I have been traveling in trains since childhood and enjoy it very much. I don’t know about my very first journey but I recall being fascinated by trains when I was still in kindergarten. We were in Patiala (Punjab) and everyday my father used to take me to a phatak (level crossing) to watch the evening train. I don’t know how long did that ritual last but on and off I would encounter these fascinating machines either when we travelled annually to my home town in Nagpur from Delhi or to some other place. I realized the importance of railways in our nation, in our lives quite early. It is not just the largest transporter of men & material but also unifies this diverse nation culturally and really makes it maintain its pluralism and social fabric. Since then I have been an admirer of Indian Railways and looked up to it. Fortunately, I found later that I am not alone and there are several people across India who love Indian Railways and are its FAN. These people have come together and formed a web-based informal group called Indian Railway Fan Club association (IRFCA) which discuss almost all aspects of railways through forums. I became part of it twelve years back and learnt a lot from the discussion and made life time friends. In this post we would talk about things which concern a regular passenger like train information, booking and traveling on it.
I am unable to travel much by trains nowadays due to lack of time, lack of reservation, lack of convenient options. Still whenever I get a chance I prefer to take a train. Earlier this year when I was looking at options to go from Mumbai to Kolkata the choice was enormous and I couldn’t make up my mind which one to take? Should I take the fastest one like Duronto, a prestigious superfast train like Geetanjali or a crawler train which makes plenty of halts and takes lot of time. Every type of journey has its charm. It was like a restaurant menu where one cannot decide which dish to take. I wondered how far Indian Railways has progressed that now there are different class of trains catering to various strata of populace. The the choice of accomodation has also increased especially AC classes.
Here are different classes of trains which are currently plying on Indian Railways:
Rajdhani - These are fully airconditioned trains trains between state capitals and nation’s capital Delhi. For example, New Delhi – Howrah, New Delhi – Mumbai, New Delhi – Trivandrum etc. They have sleeper accomodation like First AC (1A), Two-tier AC (2A) and Three-tier AC (3A) only. The meals and bedding is provided onboard and cost is included in ticket.They are quite prestigious, fast and cover long distance. They have highest priority in the section where they are running. List of Rajdhani trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/rajdhani_trn_list.html
Shatabdi - These are fully air-conditioned intercity superfast trains with only seating arrangement. Generally one of the cities is a metro town. These trains start from one city and return back same day. These trains have Chair Car (CC) and Executive Chair Car (ECC) accomodation. For example, New Delhi – Bhopal, Chennai – Mysore and Mumbai – Ahmedabad shatabdi. They have highest priority in the section where they are running. These trains are quite fast. Bhopal shatabdi is fastest in the country with 150 KMPH speed between Faridabad & Agra. List of shatabdi trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/shatabdi_trn_list.html
Mail/Express/Superfast – These are the ubiquitous dark-light blue trains. They have all classes of accommodation like First AC (1A), Two-tier AC (2A), Three-tier AC (3A), Three-tier Sleeper (SL), Second Seating (2S) and General (GS). Generally 2S accommodation is available only in day time trains. 1A is available only on premium trains. Bulk of passengers travel on these kind of trains. They generally run upto maximum of 120 KMPH speed depending on section. List of Mail/Express/Superfast trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/mail_express_trn_list.html
Tip: A train is classified as superfast if its average end-to-end speed is above 55 KMPH for Broad Gauge trains.
Jan Shatabdi - These are poor cousins of Shatabdi trains. The cities which have regular traffic but cannot generate enough high paying customers in air-conditioned class generally have such trains. Sometimes, regular Shatabdi trains are converted to Jan shatabdi due to poor patronage. List of Janshatabdi trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/jan_shatabdi.html
Garibrath - These trains were stated by Lalu Prasad Yadav then Railway minister to provide affordable Air-conditioned travel to middle class. They have only Three-tier AC (3A) accomodation whose fare are less than regular 3A in other trains. This is compensated by having an extra Side Middle berth. List of Garib Rath trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/garibrath_trn_list.html
Duronto - These trains were started by Mamta Banerjee to provide non-stop end-to-end long distane travel. These are mostly fully airconditioned trains but some trains have sleeper accomodation as well. In these trains, one can book tickets only from first to last station. Apart from that they are exactly like Rajdhani trains. List of Duronto trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/duronto_trn_list.html
Querying for trains
With these many choice of trains, it could get very tedious to check trains and availability in them. Fortunately, Indian railways have a passenger reservation website www.indianrail.gov.in. The website is quite basic and querying for trains & availability is quite simple. However, still some people overlook certain facts because of which they don’t get to see some trains. Note that trains could have various frequency – daily, weekly, bi-weekly, tri-weekly or special trains etc. Similarly trains could have various class of accomodations – 1A, 2A, 3A, SL, CC, ECC, 2S etc. So, one should start by enumerating all the trains between source and destination irrespective of day of running and class. This can be done from this page - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/inet_Srcdest.html which is mentioned as To know trains between pair of stations (Without Date Specific) on www.indianrail.gov.in. Enter source and destination and select All Class as Class. Querying this gives one single view of all trains, their frequency and accomodation which is easy to choose from. From here one can query availability in a specific train & class for a particular date. The result shows availability for next 6 days of running as well.
