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Everything you need to know about train travel in India

David Pettitt

Train travel is synonymous with India and most visitors will want to try and incorporate at least one rail journey when they are in the country. The Indian rail network is extensive covering the length and breadth of the subcontinent and includes a number of iconic hill railways, famous stations, picturesque routes and private luxury trains. So whether you wish to know more about the history of India’s rail network or its size to information on classes of travel and the most popular routes, here is everything you need to know about travelling by train in India.

The history of Indian Railways

The first passenger service on Indian Railways departed Mumbai for Thane in 1853. This short journey, a little over 30kms, transported 400 travellers in 14 carriages and was hauled by no fewer than three steam locomotives. This new enterprise proved a success and within a decade the network had extended, winding inland from India’s three main cities of Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata and linking Delhi with the east coast. This was the start of a rapid development of the Indian railway system which boomed over the succeeding decades and by the 1930s was carrying over 620 million passengers annually and many millions of tonnes of goods. Following independence, Indian Railways was nationalized but the development continued unabated. A large electrification project was rolled out, and continues to be implemented, reservation systems were computerised and then moved online, India’s first semi high-speed train was welcomed into service and a number of new lines to connect remote corners of the subcontinent have been proposed.

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Just how big is the Indian railway system?

With over 67,000kms of track, 7,000 railway stations and 11,500 locomotives, the Indian rail network is the fourth largest in the world and the biggest in Asia. Employing over 1.3 million staff, carrying in excess of 20 million passengers a day and transporting 8.26 billion people annually, the numbers involved with Indian Railways are staggering. With such an extensive network, connectivity is excellent with regular services reaching almost every corner of the country and linking virtually all major towns and cities. The system also includes metro lines in many of India’s principle cities, a collection of luxury tourist trains that mostly run in northern India and the historic UNESCO protected hill railways.

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Facilities and classes of travel on an Indian train

The classes of travel on Indian trains vary considerably and depend on the service you are taking and the distance to be travelled. For the most part visitors to India will be surprised at the standard of train accommodation – most intercity services are fast and comfortable and there’s certainly no need to sit on the roof! Accommodation on trains generally depends on whether they are day express trains or long-distance sleeper services and not every class of travel will be found on every train. The information below only applies to regular Indian Railway services and not the luxury tourist trains.

Sleeper trains

Air-conditioned First Class (1A)
The best class on an Indian long distance train and by far the most comfortable way to travel but generally only found on the more important routes. Cabins are 2-berth or 4-berth, spacious, have lockable doors and beds convert to seats during the day. Each carriage has an attendant and bedding is included.

Air-conditioned 2-tier (2A)
Similar to Air-conditioned First Class, 2A is a comfortable way to travel. Carriages are clean and uncrowded and this class is found on nearly all overnight train services. Unlike 1A, however, Air-conditioned 2-tier does not have separate lockable cabins – these are curtained off instead – and berths are for four people except across the aisle where there are 2-berths arranged lengthways beside the window. Beds convert to seats during daytime and bedding is also included.

Air-conditioned 3-tier (3A)
This class has a very similar layout to 2A with the exception that there are three bunks in each compartment rather than two. Bunks are either upper, middle or lower and compartments can therefore accommodate up to six people. On the other side of the aisle 2-berths are arranged lengthways. Due to the extra beds, 3A can sometimes feel quite cramped and this class of travel does not always have curtains. Bedding is provided and beds convert to seats during the day.

First Class (FC)
Over the last few years First Class has been removed from service and is now rarely found or available. Generally FC is very similar to Air-conditioned First Class with lockable 2 and 4-berth compartments, however, the main difference is that carriages are not air-conditioned and windows are barred and therefore open to the elements.

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Express trains

AC Executive Chair Class (EC)
This is the best class of travel on all major intercity routes including all Shatabdi Express trains and the Gatimaan Express. Seats are spacious with plenty of legroom and are arranged two by two with the aisle down the middle. There are large windows and food is provided.

AC Chair Class (CC)
Very similar to EC, Air-conditioned Chair Class is also found on all express daytime trains. Seats are arranged two by three with an aisle down the centre of the carriage but there is slightly less room than in AC Executive Chair Class. Food is also included in the cost of the ticket.

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Photo credit: Belur Ashok

Other train classes

Sleeper Class (SL)
The most common class of travel on Indian Railways, Sleeper Class is used by the majority of the Indian population and is found on long distance trains. Carriages have open berths of six bunks, lower, middle and upper, with two berths across the aisle similar to Air-conditioned 3-tier. Carriages are not air-conditioned, bedding is not provided and windows are barred and so open to the weather meaning it can be very hot in the summer but cold in the winter.

