The Indian Rail system carries eleven million passengers a day, over a distance equal to four round trips to the moon. If things don't always work perfectly, this is the reason why! In spite of the occasional delays and snafus, travel by rail is one of the most interesting ways to see India
Unless you have a tour operator in India preplan and pre-book your tickets (this can be done 3 months in advance) it's best to leave your itinerary, and your options, fairly open. Trains are often booked up and you may find yourself on one of those serendipitous trips, possibly to somewhere you had no idea you wanted to go to. Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai all have "Foreigner's Booking Offices" which are staffed with very patient and very helpful clerks who will help you plan your trip and make reservations. Payment must be made with foreign currency, traveller's checks, or with Rupees only if you have an encashment certificate.
Take a chain and padlock with you so that you can lock your bags to the bed. Also useful are a couple of bottles of water, a handtowel, and toilet paper. If you are travelling by yourself, be sure that all your valuables are in one bag which you can take into the bathroom with you.
The most reliable trains are the Rajdhani trains and the Shatabdi. The Rahdhanis are the long-haul trains originating from or bound to Delhi ("Raj" means "capital"). These trains link Delhi with Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Guwahati (via New Jaipalguri for Darjeeling). The Shatabdis, India's version of the superfast train, are chair cars linking Delhi with Agra, Bhopal (for Sanchi), Jaipur, Agmer (for Pushkar), Chandigarh, and Amritsar. They also run from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, and Chennai to Bangalore, Mysore, and Coimbatore. Other reasonably reliable trains are the "Passenger" and the "Mail" trains.
Rail fares are strictly by the kilometer, unless you purchase an Indian Rail Pass. These are available in 7 day, 15 day, 21 day, 30 day, 60 day, and 90 day increments but may not actually be the best deal. For instance, the 7 day Second A/C pass is USD135.00, but if you were to buy point to point tickets Delhi-Udaipur-Jodhpur-Delhi, you would pay USD 95.00. What the pass does do for you, is to open up some additional tourist quota seats which may help you get on to an otherwise sold out train.
In a cruel, cruel blow to tourism, Indian Rail has taken off most of the First Class Non-airconditioned coaches which allowed the traveller to put the glass up, lean out, and commune with the countryside as it rolled by. These have been replaced with coaches with double-glazed glass which is often so opaque that it is difficult to see out. The only way now to get a good view is to book Second class, non-aircontidioned. These coaches, however, are suffocatingly crowded and should be used with caution. Most trains will have one or more of the following options:
First class air-conditioned - Four people to a compartment which
can be locked from the inside.
Communal bathroom facilities are down the hall.
Second Class A/C (2 tier and 3 tier) - These are similar to the European "Couchette"
arrangement where a curtain separates you from you fellow travellers. In the
"2 tier" coaches are arranged so that 4 people sit in one area,
facing each other. (Six people in the "3 tier".) Bunkbeds are arranged
perpendicular to the sides of the train. Called "the inside", this
can be requested on your booking form. Across the aisle, 2 people (3 in the
3 tier) have bunk beds that are aligned parallel to the side of the train.
These beds are a little bit narrower that the inside beds. The 3 tier is more
crowded during the day when 3 people sit on the lower bed which is now the
seat, but in both these classes, they will not oversell the number of beds.
Meals are served and you will be given bedding for the night.
Second Class, Non A/C (2 and 3 tier) - These coaches have wooden benches arranged
in the same way as the air-conditioned class, but without the curtains. The
windows will open and there are fans. No bedding is provided and the number
of people with tickets usually exceeds the available seating.
Air Conditioned Chair Car - These are found on Shatabdi trains with journey times of less than about 8 hours. Reclining, bus type seats are 6 across, with a center aisle. Meals and drinks are provided.
For details on schedules, go to www.india-rail.com or www.indianrailway.com.
There are a few train journeys in India that are an experience unto themselves. Train buffs might consider a journey on the Palace on Wheels or on one of the narrow gauge "Toy Trains".