During peak season like summer vacations, festivals like Diwali, around New year, railways run some special trains to clear the rush. One can take advantage of such trains as very few people know about it. These trains are published in print media but lot of people miss that. Even though they appear among regular trains in passenger reservation websites, lot of people miss them out due to unfamiliarity with them. List of such special trains could be found here for (Summer 2012) - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/special_trn_list.html. It is best to check on the website time to time for such special trains.
Booking in trains is biggest headache nowdays with no reservation available even in non-peak seasons. Trains with hundreds of berths get booked within minutes. So, it is important to prepare for booking the travel. Reservation can be done online or across the counter in a passenger reservation center. Online reservation is handled by IRCTC (a subsidiary of Indian Railways) through its website www.irctc.co.in which is one of the largest e-commerce websites in Asia based on transaction value per unit time.
Normal booking starts 90 days in advance for general quota. The bookings start at 8:00AM in the morning so one should be prepared for it by being in front of the computer before that or in the queue at reservation counter.
Tip 1: Sometimes booking from preceding station or booking to further station helps get you seats as quota is different for different source-destination pair. For example, booking from Pune to Nagpur on Maharashtra Express which comes from Kolhapur, there is a different quota from Pune to Nagpur than let’s say Kolhapur/Satara/Ghorpuri stations which are before Pune station. They come under Kolhapur-Nagpur quota which is separate than Pune-Nagpur quota. By using the facility of specifying a different boarding station than the station from which reservation is done, one can get confirmed accommodation by paying a little extra for extra distance. I utilized it once to get a confirmed AC Two-tier reservation from Pune to Nagpur while Pune-Nagpur was waitlisted. Around Delhi area, for example if there is no availability for New Delhi – Mumbai on Golden Temple Mail, try booking from Ghaziabad to Mumbai. That would be a different quota than one from New Delhi.
Tip 2: With the advent of Duronto non-stop trains there is a possibility to avail these trains if your destination is on the route close to eventual destination of the train and it is a technical halt of the train. Every long distance train has some technical halts where crew changes. If your destination is one such then it could be a boon. For example, Mumbai – Howrah Duronto has technical halts at Bhusaval, Nagpur, Bilaspur, TataNagar. So, people who are destined to let’s say Bilaspur or Tata Nagar can book the entire journey from Mumbai to Howrah but get down at these stations when trains stop there. In my recent journey from Mumbai to Howrah, there were several such passengers who got down at Tata Nagar and Kharagpur. You may just have to pay extra upto Howrah for this convenience. Railways does not publish a list of technical halts for a train but you can easily figure them out by experience, talking to train crew, passengers or characteristics that it is a major station, change of railway division and around 5-7 hours from previous technical halt.
Tip 3: You could avail connecting train journey where instead of going from A to B directly, you may go from A to C and then C to B. There might be some hidden gem of a train which could be available on one of these legs and other leg could be accomplished by some other means like train, bus or even air. Shatabdi trains or overnight trains from a smaller city are relatively lightly booked and fill up only towards the day of travel and could be easily availed. For example, there is an overnight Bhopal express which generally would not have so many people traveling from Bhopal so reservations could be available there. I once went to Pune from Delhi in this fashion. I took Golden temple mail from Delhi to Dadar (Mumbai) and comfortably got into Mumbai-Pune shatabdi at Dadar. Recently, I was contemplating going from Pune to Delhi via Indore/Bhopal as connectivity from Pune to Indore/Bhopal and Indore/Bhopal to Delhi is very good. Of course, this is not feasible with family & kids but single traveller could easily avail it and visit a new town in bargain :)
Booking Tatkal tickets could be sheer luck. On passenger reservation centers people stand in queue from midnight to be the first customer on the counter. Similarly there are thousands of people who try to book tickets online. Even if you are able to get through the site and able to make payment, still you may or may not get a confirmed seat. Tatkal reservation starts 1 day in advance for Tatkal quota excluding the day of start from originating station at 8:00 AM.
However, one can make an informed judgement whether to try to book tatkal tickets by looking up Tatkal quota in your preferred train.