2nd Class Seats (2S)
The lowest seat class on Indian Railways, 2S is an open carriage of plastic or, occasionally, wooden seats. If unreserved, 2S carriages can be crowded but are also a good way of meeting people and learning about everyday life. Carriages are also attached to long distance overnight trains.

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The iconic hill railways of India

India has four heritage hill railways – three designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the fourth, the Matheran Hill Railway, tentatively listed for UNESCO protection. Long associated with the Indian rail system, these hill railways are iconic and historic routes dating to the British Raj that traverse spectacular mountain scenery and have changed little since their inception.

Kalka-Shimla Railway

The idea of a railway line to Shimla was first suggested in 1847, however, it took until 1898 for its construction to begin. The Kalka-Shimla Railway was opened on the 9th November 1903 and runs for nearly 100kms on narrow gauge track through some of India’s most spectacular scenery. The railway has a ruling gradient of 1:25, there are 919 curves, 103 tunnels, 864 bridges and climbs from 656 meters at Kalka to 2076 meters at Shimla. The normal journey time is around 5½ hours.

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Nilgiri Mountain Railway

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway links Mettupalayam with southern India’s best known hill station, Ooty. One of the steepest lines in Asia, the views are breathtaking and the railway, which first opened in 1899, is widely regarded as a marvel of engineering. The route is just over 40kms in length, passes through 16 tunnels and crosses 250 bridges, taking 5 hours to complete the journey uphill and 3½ hours downhill. The wooden coaches are hauled by steam and diesel engines designed and built by the Swiss Locomotive Works.

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Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The very first hill passenger railway in India, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway travels between the mainline station of New Jalpaiguri and the Raj-era hill town of Darjeeling. Completed in 1881, the challenging terrain required a number of innovative engineering solutions including six zigzag reverses and three loops, the most famous being the Batasia Loop. The entire route from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling takes approximately 7 hours and includes a halt at Ghoom, India’s highest railway station at 2258 meters.

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Matheran Hill Railway

Starting in Neral close to Mumbai, the Matheran Hill Railway ascends to the small hill station of Matheran. Designed in 1900 by engineer Everard Calthrop and built between 1901 and 1907, the railway was initially suggested by Abdul Peerbhoy and financed by the father, the eminent businessman and philanthropist Sir Adamji Peerbhoy. A little more than 20kms in length, with a ruling gradient of 1:20 and with only one tunnel, the journey takes around 2½ hours to complete.

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Photo credit: Magiceye

The luxury trains of India

Aside from regular everyday services, Indian Railways also operate a number of luxurious private tourist trains. With comfortable cabins, bar carriages and fine dining, these luxury trains are the ultimate way for the rail enthusiast to see India. These trains cover popular tourist circuits across the country and include sightseeing stops in all main places of interest. Below is further information on three of the most popular.

Palace on Wheels

Arguably India’s most famous luxury train, the Palace on Wheels first departed Delhi in 1982 and follows a seven night itinerary covering the main highlights of Rajasthan and north India. The train makes stops in Jaipur, Ranthambore National Park, Chittorgarh Fort, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bharatpur and Agra before ending back in Delhi. Carriages are named after the princely states of India, there are a range of cabins, a lounge, a bar and two restaurants as well as a small spa.

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Photo credit: Royal Indian Trains

Maharajas Express

Considered to be one of the world’s most luxurious trains, the Maharajas Express operates in northern India and runs a series of different routes depending on the time of year and day of departure. Ranging from short 3-night journeys to longer 9-night adventures, the train always visits Delhi, Agra, Ranthambore National Park and Jaipur, however, some departures also reach Khajuraho, Varanasi, the caves at Ajanta and Mumbai. There are four different categories of cabin, two restaurant carriages and two bars.

maharajas express royal indian trains

Photo credit: Royal Indian Trains

Golden Chariot

The Golden Chariot train operates exclusively in southern India and is named after the famous chariot at the Vitthala Temple in Hampi. The Golden Chariot runs two itineraries that showcase the very best of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, both commencing and concluding in Bangalore. ‘Pride of the South’ visits Mysore, Nagarhole National Park, Sravanabelagola, Belur, Halebid, Badami, Pattadakal, Hampi and Goa whilst ‘Splendour of the South’ covers Chennai, Pondicherry, Tanjore, Mysore, Trivandrum and Kochi.

