Ask anyone: India's expansive train system offers a one-of-a-kind experience that leaves a lasting impression on all who use it for travel. From the bustling stations and the apparent chaos that surrounds them to the rhythmic chugging of the locomotive, each journey is a sensory feast that can't be replicated anywhere else in the world. Whether you hope to wind around lush hills, along peaceful coastline, or past tea plantations and waterfalls, you can do so on Indian Railways (IR), the fourth-largest train network in the world.
The train system was created during the British Raj in the 1800s, with the goal to move people and goods from remote parts of India to bustling port cities like Mumbai, Goa, and Chennai for worldwide export. The first commercial railway line opened in 1851, running between Bombay (Mumbai) and Thane, and the first passenger train was inaugurated in 1853, covering a distance of just 21 miles. Today, the Indian rail system has over 41,000 miles of track and more than 7,000 stations all over the country. It is one of the busiest networks worldwide, hauling over six billion passengers and millions of tons of freight annually. More than just a transportation option, it is a lifeline for many Indians, since owning a car is a luxury not everyone can afford.
Unless you know what you're doing, navigating the train system can be a little intimidating and quite the adventure. There are many different types of trains that cater to the needs and budgets of more than a billion people.
One of the most popular options is the Rajdhani Express, which connects major cities in India with the capital, New Delhi. These trains are superfast and fully air-conditioned—a must, especially during summer when much of the country experiences a heat wave. They offer comfortable seating, meals, and bedding for the overnight portions of the journey. If you are looking for trains that connect major cities with one another, then opt for the Shatabdi Express. These trains are also air-conditioned and run daily, providing passengers with meals and snacks during the journey.
Garib Rath Express trains, on the other hand, cater to those who are looking for more affordable options. They connect across major Indian cities and offer seating arrangements similar to that of a bus, providing basic amenities like meals and bedding to passengers. On the flip side, Mail Express Trains are slow trains that stop at every station on their route. They are usually used for shorter distances and provide basic seating arrangements.
If you want to travel like royalty, then take the uber-luxurious specialty trains like The Palace on Wheels and Maharaja Express. These premium trains offer a unique travel experience to passengers with facilities like private cabins, personal butlers, fine dining, and entertainment options.
The intercity network in India is also quite vast. Commuter trains operate within a particular city, connecting one suburb to another, and offer affordable travel options for day-trippers. Tickets can also be purchased on the same day as travel.
Booking train travel in India is easier than you might think. IR introduced computerized reservation systems in the late 1980s and launched its mobile app in 2014. The IR online booking portal called IRCTC Next Generation eTicketing System allows you to book train tickets up to 60 days in advance. You will need to create an account on the IRCTC website, and then you can search for trains, select your preferred train and class, enter passenger details, and make the payment.
Of course, you can always visit the reservation counter at any railway station in the country and book a train ticket in person. If you choose this option, you must fill out a reservation form, provide an ID, and pay the fare in cash. Travel agents can also assist in booking train tickets but will likely charge a service fee for their efforts. Many railway stations in India also have ticket vending machines that allow you to book tickets quickly and easily. You can pay using cash or a debit/credit card.
Train travel in India is a great way to see the country and engage with its people. Because it's so popular and caters to people from all economic backgrounds, tickets can sell out quickly, so book your seats well before your journey. Also, be sure to choose the class of travel that feels right for you, from general class, (also known as economy) to air-conditioned coaches. Pick one that best suits your budget and comfort requirements. When packing, remember to include essentials like clothes, toiletries, medicines, and snacks. Although Indian trains usually provide bedding and some meals, carrying extra supplies can come in handy. Many stations also have food and snack vendors during the day, but things will be closed after sunset.
Due to possible delays in train schedules, it is a good idea to check the timetable a day or two before your journey. Always arrive early and carry important documents like tickets and your ID. Train stations and platforms can get crowded during peak travel seasons, so expect to do a fair bit of walking and sharing personal space with other passengers. It is also advisable to keep wet wipes and hand sanitizer handy, as some trains and stations may not meet your cleanliness standards. Another pro tip? Consider carrying earplugs or noise-canceling headphones, as trains can be quite noisy, especially at night.
Indian Railways operates an impressive 13,169 train routes all across the country, covering both long-distance and suburban lines daily. While many of these routes offer scenic views of India's natural beauty, some stand out. One such route is the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage line affectionately referred to as the “Toy Train.” This narrow-gauge railway winds through the picturesque hills of the Eastern Himalayas, offering breathtaking views on its journey from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The Konkan Railway, which runs along the west coast, is another beautiful route, passing through lush green hills, stunning beaches, and mangrove forests. In southern India, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway is a narrow-gauge railway that climbs through the Nilgiri hills, offering mesmerizing views of tea plantations, waterfalls, and forests on its journey from Mettupalayam to Ooty.
If you want to take your train journey experience up a notch, then definitely consider the Vivek Express, also known as the Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari Vivek Express. This train route is the longest in India, covering an impressive distance of 2,662 miles in 82 hours and 30 minutes and connecting Dibrugarh in Assam (Eastern India) to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu (the southernmost tip of India). During this journey, you'll travel through eight states and experience a diverse range of landscapes, including the Eastern Ghats, the Western Ghats, and the Brahmaputra and Godavari rivers. With 55 stops, this is one of the most extensive train journeys you can take in India.
But for all the beauty and excitement of these journeys, what makes train travel in India unforgettable is the sense of community that it fosters. Within the confines of the train compartment, strangers quickly become friends as they share food, stories, and life experiences. In a world that often feels fragmented and disconnected, train travel in India reminds us of the power of human connection. So go ahead and climb aboard—whatever happens, it’s sure to simultaneously warm and surprise you.