Train travel in India
India has one of the world's largest rail networks. With 65,000 km of track, it ranks fourth behind the USA (224,000 km), China (98,000 km) and Russia (81,000 km). Just as Switzerland is considered THE country for train travel in Europe, India boasts the densest network in Asia in relation to its national surface area.
Rail travel in India is - for Indians - a particularly economical and popular mode of travel. The most impressive figure is undoubtedly the number of daily passengers: almost 20 million Indians board a train every day! Indian Railways, the national railway company, is one of the country's largest enterprises. With almost 1.4 million employees, it is the 8th largest employer in the world!
Trains in India: slow and crowded, the Passengers
Trains are emblematic of India. When we think of this destination, it's easy to imagine overcrowded trains, overflowing at every opening with passengers huddled together and sitting on the roof... This vision is totally crazy by Western standards. But on the one hand, such practices are becoming increasingly rare and controlled. On the other hand, you have to bear in mind that train travel in India is particularly slow. This makes the practice not without danger, but less terrifying than if it were to take place on board a train in Europe.
The slowest trains are the "Passengers": their cruising speed is incredibly low, around 40 km/h. If you've chosen to travel by train in India on them, you'll have to be patient: these inexpensive trains serve most, if not all, of the stations on their itinerary, and station stops can seem interminable!
On the plus side, train travel in India is a great way to meet people. You'll experience unforgettable moments of immersion in the heart of the Indian population. What's more, some tours offer splendid scenery and the chance to see monkeys! For example, the train that links the town of Deogarh and Phulad railway station in Rajasthan: as it crosses the splendid Araveli hills, it makes a few stops so that passengers can see and feed the monkeys (it's good for karma!).
Fast train travel in India: Express and Vande Barath
Not all trains in India are like this, however. Express" trains are among India's fastest. They connect the country's major cities with few intermediate stops, enabling them to reach higher average speeds.
The fastest Express is the Gattiman Express, which averages 91km/h, but can reach 160 km/h at full speed. While this is still half the speed of our TGVs, it's an impressive speed by national rail standards. Inaugurated in 2016, the Gattiman Express connects Agra, home of the Taj Mahal in the north of the country, with the even more northerly megalopolis of New Delhi in 100 minutes. This old-fashioned but comfortable train is often used by Western tourists to visit the city of the Taj Mahal.
Even faster and more modern than the Expresses are the trains in the Vande Barath Express family. These 100% made-in-India day trains are operated like the others by Indian Railways. They connect major cities that can be reached in less than a day, and serve delicious meals on board.
The first Vande Barath Express went into service in 2019. It connected the city of Delhi to Varanasi in 8 hours instead of the 14 required before its introduction. You can test several express trains as well as the Vande Barath Delhi Varanasi in our North India comfort train trip.
Popular intercity trains: the mails
An intermediary between "Passenger" and "Express" trains, you can travel by train in India aboard "Mails", also considered fast trains, with an average speed of around 60 km/h. Among the best-known in this category is the Kolkata Mail train. This historic train connects the city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in the far east, near the border with Bangladesh, with Mumbai (formerly Bombay) on the west coast, bordering the Arabian Sea: a total circuit of almost 2,000 km through five states of the Indian union!
The Kolkata Mail has a long history: a hundred years ago, it was one of the most luxurious in the world! Built by the British, it used to run under the name Imperial Indian Mail and was mainly used to convey passengers and mail (hence the name "mail" train) from London. At the time, it was frequented only by British colonists and the upper echelons of Indian society. Today, it is used by the general public to travel easily and cheaply by train in India, crossing the entire Indian subcontinent on an East-West axis.
Train classes in India
On board regular Indian trains, there are several classes. To avoid unpleasant surprises on your Indian train journey, especially if you're planning an overnight trip, you'll need to learn to distinguish between them. The most comfortable class is AC1: its compartments, with two or four berths, are closed. You'll benefit from air conditioning, and there's plenty of room for your luggage. But this category is not available on all trains. A little clarification for travelers: you can choose your class, but not your car. Seats are allocated by the rail company 4 days before the journey. It is therefore impossible to be guaranteed a 2-berth cabin.
Still decent, but a little less comfortable, you can travel by train in India in the AC2 (4 berths) and AC3 (6 berths) classes. The big difference with AC1 class is that your berth will be in an open car, separated from the corridor by a simple curtain (the same principle can be found in the economy compartments of the Le Canadien train. But definitely more upmarket).
