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    Image credit: Ramesh NG - flickr

    The best way to see India is at the ground level. When you sit in a train and look out of the window, it is like watching a movie. At different times of the journey, different aspects of everyday Indian existence reveal itself to you. A visit to India is incomplete without feeling the hustle and bustle of a typical Indian railway station. You will be drawn to the safety and simple comforts that Indian train journeys offer you. You will be mesmerized by the constant chanting of tea and food sellers at each station.

    Key information about Indian Railways to plan your journey:

    If you have never been to India, you may be surprised at what you see. Unlike what you saw on television, Indian trains are not bursting at the seams. You find no people sitting atop the train! And the best thing is that rail travel in India is inexpensive. Be it short distance or long distance, train travel is a safe and comfortable way to get across.

    1. Train Routes

    Photo credit: Sakeeb Sabakka - flickr

    You must know that the Indian railway system covers more than sixty thousand kilometers of rail routes. The Indian Railways has more than six thousand five hundred stations. The Indian railway network is only behind Russia and China. Meaning, it is bigger than some of the developed nations of the world. This enormous network creates more employment than any other place. Therefore, the Indian railways employs more than a million staff.

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    You get trains to any destination in India. Some are direct trains. Some are connecting trains. Unfortunately, there are no direct railway lines to the Indian state of Kashmir. A railway line that connects Srinagar to several other parts of India is being constructed though.

    2. Checking Train Times

    Photo credit: Connie Ma -flickr

    Photo credit: Smeet Chowdhury - flickr

    The Indian railway system has been automated. You can check train timings, schedules and fares online, simplifying rail travel altogether. This website only displays direct trains. Some destinations will need you to change at least two trains. You can call the Indian rail toll-free number to get information on this. For instance, if you are travelling between Varanasi to Jaisalmer, there are no direct trains. You have to take a connecting train at Delhi or Jaipur to Jaisalmer depending on where you are boarding.

    3. Purchasing Tickets

    Photo credit: Kelman Chiang

    Indian train journeys are not possible without making a reservation or purchasing a train ticket. Nowadays computerized reservations make it convenient for passengers to purchase train tickets from anywhere in India. Making reservations well in advance helps. There are some train routes that get booked weeks in advance.

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    If you happen to visit any railway station, you will see giant screens displaying berth availability between destinations. You can check berth availability on the indian rail website and a slew of third party websites that source and display this information. Many trains have a foreign quota - this scheme provisions certain number of seats for international visitors.

    4. Important Notes About Reservations:

    Advance Booking

    Photo credit: Simply CVR - flickr

    All bookings for railway reservations open well in advance of 60. You may not be able to book certain short-distance trains 60 days in advancebut only 30 days in advance.

    International visitors to India can utilize the Foreign Tourist (FT) quota. This facility enables international visitors to book important Indian train journeys at short notice. Tickets bought under this scheme can be paid in US Dollars or Pound Sterling or any foreign convertible currency.

    You can purchase tickets on the IRCTC website - You need to create an account on this website. You have to follow the registration process as required by this website and setup your account.

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    When you book a ticket on IRCTC, you get an e-ticket or an electronic ticket. You can take a printout of this ticket and undertake Indian train journeys with a valid identify proof such as your passport for example.

    An i-ticket (Internet ticket) option is provided if the e-ticket option is not available for a particular train route. The i-ticket is couriered to your address.

    Reservation Against Cancellation (RAC) and Waiting List (WL)

    Photo credit: Kelman Chiang

    With an RAC ticket you can board a train and travel even though you are not allotted any specific seat number or berth number. You can get a berth only if any confirmed passenger has cancelled their ticket. This information is with the railway ticket inspector. At the end of inspection, this person will have a list of all the passengers who have not made it into the train for the journey. The inspector then allots a berth to an RAC ticket holder.

    But now the question is what happens if nobody cancels? In this case, the RAC ticket holder is still allowed to travel in the train. He or she can sit on any of the berths. In some cases a single seat has to be shared by two RAC ticket holders.

    A Waiting List ticket does not allow you to travel in any Indian train journeys. You have to wait till your ticket moves up the list against cancellations. You status will change to RAC and subsequently to confirmed (CNF) status depending on the number of tickets cancelled. If your ticket status remains at RAC, you can travel in the train without a berth. If your ticket status moves up to CNF, then you are assured of a berth in the train.

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    When you book a ticket online or at the reservation counter, a PNR number is generated. This is the unique identification number of your train ticket. You can periodically check the status of your ticket using the PNR number. There are plenty of websites on the Internet that let you check the status of your ticket by entering the PNR number.

    The Tatkal Scheme

    Tatkal means ‘immediate’ in Hindi. Sometimes you may have to travel at short notice. In some important train routes tickets get booked well in advance. To allow short-notice bookings, the Indian railways provisions some berths under the Tatkal scheme. The fare for Tatkal keeps changing. More information can be found at the Indian Railways website.

