Navigating India’s railways, part 1

What’s one of the first things you think of when you think of India? Is it the trains? India has one of the largest rail networks in the world. There’s over 71,000 miles of track covering 40,000 miles of land and stopping at 742 stations. That’s a lot of railway!   

When I first visited India in 2011, one of the things I wanted to do was take just one long distance rail journey. In fact I took three! I don’t think I’m alone in opting for trains when visiting India. Many tourists chose to travel on the iconic railway lines as they stop in so many far flung places and tickets are cheap, but with the Indian railway system being totally alien to many who are used to the (not very efficient and rather over priced) system of countries like the UK, it can seem like a bit of a daunting task.   

What class?

The first thing you need to know about indian trains is that they have many different classes. The ones which you are mostly like to come across are: 

  • 1AC – first class air conditioned
  • 2AC – second class air conditioned
  • 3AC – third air conditioned 
  • Sleeper – basic sleeping accommodation, no air conditioning.
  • Chair Class 

Don’t be fooled by the fact that there is a class called sleeper. 1AC, 2AC and 3AC all have beds too. 


This is the most luxurious of the classes. I use the word luxurious very loosely here as it is only really luxurious in comparison to the other classes. 

Cabins in 1AC will have either two or four beds. They also have tinted glass on the windows and lockable sliding doors.

This class of carriage is not available on all trains and when it is, there are usually only six or so berths on sale as this is not a very popular class to travel in. 


Like in 1AC, there are four berths in the main part of a 2AC compartment. There are then a further two berths lying length ways at the end of each compartment. 

These compartments also have tinted glass in the window but there is no door separating you from the rest of the train. Instead there are curtains.   3AC

3AC is similar to 2AC only with an extra two beds slotted in horizontally, so instead of banks of two bunk beds, there are banks of three. 

The glass in 3AC also tends not to be tinted and there are no curtains across the end of the cabin. 

Sleeper Class

Here’s where things start to get a little  uncomfortable! Sleeper class is pretty similar to 3AC in layout, however there is no air conditioning or glass on the windows (instead there are bars) and the bins are pretty thin and hard.

It tends to be a little crowded in sleeper class. It may not make for the comfiest night’s slee but it can be a bit of an adventure! 

 Chair Class

As it sounds, chair class has no beds but chairs instead. Chairs are in a 3:2 configuration, in other words three chairs, an aisle then two more chairs. 

These carriages are also air conditioned.

General Class

These are the second class, non air conditioned carriages. Banks of wooden benches are situated either side of the aisle in these carriages, with luggage rack on top. Although each bank of two benches is probably only meant to seat six or possibly eight passengers, be prepared to find many more squeezed in. Look above you and you will likely find people asleep in the luggage racks too! 

Food and drink

Some of India’s trains do have their own buffet car and staff will come around to sell you various foods. You can also expect food sellers and chai wallahs to come round the train throughout your journey so there will be chance to pick up some snacks.   

 If you bring a copy of the train timetable with you then you’ll see that at some stations the train will stop for 20 minutes or so. Most train stations will have some sort of food stands so this can be a good opportunity to stretch your legs and pick up some grub. New food sellers will usually take this opportunity to hop on board to try and sell you their wares. 

Be warned, food can be limited and of variable quality so if you are fussy, plan ahead to avoid going hungry!   

There’s a lot to cover when it comes to indian trains. In part two I will cover how to book Indian railway tickets from outside India. 


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