General Class squeeze into SL. Then it is best if you have a ‘Side Upper’ berth, so can be sure to always have a place to sit. I will explain the different berths’ below. If you need to recharge your phone you will only find a plug point at the entrance doors, where you then of course have to stand while charging.

I have mainly travelled SL and that mostly very happily. Only since I started to actually live in India my perspective has changed somewhat and I now wouldn’t go on a 30h journey in SL anymore, if I can avoid it. Most local people have the same attitude – if you can afford it, then why suffer voluntarily? What tourists often find charming on a first journey can easily turn into an annoyance if have no other choice. If you have reached that stage already and now value your comfort more than your pocket, the peacefulness and sense of privacy any AC coach offers you will outweigh the more expensive tickets. But I still do make exceptions. For example when travelling overnight from Mumbai to Goa the journey is so brief and mostly overnight that I just hardly can tell a difference in comfort and thus don’t mind taking SL.

AC 3 Tier (3A)

In this class you have the same seating arrangement like SL, but all the benefits of an AC coach, which is a reasonable temperature throughout the day, closed doors that result in only authorized personnel coming to the coaches to sell food and drinks and your berth only in competition with the fellow passengers in your compartment. You usually get a sheet, pillow and blanket for the night and can separate the berths’ from the pass through with a curtain. While the windows are mostly tinted and dirty so that looking out is not as much fun, you can at least enjoy a sense of privacy and calmness throughout your journey. The price for a ticket is usually more than double than that for a SL ticket, but especially for long journeys during the hot seasons I find it worth the extra money.

In all AC compartments you will find a plug point to recharge your electronics inside the compartment.

AC 2 Tier (2A)

In many trains that don’t have extra First class coaches this is already the highest class. The main difference is that each compartment holds only 6 berths instead of 8, so that every passenger can lie down at any time during the journey. In some trains 2nd AC contains a meal that resembles a plane meal, brought on a tray. Otherwise the service is about the same like 3 Tier AC.

I have travelled 2 Tier AC quite a few times now and it is, of course very comfortable. But overall the difference between 3 Tier AC and 2 Tier AC is so small that it is not really worth the extra money. Only when you really need to get away from too much crowd 2 Tier AC is definitely worth it, as it feels fairly spacious and empty compared to the other classes.

First Class/Executive Class (FC/1A)

Extra First Class coaches aren’t available on every train, so you better inquire about that first. I have never personally travelled First Class, but I have heard that it is an excellent service and a high level of comfort. Nevertheless, First Class tickets are even in India very expensive and mostly you will find cheaper inland flight tickets. While I would usually always recommend taking a train over a plane – simply for environmental reasons – I probably would rather fly than travel First Class. After all shrinking my travelling time from 24h to 2h is for me more worth the money than a compartment with a door and some pampering during the journey.

AC Chair Car (CC)

This class is only available in a few express trains and means you will have to sit throughout the journey. I have heard that they are rather comfortable, but as I can’t sleep sitting I even for a mere 16h journey any time prefer my own berth.

The berths

When you book your train ticket you will mostly not be asked which berth you want, so remember to mention it straight away, if you have a personal preference. I do have a personal preference and I will now explain you the different berths and why they are not the same:

LB = Lower Berth

There are two lower berths in each compartment and the main downside is that during the day every passenger in your compartment is allowed to sit on them. That means you can only lie down during the night, which is mostly between 10pm and 6am. Especially in SL you will have up to 4-5 people squeezing on your berth with you, if the train gets crowded – most of us won’t find that very comfortable!

MB = Middle Berth

The middle berth is according to me the worst of all berths! During the day the middle berth is folded down and serves as a backrest for everybody sitting on the lower berth. That of course means you can only lie down when all the other passengers are going to sleep and you can finally hook your bed up. But don’t be shy to ask, if it is past 10pm and your fellow passengers don’t seem to want to go to sleep anytime soon. It is some sort of unwritten law that when the first person wants to go to sleep everybody has to follow. In 2 Tier AC the middle berth luckily doesn’t exist.

The Upper Berth (SL) is not exactly spacious
The Upper Berth (SL) is not exactly spacious

UB = Upper Berth

The upper berth offers you a little bit more comfort, as you throughout the day have the choice if you want to sit on the lower berth or if you want to lie down on the upper berth. The downside is that you need a little bit of acrobatic skill to climb up and down and that once you are up the space between you and the ceiling is so small that you won’t be able to sit. Additionally if you travel SL it can get very hot directly under the ceiling so that you might prefer sitting downstairs. Now, if you have been lying down on your upper berth half the day in SL you might find your seat taken by some seat less passengers. Don’t be shy to ask for it, you have a right to sit down!

SL = Side Lower

This is one of two berths that are next to the pass-through. The side berths are slightly narrower and I think even a bit shorter than their counterparts in the compartment. Nevertheless the side berths are my favorite seats! If you are travelling with two people try to get the Side Upper and Side Lower! The side lower berth in the day is made of two seats that are facing each other and each have a window. If you are travelling alone you will still have to share the lower berth throughout the day with either one passenger or sometimes many (in SL). A downside is that if you are broad shouldered (and sometimes even if you are not) you will experience people constantly bumping into you when boarding the train, especially if they carry sport bags with a shoulder strap. But you will eventually get used to it.

SU = Side Upper

This is my all time favorite seat, especially when travelling alone. The side upper berth is spacious enough for you to throughout the day be able to either sit or sleep. So if you are not up to squeezing in with lots of fellow passengers in SL you can just retreat to your side upper and stay there – even though you will miss a window. In other classes than SL you can also nicely sit on one of the side lower berth seats during the day and just climb up when you want to lie down (which is not as high and thus easier than climbing up to the UB). I love having this flexibility! Of course if you are travelling with two people it is the best to have the both side seats, so you can sit and sleep fairly privately whenever you like. And last but not least, if you are a bit claustrophobic both side berths give you much more space above you while sleeping then the other 6 berths in the main compartment.

