When should I reach the station to board my train? Is there a 'check-in' process for trains?
There is no check-in process for trains and no cut-off time for boarding - you can theoretically hop on the train even once it's started moving (though please don't do that!).
Unless you are very familiar with the station and train in question, I recommend arriving about 30 minutes in advance at small to medium-sized stations, and at least 45 minutes early at major stations in large cities. At some larger stations (especially in metropolitan cities), baggage might be scanned through an X-Ray machine at the entrance to the station, and if there is a long line, it might take a while. After this, you will need to confirm which platform your train departs from via the station's arrival/departure information board, then make sure you are at the correct part of the platform (Indian passenger trains can stretch up to 25 carriages and half a kilometre in length, so standing at the wrong end of the platform - especially if the train does not stop for very long at the station - can be a rather stressful experience. Also, arriving late at the station and obviously looking stressed and confused makes you a much easier target for scamsters and pickpockets.
..what kind of scams are we talking about?
The railways are generally fairly safe. Barring common precautions you should take at any crowded public space in the world (keep an eye on your belongings and make sure your phone and wallet aren't easy to pickpocket), make sure you don't fall prey to these scams:
The "your train has been cancelled" scam: mostly at stations in Delhi and usually targetting foreigners, in this scam somebody who looks official will approach you and ask you which train you're taking. On hearing the train, they will tell you it has been cancelled and offer to fix you up with a taxi to your destination. Apart from the fact that the train most likely hasn't been cancelled, you will be massively overcharged for this taxi. Keep in mind that trains do not get arbitrarily cancelled, and if they are, it will reflect on the National Train Enquiry System (NTES) website/app, your PNR status enquiry and on the arrival/departure information board at the station. No actual railway employee will attempt to arrange paid transport for you seemingly out of nowhere - this is a huge red flag.
The "your ticket needs to be activated" scam: similar to the previous scam, it also usually targets foreigners. In this case, a pretend railway official will ask to see your ticket and claim it needs to be activated or is invalid in some manner and a fee needs to be paid to validate it. Of course, no receipt is ever issued. At the outset, there is no such thing as 'activating' or 'validating' a ticket in a manner that requires a fee to be paid. If you board the train with the wrong ticket, however, you can be fined - so make sure you've checked the information on your ticket several times - date and time of journey, train name and number, departing station, class of travel, and coach and seat/berth number. If you are fined, insist on a receipt.
The spiked snacks/drinks scam: a long-running (though increasingly rare) scam usually targetting Indian travellers. In this case, a traveller will befriend you on the train and eventually offer you some of their food and drinks laced with sedatives. Once you fall unconscious, they steal your luggage. While easier said than done, it's best to avoid accepting food from your co-passengers during your journey.
How much luggage can I carry?
Unlike airlines, the Indian Railways offers a fairly generous free luggage allowance. This varies by class. The following points highlight the free allowance for each class along with the maximum luggage that a passenger can carry in each:
First AC Sleeper/Anubhuti Class/Executive Class 70 KG (Maximum allowance 150 KG)
Second AC Sleeper 50 KG (Maximum allowance 100 KG)
Three-tier AC Sleeper/AC Chair Car 40 KG (Maximum allowance also 40 KG)
Sleeper Class Non-AC 40 KG (Maximum allowance 80 KG)
Second Sitting 35 KG (Maximum allowance 70 KG)
Remember, this is per passenger, so if multiple passengers are travelling on a ticket, the luggage allowance increases proportionately. Children between 5 and 12 years are permitted half the free allowance of an adult.
If your luggage weighs more than the free allowance but less than the marginal allowance, you will need to pay the difference in cost at the station's luggage office. If your luggage is oversized or beyond even the maximum allowance, it will need to be booked in the train's luggage van.
Good to know. I actually do have a lot of luggage - will I find trolleys at the station?
Most important (and not so important) stations have porters - men who will carry your luggage to your train and carriage for a fee. While the Indian Railways have set fixed fees for porters, these fees are almost never followed and you will need to negotiate a fee with the porter. While major stations might have trolleys, only porters are authorised to use them for extremely heavy luggage loads. If your luggage isn't heavy enough to merit a trolley, the porter will just carry it on his head (!). Another advantage of using a porter is that they will know exactly which platform to go to and where to wait on the platform for your train, saving you the hassle of navigating the station.
Porters wear red shirts, and licensed porters will usually wear a badge with their name and license number marked on it. If you're paying more than INR 100-150 for a moderate amount of luggage, you're probably being ripped off.
I reached the station extremely early. What can I do at the station to pass time? Where can I wait?
