In England you don't really need to book a train, you just turn up, hand over a lung, kidney or your left arm, and you're on the train.
In India you really need to book in advance, up to 91 days in advance, to make sure you can travel on the day you want to and in the class of train you want. This is a great advert for how public transport in England needs to transform: lower the prices, get people booking up early and make sure all your trains are full.
For more information about trains see this earlier blog entry: How Do You Want To Travel Around?
The web site for booking India trains direct is www.irctc.co.in and it's fairly straightforward to use, albeit a little quirky. TOP TIP: when trying to pay by credit card select the AXIS bank as it accepts international credit cards.
IRCTC is no good for trying to find the train you wish to book. To do this use a combination of www.erail.in and http://indiarailinfo.com as they're much more user friendly. The site www.erail.in is my favourite for layout but indiarailinfo.com tells you the average delay times. TOP TIP: the shorter the journey a train has before your station of departure the more likely it'll be on time, especially if it starts at that station.
I'll focus now on www.erail.in as I used it the most.
Enter the start and stop stations and get a list of trains:
Select the train that suits your day of travel - in this example I chose the 2966. The information about the train, the stations, the cost per person in the different classes appears. Note that children under 12 (I think) only pay half the fare shown. So it costs one adult about £4 in sleeper class or £20 in luxurious first class sleeper, for 435 kilometres. If you're a family of four, like us, you'll pay about £50 to travel overnight on this route a first class cabin of your own, with a lock on it!
You can even see the whole route the train takes:
Now you need to decide which class of travel you're interested in by clicking the AV hyperlink in the relevant class column, e.g 1A, 2A, 3A, SL. The availability for that class and the class below it appear for the date you have selected for and a few days afterward. (For this picture I've picked a different train, one that's pretty well booked up.)
Looks fairly complicated but it's not really. Here's a rough explanation but to find out more have a good read of the brilliant article by Indiamike's steven_ber called Indian Railways RAC and Waitlists concepts explained.
- AVAILABLE-0004 and AVAILABLE-0006 means that there are currently 4 seats (in class 2A) and 6 seats (in class 3A) available on the train for 24/2/2009. If you book now you'll get confirmed seat numbers and a (pretty much) definite place on the train.
- NOTE: at this point I'm happy to say that I booked up all my tickets three months in advance and all the ones I wanted were available. So I've never had to go through what is explained below. I hope I've got the explaination right!
- RAC2/RAC2 means that you will be buying a ticket which is 'reserved against cancellation'. This means that you will get on the train but may not get a berth, you may just get a seat, unless there's a cancellation.
- WL8/WL6 and WL19/WL11 means that there is a waiting list on the train on 21/2/2009, beyond the RAC status tickets. The first set of numbers (WL8 and WL19) indicate the number of wait list tickets sold. It's not as important as the second set of numbers which indicate where you are in the queue.
- Wait Lists - think of it like this: you join a queue for Wimbledon tickets for the match in a month's time, there's 100 tickets available and 110 people in front of you, you want 2 tickets. The confirmed tickets go to the first 100 people. You buy two wait list tickets WL111 and WL112 and wait. A few days later two people who bought WL104 and WL105 realise they can't go and pull out, even though they haven't actually got a ticket anyway. Your tickets become WL111/WL109 and WL112/WL110; you've moved up two places in the queue. With a week to go a block booking pulls out and suddenly there's after 15 tickets to be allocated to the next 15 in the wait list queue, that'll be you then; your tickets become WL111/CNF and WL112/CNF but you don't know where you're going to sit. On the match day the seating charts are prepared an hour or so before the game and you find out where you're sitting. Simple.