The Basics of the Indian Railway System

This page answers some of the most elementary questions you might have about the Indian Railways.  At the end of this section, you should have an elementary idea of what to expect...

What's the first thing I should know about travelling by train in India?

The Indian Railways is vast, complex, and heterogeneous - it spans over 65,000 kilometres, and on an average day over 11,000 trains criss-cross the country, ferrying more than 23 million passengers.  Your experience travelling by train in India can vary tremendously based on many factors:

  • The class of travel you book (there are 12 different classes of travel),

  • The type of train you book (there are over 10 different types of trains, each of which receives a corresponding level of priority by the railways),

  • The catering profile of the train you take,

  • The route you travel and the time of year you're travelling,

  • How far in advance you book,

  • How well you know about (and use) the different facilities available at railway stations.

My point is not to make you worry or feel daunted/put off by the process of taking a train; it is that with a small amount of research, you can make the most of the facilities on offer by the railways and choose a comfortable, punctual train.  Unfortunately many train travellers (Indian or foreign) are unaware of what to research and often end up choosing trains that are entirely sub-optimal for their journey.  Read through this website to understand how to plan your journey well...

I want to travel from X to Y, do you think there's a direct train connection?

Most important cities and tourist routes in India are connected by direct trains, so unless your route is unusual or obscure, you will probably find a direct train for your journey.  Even if your origin and destination are particularly isolated or far away from each other, it is unlikely you will need to change trains more than twice.  With luck, the train connections and travel times will also suit your needs.

Are Indian trains fast?

By global standards, not at all.  The fastest trains in India average around 100 kmph (with a top speed of 130-160 kmph), but most 'Express' trains average between 45 and 60 kmph (with a top speed of 110-130 kmph).  Though relatively slow, Express trains are often still faster than buses and most road transport.  'Passenger' trains (that stop at almost every station along the route) average between 30 and 45 kmph, and are usually as slow or slower than buses.  Keep in mind that most long-distance trains are overnight - you board the train, find your sleeping-berth, fall asleep, and wake up at your destination, thus also saving on the cost of a night's stay at a hotel.   

If you are planning an extremely long-distance journey (>1500 km), keep in mind that the train journey can take over 24 hours.  If you are looking for the quickest and most "efficient" way to travel for such a journey - rather than for the experience of the journey itself - or are otherwise hard-pressed for time, it is probably better to fly.

Are the trains comfortable?

This depends on the class of travel you choose and the type of train you take.  There are (for all practical purposes) 12 different classes of travel, though no train in the country offers all 12.  To put it simply, the higher the class of travel, the more personal space and comfort you get.  Thus, you could be relaxing in a roomy, air-conditioned cabin or (at the other end of the spectrum) holed up in a crowded, non-AC carriage based on the class of travel you've chosen.  

The most expensive (and comfortable) class is First AC Sleeper.  The cheapest class is simply known as "unreserved".     

Is it safe to travel by train?

When people ask this question, they usually refer to one (or more) of the following aspects of safety:

  • Accidents: while the Indian Railways' safety record can certainly be improved, it is a lot safer than road transport.  Railway safety has received significantly higher priority by the Railway Board over the past two years, and (outside of the Mumbai suburban railway), data from the railways for the 2019-20 financial year indicate that no train passenger died in a railway accident.  This is a major contrast to accident data for long-distance buses and taxis...

  • Theft while travelling: stations can often be crowded.  It is thus important to keep your belongings secure from being pickpocketed while waiting for your train at the station - but this is true of almost any busy transportation hub.  The section of this website focussing on the actual train journey discusses a few tips on how to keep your luggage safe during your journey.  It also discusses how to not fall prey to scams targetting travellers.  In over 60,000 kilometres of rail travel over the last 7 years, I've never faced any instance of theft, and with a few precautions, neither should you.

  • Assault or sexual harassment: cases of assault or armed robbery on trains are extremely rare and are not factors you should worry about while planning a trip.  Major cases of sexual harassment are also rare.  I am currently working on a survey detailing the experiences of woman passengers on the Indian Railway network.  I will use the output of this survey to write a hopefully comprehensive article on perceptions of women safety (and harassment) on trains.

Will my train reach on time?

Indian trains tend to receive a bad rap for their punctuality, though some of the criticism is a little unfair.  The long and short of it is - high priority trains tend to be fairly punctual, as are trains with relaxed schedules on non-congested routes.  Low priority trains on congested routes, on the other hand, can get significantly delayed.  Travelling across the Gangetic plain of north India during the peak of winter (mid-December to end-January) can also entail heavy delays across all trains as the weather can get extremely foggy, impacting visibility and forcing trains in the region to slow down to a crawl.

The good news is that it is quite easy to figure out how punctual a train is likely to be - the next section has more information on how to choose a punctual, clean train.  

Prior to the pandemic, I took 13 trains for long distance journeys in 2020, totalling around 6,000 kilometres of travel.  My average train delay while departing was 3 minutes, with an average arrival delay at my destination of 10 minutes.  This is considerably better than the punctuality of several of the most recent flights I've taken.

Aren't Indian trains horrendously overcrowded?

While Mumbai's suburban ("local") trains are notoriously overcrowded, long-distance or intercity trains are an entirely different picture if you're travelling by any reserved class of travel.  Your reservation includes a specific seat/berth allocated to you, and the higher (air-conditioned) classes are a perfectly civilised, comfortable way to travel. The cheaper (non-AC) reserved classes do occasionally witness crowding on certain trains and routes.  

If you plan to travel "unreserved" you might find your coach jampacked.  

Irrespective of the class you choose, forget those random pictures of overcrowded trains you've seen with hundreds of people on the roof.  These are dated and exaggerated.  Train experiences in India are nothing like that.

When should I start planning my train journeys - deciding which train to take, booking tickets etc?

If you are flexible with your choice of train, aren't in a hurry, and are fine with some discomfort in the cheapest reserved classes (or "unreserved"), then it might well be possible to plan things on the fly.  However, if you are travelling during the busy season (April - June and October - January), are specific about the trains and classes you want, are inflexible with time, and are travelling overnight or long-distance, you should start planning well in advance - sometimes even a month might not be enough.  The section on tickets discusses this in more detail.

Do I need a reservation to board a train?

If you're taking an intercity or long-distance train and are not planning to travel "unreserved", yes, you need a reservation to board the train.  Reservations are included with your ticket - you do not need to buy a ticket first and then separately make a reservation.  However, it is important to understand that buying a ticket itself does not guarantee being able to board the train!  To put it simply:

  • If seats/berth are available for your particular journey when you buy your ticket, you will receive a confirmed reservation.  It either mentions the specific coach and seats/berths you've been allocated or specifies the word CONFIRMED or CNF on the ticket. This allows you to board the train.

  • If all seats/berths have been sold for your particular journey when you buy your ticket, you will be placed on a waitlist and your ticket will mention your position on the waitlist ("waitlist number").  As passengers with confirmed reservations cancel their tickets, your ticket will move up the waitlist.  If enough cancellations occur, your ticket will get confirmed and you can board the train.  However, if your ticket remains on the waitlist when the train's reservation chart is prepared (usually 4 hours before departure), you cannot board the train.  You will, of course, be able to claim a refund for your ticket in such instances.

The status of accommodation (whether seats are available and how many, or what the current waitlist position is) is clearly mentioned while booking, so you can decide whether or not you want a ticket before paying for it.

Some classes of travel have an intermediate stage between confirmed and waitlisted reservations known as Reservation Against Cancellation or RAC.  This is explained in more detail in the section on tickets.

That should cover the basics.  The next section deals with choosing the best train for your journey.