    5. Classes of Travel

    Indian trains have eight types of classes. However, trains generally do not accommodate all types of classes and only have some of these 8 classes

    Air-Conditioned First Class (AC1)

    Most long distance trains have this class. It is the most expensive way to travel by train. This class consists of sleeper compartments which come in two varieties, four berths or two berths. While booking the ticket you can specify which type of compartment you wish.

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    Air-Conditioned 2-Tier (AC2)

    This class of trains are also found in most long distance trains in India. Most middle class families traveling long distances use this class. The seats are padded with leather and are convertible to flatbeds for lying down. Unlike AC1, the AC2 class is not compartmentalized.

    Air-Conditioned 3-Tier (AC3)

    Photo credit: Kelman Chiang

    AC2 and AC3 are similar with the only difference being the way bunks are arranged. In the AC3 class bunks are arranged in a 3-tiered manner, meaning the AC3 class can accommodate more passengers than the AC2 class.

    First Class

    First class is a non-air conditioned class. This class consists of sleeper coaches available in two types, the 4-berth, or the 2-berth. The seats are however not convertible to beds. Seating is available for an extra charge and if your ticket is booked in advance.

    AC Executive Chair Class

    This class is only available in the Shatabdi Express trains. Seats are arranged in a 2 + 2 fashion. Between the seats is the common pathway. The Shatabdi Express provides food and beverages that is included in the fare.

    AC Chair Class

    This class is a good way to travel if you are traveling only during daytime. The seat arrangement in this class is in a 2 + 3 manner across the width of the train. The AC Chair Class as its name suggests is air conditioned.

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    Sleeper Class

    A majority of Indians use this class. In this class, there are upper, lower, and middle berths that allow you to lie down on them.

    The sleeper class is generally crowded as it can accommodate more number of passengers than any of the aforementioned classes. This class does not have air conditioning. However, there are fans mounted on the ceiling that can provide comfort when the conditions are hot and humid.

    Unreserved 2nd Class

    As the name suggests, this class is for people who could not make a reservation but have to travel anyways. It is also used by people who want to travel short distances. You can purchase tickets from the railway ticket conductor on the spot. This type of class is generally crowded, hence it is not recommended for long distance travel.

    Indrail Pass

    The Indrail Pass is created on similar lines to the Eurail Pass for travel in an Indian train. It is a special scheme for foreign nationals when on a rail travel expedition in India. It enables them to travel to an unlimited number of destinations. The pass is valid from half a day to a period of ninety days.

    There are some of the benefits of this pass.You need not buy separate tickets for different train routes. A single pass is all you need to travel anywhere.This pass is only available for foreign nationals and non-resident Indians. It is bought in foreign convertible currencies.

    Indian rail travel tips

    Photo credit: Kelman Chiang

    For international visitors, the Indian railway system brings them mixed reactions. They are worried about the quality of toilets in an Indian train. They are skeptical about the quality of food available. There are so many fears in their minds. Actually, traveling in a train in India is safer than traveling on road. The following are some proven ways to improve your traveling experience when in a train in India.

    1. A Good Book is a Good Companion in Indian Train Journeys

    Read a good book whilst you melt into the ever changing landscape outside the train window. It helps to get a window seat, although you can see the outside world from any seat.

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    2. Strike a Good conversation

    If you are the gregarious type, then you won’t have shortage of people who would be interested to talk to you. Often, the best way to kill time in a long distance journey is to strike healthy conversations with fellow passengers. There are some precautions to be taken in this regard though. Don’t gladly accept food and drink that your fellow passengers offer. Use your prudence. Sometimes such stuff might be laced with sedatives.

    3. Bring your Own Food

    Bringing your own food solves your apprehensions about the quality of food available on Indian trains. You can do this if you are on a diet or you have special eating requirements. Avoid taking non-vegetarian food in a train.

    4. Go to the Bathroom Early

    Try to get up early in the morning and go to the bathroom. The period between 8 am and 9 am in the morning has a lot of people trying to go to the bathroom. So don’t be stuck in a queue. Get up around 5 am and finish off your bathroom routine.

    5. Anti-Bacterial Liquid Hand Wash

    After you finish your bathroom routine, wash your hands with anti-bacterial hand wash liquid. Bring your antibacterial tissue paper and wipe yourself clean.

    6. Keep your Luggage Safe

    Don’t travel with expensive stuff like SLR cameras, jewelry, and hard cash in any Indian train. Even if you have to do it, try to secure your luggage with a lock. It should be difficult for anyone to break the lock. But nothing is infallible. If you are a couple, try to guard the luggage whilst the other person uses the restroom. The key is to have someone always guarding the luggage.