Tip 1: To know the quota you could go to either of these sites and try to query availability of desired train for today or tomorrow’s date by selecting ‘quota’ as ‘Tatkal’. Since the site shows availability of next 6 days, the availability after first two days is the Tatkal quota. If it is huge number then you could try booking it through website. For example, I would take a chance booking a sleeper accommodation in Pune-Nagpur express but not in Pune-Delhi Jhelum express as the rush is far greater over there.
Tip 2: At the time of fetching trains on www.irctc.co.in, you could expedite it by directly entering the station codes instead of waiting for the site to populate the code. Technically when we enter first few characters of station name, there is an AJAX call made to server to fetch station names and codes. Due to enormous load on servers, the call may not even return. At least you can cross this hurdle by knowing the station code. You can query for station codes here: http://www.indianrail.gov.in/stn_Code.html
The requests for reservation at the reservation counters or www.irctc.co.in are accepted up to 4 hours before the scheduled departure of the train, after which, the reservation could be done at the current counters at the starting station of the train up to one hour before the scheduled departure of the train and there after by the Ticket Collector/Conductor on the platform, if vacant berths/seats are available. Note that your cannot book current booking tickets online as yet. Shatabdi trains are good candidate for such a facility as they have lot of capacity but few premium travellers. You can query current booking availability at http://www.indianrail.gov.in/inet_curbkg_Enq.html by giving name of the station.
Couple of years back me & my wife were thinking of going for Vaishno Devi trip from Pune in peak summer season at the end of April. Expectedly there were no reservations available for normal booking from Delhi to Jammu and booking a Tatkal may not be possible as we would be journeying while the Tatkal booking window opens and we cannot plan a journey with uncertainty. We could manage Pune-Delhi tickets somehow but what to do about Delhi – Jammu leg? I was thinking of various option, should we take a bus tour package or go from Delhi to Jalandhar and then onwrads etc? While I was thinking about it, one of my friend pointed me to Rail tourism packages. They have a website www.railtourismindia.com. I immediately queried the site and bingo there was a package available from Delhi. In one shot I could book everything required for Vaishno devi trip. The package includes return Delhi-Jammu train tickets, transport from Jammu to Katra and back and hotel stay. The trip was quite comfortable and value for money. I wrote about this entire reservation juggling in my earlier post - Vaishno Devi trip from Pune. So, if you are on a fixed tour like pilgrimage check out whether there is a package available on rail tourism. It is far easier than booking individual tickets and managing stay and transport.
There is another facility which Indian Railways extend to their passengers which is of retiring rooms. Retiring rooms could be a good way to stay if you are visiting a town for short duration. There are some rooms and dormitories available. There are even AC dormitories at certain stations. The rates are far cheaper than hotels and availability could be possible as it is meant for only bonafide railway passengers who have just come form travel or about to travel. More information about type & number of retiring rooms is available here. I have stayed in retiring rooms at Indore, Vijaywada, Jaipur, Raichur etc. and found them to be quite comfortable and value for money. The experience I had in Indore is recounted in my earlier post Meter Gauge travel in Central India.
Running status of trains
Now days trains are tracked through GPS and it is possible to get their exact position and correlate to schedule to know whether they are running on time or not. It is useful if you are going to station to receive someone or catch the train yourself. There is a website www.trainenquiry.com where you can enquire current running status of the train.
There is a single number across India for railway enquiry ’139′. You could call and enquire about status. You could also go to any railway site and it has a link to check PNR status. Simplest way is by sending SMS to 139 with text ‘PNR ’ and receiving an SMS in return containing the status.
1. If you are not able to get AC reservation, you could brave yourself going in sleeper class. For overnight journey it is not a bad option. An upper berth could be quite comfortable and one doesn’t need toilet that much and spared from dust and crowd.
2. One can book tickets even if their plan is tentative as train tickets can always be cancelled. For sleeper class canceling ticket even one day in advance would have only Rs. 20/- as penalty and up to 70/- for AC classed which is very less compared to large fee imposed by airlines. More information on refund rules is here - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/refund_Rules.html.
3. As a pastime if there is nothing much interesting to do in train, one can calculate the speed of train. Generally there are kilometer markers along trackside which indicate distance travelled and using a stop watch in mobile phone, one can calculate speed.
4. One could figure position of your seat whether it is a lower/middle/upper berth based on seat number. Every class of accomodation has a fixed layout of seats which is common across railways. The layout is illustrated here for all classes: http://erail.in/rail/help/seats.htm.
There are many other nitty-gritties about travel in Indian Railways like Break Journey, Circular journey, Waitlisting, Change in journey details which unfortunately are quite detailed and cannot be covered in a common post. If someone has a query they could ask me directly or search on the two wesbsites which are quoted in the post. Additionally, I would suggest to go over this page to learn more.