Traveling by train in India can be a fine experience if you plan it well. Trains connect the tiniest places across the subcontinent, and train journeys are a terrific way to see off-the-beaten-track India. Traveling on second-class non-air-conditioned trains can be tough, but you'll get better views of the countryside, because the windows are wide open, not sealed, and don't have a smoky film on them, as they do in air-conditioned cars. On the other hand, air-conditioned trips are much more comfortable. Trains, especially on smaller routes, can often be late, so be prepared to cope with delays.
Like its international airports, India's train stations are rather chaotic—though highly entertaining to observe. Hawkers sell everything a typical traveler would want: hot puris (deep-fried whole wheat bread), boiled eggs, squeaky toys, and hot tea and coffee made on a crude portable stove. Porters, also known as coolies, weave in and out, balancing unimaginable configurations of trunks and bags on their heads. Invariably, when one person sets out on a journey, five come to see him off. The platforms swirl with crowds and luggage. You need to be careful to hang on to your possessions and keep your bearings so you don't get bumped or swept away. Plan to be early, and keep your tickets safe. If the train is delayed or has not yet arrived, try to find a waiting room. Though usually drab and not very comfortable, these places are safe and might have attached bathrooms. Many large train stations have restaurants or at least snack counters where you can take a break, too.
Train ticket prices vary greatly depending on where and how you're traveling. The Shatabdi and Rajdhani expresses are fast and have air-conditioned cars and either reclining seats (in Shatabdis) or berths (in Rajdhanis), but only offer services between major cities. The next-fastest trains are called "mail" trains. "Passenger" trains, which usually offer only second-class accommodations, make numerous stops, and are crowded. Even on the best trains in this group, seats can be well worn and lavatories less than pleasant. But traveling by air-conditioned first class makes for a leisurely and fun journey.
The Bhopal Shatabdi Express (train 2002 or 2002A) and Taj Express (train 2280) travel between Delhi's Hazrat Nizamuddin station (NZM) and Agra's Cantonment station (AGC). (Many other trains also travel between the two cities daily.) Both expresses leave early in the morning from Delhi; the Shatabdi takes about two hours, the Taj 2½ hours. Either option allows for a full day of sightseeing before returning to Delhi on a similar express. There are also express trains connecting Delhi with Mumbai and other major cities. The website of the Indian Railway system has comprehensive schedules of every train running across India.
For long train rides, buy a meter-long chain with loops and a padlock to secure your luggage. (You might find a vendor on the platform at a large train station.) After you've locked your bag and stowed it in its place, loop the chain through its handle and attach it to a bar or hinge below the seat. Be sure to chain your luggage as soon as possible; a lot of small bag thefts take place at the beginning and ends of journeys. Your trip will be more pleasant if you bring along packaged snacks, sandwiches, juice, and bottled water, which aren’t always available on board. Long-distance trains provide meals as part of the tariff, and you can expect a number of the items on a food tray to be pre-packaged.
Trains have numerous classes. The air-conditioned cars consist of first-class air-conditioned (also known as 1AC; lockable compartments with two or four sleeping berths), second-class air-conditioned (also known as 2AC; two or four berths that convert to sleepers, but no lockable compartments), and third-class air-conditioned (also known as 3AC; just like 2AC but with six berths in each seating bay). Ordinary first class are the non-air-conditioned lockable compartments with two or four sleeping berths. The a/c chair car (AC chair class) is a comfortable way to go on day trips, with rows of two or three seats on each side. Seats are covered in either vinyl or cloth. Any of the previous classes are adequate, although 3AC can make for slightly cramped quarters. Sleeper class is laid out just like the 3AC car without the air-conditioning. Finally there's second seating, the cheapest because no reservations are required. But it's not recommended for long distances—the car has an open-air plan with rows of padded or plain wood benches.
Berths are in configurations of four or six in an open coupe arrangement on one side of a train car. On the other (corridor) side, berths are against the wall, in pairs of two; corridors run parallel past these "side" berths and bring in noise and traffic, but have more room to sit up in than the other berths. You'll find two kinds of lavatories, the Western-style commode lavatory and the Indian-style toilet (essentially a hole over which you squat). Although it can be hard to get used to Indian-style facilities, they're actually more sanitary in the sense that there's no contact. Definitely bring enough toilet paper (and some hand sanitizer)—you won't find it on most trains.
In large cities you may be able to buy tickets with major credit cards. Elsewhere, expect to pay cash. Most local travel agents can get train tickets for you.
You must reserve seats and sleeping berths in advance, even with a rail pass. If your plans are flexible, you can make reservations once you arrive in India. To save time, use a local travel agent (who may need to photocopy your passport); otherwise, head to the train station and prepare for long lines and waits. Large urban stations have a special office for foreigners, where you can buy "tourist quota" tickets. (Every train reserves a few seats for tourists who haven't made reservations.) If you arrive early in the morning—around 8—getting a ticket shouldn't take you more than half an hour; however, in peak season tourist quotas fill quickly, and you may have to change your dates altogether. When it's time to travel, arrive at the station at least half an hour before departure so you have enough time to find your seat. Sleeper and seat numbers are displayed on the platform and on each car, along with a list of passengers' names and seat assignments.
If you are not buying from the tourist quota and are booking during nonpeak season, booking online is a convenient option. You can buy e-tickets, which must be printed out and can often be bought on the day of travel, at www.irctc.co.in. A good resource for train schedules is www.indianrail.gov.in.
In recent years India has expanded its range of luxury trains. They all offer elaborate meals from a variety of cuisine types and luxury quarters as well as excellent (albeit extremely busy) itineraries. Packages, which are very expensive, include food, bus tours from stations (after you disembark you're loaded onto a luxury bus for sightseeing), rail travel, and more. High-season rates for seven- or eight-day tours on some of the trains start at around $3,000, based on double occupancy, but the Maharajas' Express, introduced in 2010, is much more: around $6,000 for a weeklong trip. Tickets on some trains are cheaper in the off-season (March–October).
Rajasthan's Palace on Wheels, the original luxury train, and the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels both depart from Delhi and in their most popular routes have nearly identical destinations, passing through such tourist hot spots as Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur, and Agra. The Maharajas' Express and the Deccan Odyssey operate several different thematic routes and depart from either Delhi or Mumbai.
Deccan Odyssey. 11/4777–3400; www.thedeccanodysseyindia.com.
Maharajas' Express. 97176–35915; www.the-maharajas.com.
Palace on Wheels. 800/103–3500; www.rtdc.in.
Royal Rajasthan on Wheels. 11/2338–6069; www.royalrajasthanonwheels.com.
Indian Railways. www.indianrail.gov.in.
Indian Railways International Tourist Bureau. New Delhi Railway Station, Paharganj side, 2nd fl., 110001. 11/4262–5156. Mon.–Sat. 8–8, Sun. 8–2.