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Photo credit: Royal Indian Trains

Common trains and popular Indian rail routes

A number of trains, usually express or premier services, in India are prefixed with the same name. These are well worth knowing as they tend to offer the best, quickest and most comfortable way of getting from A to B. Likewise, there are also a number of famous rail routes on regular scheduled services that are popular with enthusiasts and adventurous travellers alike. Some suggestions are listed below.

Common express services

Shatabdi Express
These trains are a series of fast day services linking important cities. Shatabdi Express trains are some of the fastest in India, are fully air-conditioned and have only AC Executive Chair Class and AC Chair Class carriages. Routes popular with foreign travellers include the New Delhi Bhopal Shatabdi Express which links the capital with Agra, the New Delhi Kalka Shatabdi Express for connections on to Shimla, Amritsar Shatabdi Express which connects this important Punjabi city with the Indian capital and the Chennai Mysore Shatabdi Express in southern India.

Rajdhani Express
The Rajdhani Express services are fast long-distance sleeper services, equivalent in standard to the Shatabdi Express trains. With the highest priority on the Indian railway network, in many instances Rajdhani Express trains represent the fastest way to travel by rail on long-distance journeys between major cities. Accommodation onboard is in three classes, Air-conditioned First Class, Air-conditioned 2-tier and Air-conditioned 3-tier with meals included in the price of the ticket.

Gatimaan Express
India’s first semi-high speed train, the Gatimaan Express is India’s premier public train and links Delhi with Jhansi. The train stops in Agra making it very popular with foreign travellers and it has only AC Executive Chair Class or AC Chair Class carriages.

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Photo credit: Belur Ashok

Other popular train routes

Kangra Valley Railway
Similar to the historic Indian hill railways, the Kangra Valley Railway is a narrow gauge line that traverses the beautiful scenery of the Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh.

Island Express
Running between Bangalore and Kanyakumari, this express service travels through Kerala and follows the beautiful coastline of the Arabian Sea to the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent.

Dibrugarh Rajdhani Express
A spectacular journey from India’s capital Delhi to the city of Dibrugarh in India’s far north east which highlights the cultural, linguist and geological diversity of the country.

Konkan Railway
Considered one of Indian Railways most scenic routes, the Konkan Railway hugs India’s western coast and links Mumbai with the palm fringed beaches of Goa.

Vivek Express
The Vivek Express is India’s longest train journey and a must for rail enthusiasts. Departing weekly from Dibrugarh in Assam, the train arrives in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, 82 hours and 4100kms later.

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The most famous railway stations in India

India is blessed with a number of architecturally and historically important railway stations with one even inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. For many, a major part of a journey on an Indian train is the opportunity to experience the colour, confusion, sights and sounds of a railway station. These are a selection of India’s finest and best known stations.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, Maharashtra

Originally known as Victoria Terminus and renamed in the 1990s to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (or CST for short), this is India’s most famous railway station, located in the centre of historic Mumbai and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Ghum Railway Station, West Bengal

Set at an altitude of 2200 metres, Ghum Railway Station is the highest railway station in India and one of the highest in the world. The station is a stop on the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and welcomed its first passenger service in 1881.

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Photo credit: Tirthankar Gupta

Charbagh Railway Station in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Dating to 1867, Charbagh Railway Station was re-designed during the 1920s. Considered one of the grandest railway stations in India, Charbagh evokes the spectacular Mughal architecture of Lucknow with a series of pillars, towers and domes.

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Photo credit: Aleksandr Zykov

Howrah Junction Railway Station in Kolkata, West Bengal

The oldest station in India, Howrah Junction Railway Station in Kolkata is located beside the Hugli River and linked to city via the monumental Howrah Bridge. The 23 platforms handle over two million passengers a day making it one of India’s busiest stations.

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Photo credit: samarkumarsarkar

Chennai Central Railway Station in Chennai, Tamil Nadu

Southern India’s most important and busiest railway station, Chennai Central was opened in the 1870s but re-designed at the turn of the 20th century. Gothic in style with large towers and a central clock face, Chennai Central is one of India’s most recognisable stations.

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Photo credit: Arian Zwegers

Old Delhi Railway Station in Delhi, National Capital Territory

Also known as Delhi Junction, Old Delhi Railway Station is the oldest station in Delhi. Established in 1864, the present station was re-built in 1900 and designed to reflect the architecture of the nearby Red Fort. The station is also close to Kashmiri Gate and the markets of Chandni Chowk.

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Photo credit: Varun Shiv Kapur

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