Indian Railways

Indian railways, which daily transport millions of coummuters, pilgrims, animals and hessian-wrapped packages between the four corners of the Subcontinent, are often cited as the best thing the British Raj bequeathed to its former colony. And yet, with its hierarchical legion of clerks, cooks, coolis, bearers, ticket inspectors, stations managers and ministers, the network has become a quintessentially Indian institution.

Travelling across India by rail - whether you rough it in dirt-cheap second class, or pamper yourself with starched cotton sheets and hot meals in an air-con carriage - is likely to yield some of the most memorable moments of your trip. Open around the clock, the stations in themselves are often great places to watch the world go by, with hundreds of people from all walks of life eating, sleeping, buying and selling, regardless of the hour. This is also where you'll grow familiar with one of the unforgettable sounds of the Subcontinent: the robotic drone of the chai-wallah, dispensing cups of hot, sweet tea.

Travelling by train is one of India's classic experiences. The national rail network covers almost the entire country; only a few places such as montainous regions of Sikkim, Ladakh, Uttarakhand and most of Himachal Pradesh are inaccessible by train. Although the indian railway system might look like chaos, it does work, and generally better than you might expect. Trains are often late of course, sometimes by hours rather than minutes, but they do run, and when the train you've been waiting for rolls into the station the reservation you made halfway across the country several weeks ago will be on a list pasted to the side of your carriage.

It's worth bearing in mind, with journeys frequently lasting twelve hours or more, that an overnight train can save you a day's travelling and a night's hotel bill, assuming you sleep well on indian trains. When travelling overnight, always padlock your bag to your bunk: an attached chain is usually provided beneath the seat of the lower bunk.

Types of Train in Indian Railways

There are three basic types of passenger train in India. You're most likely to use long distance inter-city trains called "express" or mail along with the speedier "super-fast" air conditioned trains - these include the various "Rajdhani" expresses, which link Delhi with cities nationwide, and "Shatabdi" expresses, daytime trains that connect major cities within an eight hour travelling distance. There are also painfully slow local "passenger" trains, which stop everywhere, and which you'll only use if you want to get right off the beaten track. In addition to these three basic types of train in Indian Railways, there are also a few dedicated tourist trains and other special services, such as the famous Palace on Wheels and the toy train to Darjeeling and Shimla.

Classes of Indian Train Travel

Indian Railways distinguishes between no fewer than seven classes of travel. Different types of train carry different classes of carriage, though you'll seldom have more than four to choose from any one service. The simplest and cheapest class, used by majority of Indians, is second-class unreserved. These basic carriages have hard wooden seats and often become incredibly packed during the day-bearable for shortish daytime journeys, but best avoided for longer trips and especially overnight travel, unless you're exceptionally hardy or unusually poor. On the plus side, fares in second class unreserved are so cheap as to be virfully free. It also represents a way of getting on a train at the last minute if you haven't been able to secure a reserved seat.