The Silma-Kalka Express - This was the Viceroy Dalhousie's pet project in 1845. One hundred seven tunnels make this one of British India's most monumental rail projects. Take the regular broad gauge train from Delhi to Kalka and transfer to the toy train for the 6 hour ride to Simla.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway - This cute little train travels form Mettupatayam to the British hill station of Oottacamund (Ooty) in Tamil Nadu. They used this train to film the ride to the Malabar Caves in "Passage to India". Begin this journey at Coimbatore and the train will be switched to narrow gauge at Mattupatayam.
Matheran railway - This ride is only about 1 ½ hours to the hill station of Matheran in Maharashtra, but has beautiful hill scenery. Take the Mumbai - Pune line, and pick up the toy train at Neral.
The Darjeeling Toy Train - This track, at 2 feet, is the narrowest gauge in India. The journey begins in New Jaipalguri and takes 7 hours to wind its way up the Himalayan mountains. Often, villagers will run along side the train, chatting with you as you go. The train terminates about 30 minutes short of Darjeeling, in Ghoom, which is, at 7407 feet in altitude, the highest station in Asia. If you don't wish to spend 7 hours - instead of 4 hours by car - getting to Darjeeling, you can still have a good a very worthwhile train experience. Pick up a car and driver in Darjeeling and have him take you to Ghoom, then take the train to Kurseong. This one hour ride has the best of the mountain scenery. Your car can meet you in Kurseong and drive you back to Darjeeling. In 1999, this train was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Fairy Queen - This little engine is the oldest working steam engine in the world, and one of the very few remaining steam engines in India. During the tourist season of October to April, it takes weekly runs from the Delhi Cantonment station to Alwar and Sariska National Park. The $235.00 per person package departs on Saturday morning, includes game viewing, a night at the Siliserth lake Palace Hotel, and returns to Delhi on Sunday.
The Palace on Wheels This is India's most luxurious train and one of the most time efficient ways to see Rajasthan. The carriages are newly built, but in the most elegant royal Rajput style. Each coach has double bedrooms with attached bath, and a sitting area. You will have your own staff of butlers and waiters, making the service incomparable. There is a bar and a dinning room with excellent food. The train departs the Delhi Cantonment station on Wednesdays and stops at Jaipur, Chittaugarh, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Keoladeo National Park (Bharatpur) and Agra. Travel between the cities is done during the night, and sightseeing at each stop is included. Current prices run about $2275.00 per person, based on double occupancy. All meals and sightseeing included. Their web site is www.palaceonwheels.net.
India by Rail - Royston Ellis. If you are planning really extensive train travel, your best bet is to pick up this little gem of a book. It is replete with anecdotes, tips, practical information, and tricks of the trade for negotiating the frustrating and confusing world of the Indian Rail.
Third Class Ticket - Heather Wood. (Fiction) A poor Indian village woman bequeaths money to her fellow villagers so that they can take a train journey across India. A real glimpse into how Indians view India.
My India - Jim Corbett. (Available in India) Before he was a big game hunter, Jim Corbett worked for the Bengal and Northwestern railway. This book, which is actually about his life in the Kumaon Hills, has some great reminiscences from his railway experiences.
Anthology of Railway Stories - Ruskin Bond. (Available in India) One of the most prolific writers of Indian lore has some hilarious and insightful accounts of travel on the railways.
Building the Railways of the Raj - Ian Kerr. A bit dry and technical perhaps, but a good historical account of the building of the railways.
Thomas Cook's Overseas Railway Guide - Be sure to get the one with the blue cover - the orange one is for Europe. This is the most readily available timetables in The USA. It's pretty complete but doesn't help too much for figuring out which train is best.
Trains at a Glance This is available at train stations all over India for about 20 Rupees and has all the major trains listed.
Newman's Indian Bradshaw For serious gricers!
(And if you know what that word means, this could be the book for you!) Published
monthly, it is three hundred pages of all the train minutia. Available in
India, but it is a bit hard to find.