Luggage

Usually it is wise to keep your valuables in your hand luggage and keep this with you throughout the journey. Make sure your hand luggage is not too bulky; otherwise it can get quite crowded on your already small berth. Your main luggage should go under any of the lower berths, preferably not at the edge. Any travel guide will recommend you to chain your luggage throughout the journey, either with a chain and a padlock (the latter is useful while travelling anyway) or as I prefer with one of those flexible wire bicycle locks. There are special hooks under the lower berth to lock your luggage to. The truth is I haven’t seen or heard of much thievery in Indian trains, to the contrary once I left a pair of broken headphones on my seat when getting out – to get them delivered to me by a small boy running all the way after me on the platform! Thus I mostly don’t even lock my luggage at all and nothing ever happened to me. Nevertheless if you are for example sleeping on an upper berth it will be very difficult for you to notice if someone during the night might try to remove your luggage, so you will most likely sleep much better if you simply chain it! Especially in the more expensive classes burglars sometimes try to sneak in in the night to grab a ladies purse, so make sure your valuables are always out of reach!

If you have bulky luggage (even bicycles or motorbikes) to transport you can check your luggage into a special luggage compartment. You will have to arrange for that a few days prior to your departure, please inquire when purchasing your ticket. I have once sent a motorbike and it was cheap and fairly easy, but nevertheless you might have trouble to reimburse anything if luggage disappears or breaks during the journey.

The official train meals are usually decent and safe to eat
The official train meals are usually decent and safe to eat

Food

One thing you will never be short of on an Indian train is food! In all the upper train Classes you will be asked if you want to order a meal and the quality is said to be good. I have had a few meals on the train and they were decent and didn’t give me an upset stomach. But when you are totally new in the country I still recommend that you take a few bananas, oranges, dry fruits, biscuits and crackers with you. Of course most of these snacks are sold throughout the journey, but you never know when, so it is always good to have a basic stock of snacks and water with you from the start. Every train has its own uniformed personnel nowadays that is responsible for selling the food. If you have adapted a bit to the Indian food all of it will be safe for you to eat. Only in SL you should always be a bit careful as here also flying merchants from the villages are trying to sell their goods which might have been lingering in the heat for longer than good.

Many Indians bring their home-cooked food with them and you might be offered some, too, if you have connected with your fellow passengers. Now there is a general warning not to accept any foods or drinks from passengers on the train as there have been cases when tourists were doped and robbed afterwards. I think nearly all of these stories have occurred in the far north-east of India, as the crime rate in Bihar is said to be extremely high. So if you are on a train between Varanasi and Calcutta be extra careful, otherwise trust your gut feeling!

If you want to know more about eating safe when travelling in India, read here.

The toilets need some acrobatic skills
The toilets need some acrobatic skills

Hygiene

The truth is that most trains are not particularly clean. That of course again depends on the class you are travelling with. While higher classes are properly cleaned between new destinations, SL sometimes seems to carry the grease of a hundred years. Usually only the garbage is removed and I have many a times and much to my dismay spotted cockroaches in the compartments. That is not always the case, but you can’t rely as much on a clean compartment in SL than you can in the higher classes. The toilets usually degrade slowly over the course of the journey, depending on your fellow passengers’ ability to balance while finishing their business. There is no toilet paper available, so bring your own or even better try to adapt to the Indian ass-cleaning-with-water method as everything goes straight on the tracks. Try to follow the Indian custom of using your left hand for all dirty business, including touching handles and faucets. There are places to wash hands, but you should bring your own soap, I personally recommend sheets of dried travelling soap. Additionally it is very handy to keep a small bottle of hand-sanitizer with you which you can quickly apply before eating a snack. If you are female don’t forget to pre-plan your next period – it will be really difficult to get sanipads or tampax during the journey! For the poor ladies who have to travel on Indian trains while having their period I highly recommend bringing wet-tissue paper and extra much hand sanitizer. Pre-plan your clothing, too! After all you might end up doing an acrobatic act standing on two slippery footholds in a wet and messy bathroom – you don’t want to make it any more difficult than it already is!

The emergency break doesn't make you feel safer...
The emergency break doesn't make you feel safer...
Harassing women is a legal offence!
Harassing women is a legal offence!

Safety

Overall it is safe to travel in India and when booking a train ticket they will most likely book you into a compartment with other females or other foreigners. Especially in SL you will be a bit of an exotic item, so be prepared to be stared at. Dress decently – that means for males and females to wear long pants and a T-shirt that covers your shoulders. Skirts are mostly unpractical – in case you need to climb to a higher berth. The very best for women is to wear a Salwar Kameez – that are the typical long shirts paired with pants and a shawl that most Indian women wear. Such closing is very pretty, comfortable, cooling in the heat, cheap to buy and evoking positive response by Indians. The shawl is super practical, as you can use it like a thin blanket, a towel or a pillow.

I have been only once harassed on a train and that clearly by a mad man in SL. All I needed to do was to shout and he ran off. Nevertheless it is of course safer and more comfortable as a woman to team up with some other tourists for long journeys. The north-east of India (Bihar, UP) are said to be less safe than other regions, so be a bit on your guard here. I personally recommend that if you are a female and travel alone to not take SL (though I have done it before), but a better class – you will surely be much more comfortable!

If you have further questions, feel free to ask me. If you want to know how to book a train ticket while travelling in India or how to book an online ticket for the Indian railway from home, check out my other hubs!

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