This depends on the station in question. Smaller stations might offer, at most, a shaded bench on the platform to wait for your train. Larger stations might have restaurants or refreshment rooms where you can relax and get something to eat. Most medium-sized stations will have a waiting room, platform stalls selling junk food, magazine stalls, medical shops, and a left-luggage room. Major stations in larger cities often also boast an airconditioned waiting room (Bangalore, Chennai, Nizamuddin in Delhi, Madgaon in Goa, Ahmedabad are airconditioned waiting rooms I've visited personally). These waiting rooms are either free for passengers travelling by any AC class of travel or are chargeable at a reasonable rate. IRCTC has also started the process of opening 'Executive Lounges' at some stations (New Delhi and Madurai were operational before the start of the pandemic). These paid lounges feature air-conditioning, reclining chairs, massagers (extra charges), shower facilities (extra charges), buffets (extra charges), apart from wi-fi and printing facilities. These are priced at higher rates than the regular AC lounges. If you are likely to spend a very long time at the station waiting for your train, you can even consider booking a retiring room, though the quality of these rooms can vary a lot...
If you don't want to spend money while waiting for your train, regular waiting rooms are free for all passengers. There is, of course, always the option of waiting on the platform. Make sure you don't wait till the very last minute to go to the platform!
How do I find out whether my train is on time?
While you can find out the running status of your train from the station arrival/departure boards or enquiry counter, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by checking your train's running status before you leave for the station. You can either do this online or via the IVRS:
The Indian Railways' official website for train running information (and delays) is the National Train Enquiry System. It is also available as an app for Android and iOS.
However, a generally superior app is the Where Is My Train app also available for Android and iOS. This app tends to be more reliable and user friendly - to the extent that many railway employees rely on this app instead of the official railways app. Both this app as well as the NTES app require you to input the train number (or name, though the number is better), date of journey, and the station for which you want delay estimates for. Both will show you the current location of the train, existing delay (if any), and predicted delays for the train at your station. Delay predictions are not always accurate so please don't take them as the gospel truth.
If you do not want to use the internet, you can obtain train running information by calling 139. Train delays and running information are available through the IVRS.
Where do I keep my luggage during the train journey? How do I ensure it stays safe?
If you are travelling by any seated class of accommodation (Anubhuti Class/Executive Class/AC Chair Car/Second Sitting), luggage is stored in racks above your seat (think of the overhead bins in a flight, except that these are open-plan racks. Luggage can also be stored behind the row of seats immediately next to the door. As you are unlikely to leave your seats for extended periods of time, it is unlikely your luggage will get stolen during the journey.
If you are travelling by a sleeping class of accommodation (First AC Sleeper/Second AC Sleeper/Three-tier AC Sleeper/Sleeper Class Non-AC), luggage is stored under the lower berths. You will find loops or buckles under the seat. If you have a chain lock, you can secure your luggage to these loops to ensure the luggage can't easily be removed during the night. Don't leave small bags within easy reach of people moving through the corridor. I usually place items like my wallet under my pillow while sleeping.
If you are travelling First AC Sleeper and have a whole coupe/cabin to yourself or your group, you can simply bolt the cabin door from the inside during the night and ensure your belongings stay safe.
PS: I have travelled over 60,000 kilometres by train over the past decade. None of my belongings have been stolen during these journeys.
Is bedding (sheets and pillows) provided on trains?
Not since the coronavirus pandemic. I will update this answer as and when things change. Stalls at some stations sell disposable bedding, but not every station might have this. I recommend purchasing your own in advance and carrying it for your journey.
What food can I expect during the journey?
Again, this answer has changed since the pandemic started. Don't expect much by way of decent food during your journey as of now. Once things begin to return to normal (hopefully!) I will update this answer.
Will I find charging sockets (plug points) on the train?
Yes - unless your carriage is particularly old, you can expect to find at least one socket in every cabin, usually above the window. These sockets deliver a voltage of 110V AC. The quality of power provided is generally poor and I do not recommend charging anything besides mobile phones and laptops from in-train sockets.
Trains have toilets, right?
Yes, each carriage has 3-4 toilets. No class of travel offers en-suite toilets. Toilets are located towards the ends of each carriage (next to the vestibule) and can vary in condition from spick-and-span to incredibly dirty (usually the higher the class, the cleaner the toilet). Some First AC Sleeper coaches have a shower cubicle as well. In other classes of travel, it is possible to bathe in the toilet, though it is likely to be a very unpleasant experience. In all my travels, I have never felt the urge to bathe in a train...
Are announcements about upcoming stations made on the train?
You can expect upcoming station announcements on premier sitting trains in North India - trains like the Shatabdi, Gatimaan and Vande Bharat Expresses. On other trains, not so much. If you want to be notified that your stop is approaching, you can either ask the coach attendant to inform you (if you're traveling by any AC class) or you could use the alarm feature on the Where Is My Train app.
What should I carry during the journey?
A book or other source of entertainment, snacks, hand sanitiser, toilet paper (if needed), bedding if required, loose change to buy chai from the tea seller! I find carrying a copy of the train's schedule (especially for longer journeys) also helps.