Train travel in India is one of the very special experiences everyone should try in his or her life. While I’ll release some more posts about how to book tickets for Indian trains and reviews about the experiences in normal trains and Shatabdi trains, I find it to be useful to give a first overview of train travel in India.
India is the second most populated country in the world, which means that train travel plays a crucial role in India. As the trains in India are the most important means of transport for long distance travel, you may expect the network be very well developed.
Sadly, this is not true at all. There are just a few routes and most come with only one or two rails. While there are several daily trains between certain city pairs, the length of the journey can be outrageous.
It may sound questionable whether it’s useful to take a train in India anyway if the average speed is way below 50 kilometers per hour.
Well, while it rarely makes sense to take a train from Delhi to Mumbai or from Bengaluru to Delhi (besides for the sake of an experience), it can be the only real option for travel between smaller cities like Jaipur and Udaipur or on shorter distances like from Bengaluru to Hyderabad. Also, several cities may only be reached by train at all.
First of all, it’s worth noting that there are several different travel classes in Indian trains. The most comfortable way to get around is AC First Class, but there are usually just very few seats in this travel class per train.
Other options with air conditioning include AC 2 Tier, AC 3 Tier and AC Chair Cars, which are not available on all trains. Besides that, but these ways of transportation are rarely used by tourists, there’s First Class (without AC), Sleeper Class and Second Sitting. Be aware that not all service classes may be available in all trains.
Train travel in India is also an option for those seeking a low budget way to get around in the country. Even the highest service class AC First Class is available for prices as low as 1.000 INR (~ 13.50 Euro / 15 US-Dollar) on medium-length journeys of four, five or six hours.
For ultra-long distance trains, the prices start at 3.000 INR (~ 40 Euro / 45 US-Dollar), which can still be cheaper than a plane ticket. The lower service classes are approximately 4/5 (AC 2 Tier), 3/5 (AC 3 Tier) and 1/5 (Sleeper) of the mentioned prices, making train travel extremely cheap if you are fine with very low comfort or, again, seek for a very special experience.
After taking three rides on Indian trains as a European, I have to admit that I didn’t feel unsafe at a single occasion. While there may be some issues with communication as not many members of the train staff speak English, safety is not an issue at all.
Be aware that this may be different for a female travelling solo in India. Generally, it’s safe to say that travel also gets safer the higher the service class you select is as there is more staff and fewer people in one compartment or car.
Catering on Indian trains is generally very weak. There are no bistro or restaurant cars and there’s also rarely any included catering. The only remarkable exception are the Shatabdi trains, which come with an extensive catering in First Class. In several normal trains, there’s no included catering even in First Class.
Sometimes, sellers stroll through the cars and offer something. Another option to grab some food are the train stations the train stops at. As this usually takes up to twenty minutes, you can easily get out the train and buy something at the track, where usually dozens of sellers offer snacks and even some hot dishes like samosas.
All the above sounds rather positive. Nevertheless, there are some major downsides of train travel in India. First of all, the train stations are chaotic and it can be challenging to find the right train. Second, buying tickets can be a real challenge for foreigners.
Third, cleanliness is a real issue in pretty much all trains in India, even in First Class. Fourth, there are no modern toilets in nearly all trains in India. Fifth, the trains are not only extremely slow, but there are also heavy delays, there’s no information at all and there are no refunds for heavily delayed or cancelled trains.
Train travel in India was a real experience for me. I’m kind of a sucker for trains and love to take these in Europe and even in the USA. In India, the experience is totally different and definitely nothing for weak nerves. If you are able to stand this, you’ll get a real impression of how life in India really is.
While taking a plane definitely is the more convenient and comfortable option for longer rides, I’d definitely recommend taking a train for shorter rides. Nevertheless, I’d recommend to plan some extra time or even some extra days due to the heavy and often occurring delays.