Next in line, far inferior in terms of comfort, is the Sleeper class. Sleeper cars are similar to AC3 cars, except that they no longer come with linen or air conditioning! On long, torrid summer journeys, this will make a huge difference.
Rail travel in Himalayan India
In addition to the public rail network used by the Indian population, India also boasts a number of tourist railroads. The pace of these trains is just as slow as that of the "passenger" trains, but the atmosphere on board is more serene. These exceptional trains include the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Kalka Shimla Railway.
- The Kalka Shimla Railway, which can be reached by train from the capital New Delhi, runs 96 km between the northern towns of Kalka and Shimla. It winds its way through mountainous Himalayan landscapes, with numerous bridges and tunnels.
- The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is even more popular and original: because of its small size, it is sometimes called the "Toy Train". It links the towns of Siligur and Darjeeling, and reaches altitudes of over 2,000m.
Both trains pass through the Himalayan foothills in the northeast of the country. They are not scenic trains in the strict sense of the term, but their lines, which offer magnificent views of India's landscapes, are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Luxury trains in India: South or North?
In addition to its regular and occasional tourist trains, India is also known for its luxury train travel. There are four main luxury trains in the country: two in the North (Palace on Wheels and Maharaja's Express) and two in the South (Deccan Odyssey and Golden Chariot).
Luxury rail travel in India, which is excessively expensive in relation to the average income of the Indian population, is reserved for tourists or wealthy Indians. For those who can afford it, they offer an interesting and comfortable way to discover the country. Travelling aboard these luxury trains means that you are partly spared certain aspects of Indian travel that can frighten the Western traveller: the hustle and bustle of the streets... The confrontation with this country, whose standards are very different from those in Europe, is less head-on than on conventional tours.
Luxury trains in Northern India
Palace on Wheels - Inaugurated in 1982, the Palace on Wheels is India's oldest luxury train. It is essentially made up of British colonial-era carriages belonging to former rulers of princely states. It travels throughout North India, on 8-day loop tours departing from Delhi. Its 14 sober beige cars are highly recognizable, and its nostalgic, elegant decor evokes the traditional India of Rajasthan.
The Maharajas Express - After the success of the Palace on Wheels, a second luxury train was launched in the Rajasthan region in 2010: the Maharajas Express. Today, it's India's best-known luxury train. Between September and April, it offers several 4 to 8-day itineraries, often starting in the city of Delhi. As it travels through four Indian states, it's known as the pan-Indian luxury train.
Its decor evokes a nostalgia for the India of the Maharajas and the colonial period, with ornate dark wood furniture, Indian arches and statues of wooden elephants or brass peacocks. Staff in Indian livery, turban and elegant Nehru-collared jacket are at your service. Significantly larger than Palace on Wheels, it has 43 cars, and is less expensive.
Luxury trains in South India
Deccan Odyssey - Another of India's luxury trains, the Deccan Odyssey was inaugurated in 2003. It was originally created by the state of Maharashtra, a region rich in heritage but far removed from the classic tours of the North, eager to replicate the success of the Palace on Wheels in Rajasthan. This luxury train is named after the Deccan plateau to the east of Mumbai, even if some of its current routes go beyond the limits of its original state. This vintage blue and red train, also known as the Limousine Bleu, has 21 carriages, inspired by the imperial carriages once used by the Maharajas, and decorated to evoke the different eras and dynasties.
Golden Chariot - Even further south than the Deccan Odyssey, the Golden Chariot is a fourth luxury train, based in the state of Karnataka, in the southwest of the country near the Arabian Sea, between Bangalore and Goa.
This exceptional train travels through magnificent regions, but is far less busy and touristy than the luxury trains of the North. At the stations where it stops, the Golden Chariot strikes the eye with the color of its violet-pink carriages highlighted with a wide gold ribbon. Its interiors are comfortable and plush, marked by pink or salmon-colored velvets. The 4-day and 7-day tours are also sure to please lovers of luxury train travel in India.
When to travel to India by train?
It's important to choose the right period for your train journey in India, to avoid seasons that are too hot or too humid. In North India, we advise you to avoid summer travel in particular, as the season is particularly hot: as early as May, the average temperature is already 33°c. In July and August, world records can be broken.
The best months to travel are October to March. During this period, the climate is more temperate and temperatures more reasonable. Luxury trains such as the Maharaja Express do not operate after April or before October. Tourist numbers are highest in November, December and February.