If you choose to travel India by train, you’ll get more than just a means of transport; it is a rich and unique cultural experience all on its own. No visit to India is complete without experiencing the colourful and chaotic scene at a bustling Indian railway station, or spotting the chai wallah passing down the aisle melodically proclaiming, "Chai, chai, garam chai" and dispensing cups of delicious hot sweet tea.
Train travel is also an incredibly practical way of traversing this vast country. As you might imagine, India’s rail network is colossal and was built in the mid-nineteenth century during the time of the British Raj.
Much of the system remains somewhat antiquated, as 80% of the infrastructure has not been updated since the end of British rule in 1947. Nevertheless, India’s railway network remains a remarkable feat of engineering and although air travel in India has increased exponentially over the past few years, the rail network infiltrates into every single nook and cranny of the country, reaching parts that other forms of transport cannot, such as the tea estates of Ledo in Assam and Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, where three oceans collide.
In all, India has some 71,000 physical miles of track, 41,000 miles of network 7,172 stations, 23 million passengers each day and 8.4 billion every year. It is in fact the world’s third largest rail network behind Russia and China and Indian Railways, who run the network, is the largest employer on the planet with a workforce of 1.4 million.
However Indian railways are about more than culture, history, or just pure convenience, they are in fact a fantastic way to see the country in all its natural beauty.
What’s more, with a bit of pre-planning, they can be a great way of saving money on accommodation, leaving you more to spend on the fantastic range of things to do in India.
Intrepid travellers need to get those clichéd images of crowded suburban Indian commuter trains with passengers hanging on the roof out of their heads.
For tourists the real way to take advantage of India’s vast rail network is to opt for overnight sleeper trains. Not only can these long train journeys be an amazing way of taking in some of India’s breath-taking scenery, but you can save money on accommodation too and wake up in your destination station refreshed and ready to explore!
There are a few practical issues you need to bear in mind when negotiating India’s extensive rail network.
India has a bewildering array of train travel classes, eight in all. For the purposes of overnight travel, it is best to plump for 2AC, which offers air-conditioned seating in open bays of four on one side of the aisle and two on the other. At night, the seats can be converted into sleeping berths. Bedding is provided and curtains add a degree of privacy.
Though it is possible to book tickets at tourist offices and the station itself, it is usually far more convenient to book online. One issue however is that the Indian Railways sales site (www.irctc.co.in) requires an Indian mobile phone number to complete the registration process. A better option is therefore to use a private booking service such as www.cleartrip.com.
If your itinerary is likely to involve extensive rail travel, passengers from the UK can also purchase an Indrail pass, which provides 7 days unlimited travel on 2AC for around £80.
Train trips, India
To give you a flavour of how memorable and inspiring rail travel in India can be, we’ve picked 4 of the most unique and unforgettable Indian rail experiences out there.
Mandovi Express - Madgaon (Goa) to Mumbai
Journey time: 12 hours 15 mins
Hugging India's southwest coastline, this breath-taking journey takes you through sun-lit paddy fields lined with coconut and mango trees, colourful village scenes and over endless stretches of water leading right out to the sea.
Nizamuddin Duronto Express - Pune (Maharashtra) to New Delhi
Journey time: 20 hours
With a superb on-board service, the train rattles past rivers, deserts, mountains and villages and alongside pyramid-like salt mounds.
Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey – Mumbai to Delhi
For a truly luxurious option you can travel like the Rajput kings once did and enjoy the charm and beauty of the stunning scenery. On a 7-night journey you can go tiger-spotting, visit caves and spend an afternoon at the Taj Mahal. To relax you can sip a Bombay Sapphire gin as you blast through the Thar Desert.
The Toy Train - New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling (West Bengal)
Journey time: 7 hours 15 min
Darjeeling's tiny steam train runs on a hill railway and travels at a speed of 12kmph. The Toy Train trundles through dense forests and curves around tea plantations. You can get up close and personal to the tea-pickers with baskets strapped on their heads and in the town the train runs along street side fruit stalls.
For travel to India, including flights to Goa and cheap flights to Delhi, explore our main site.