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The best way to see India is at ground level on the Indian railway system, and not at 30,000 feet.  In fact, no visit to India would be complete without the experience of traveling on Indian trains and negotiating busy Indian railway stations!  Train travel is safe, cheap and (in AC classes) comfortable.  Even long distances such as Bombay to Delhi or Delhi to Varanasi can be covered more time-effectively than flying, using overnight sleeper trains.

Train Rout:

With 63,000 km of rail routes and 6,800 stations, the railway network in India is the third  biggest in the world after Russia and China, and the biggest in the world in terms of passenger kilometers.  Indian Railways are also the world's biggest employer, with over 1.5 million staff.

         The trains in India go almost everywhere, and it's generally safe to assume that you can travel between any two Indian cities or major towns by train.

         There's currently no railway to Kashmir, but a line to Srinagar is under construction, due to open in stages from 2007 onwards.  The line heads through tough terrain, and will feature the highest railway bridge in the world. 

         Khajuraho has no station, but can be reached by bus.

Do you need a reservation?

Yes, you do.  You need to make a seat or berth reservation for all long-distance journeys on Indian trains, you cannot simply turn up and hop on.  Bookings open 90 days before departure - this was originally 60 days, but it was experimentally extended to 90 days and now made permanent in 2008.  Some short-distance inter-city trains may open for bookings less than this.  Reservations are now completely computerised.  Indeed, according to an Indian professor with whom I shared a compartment, computerisation saved him 50% of his travel costs as he had always had to pay the same again in bribes to get a reservation!  Indian trains are usually very busy, and they often get booked out days or even weeks ahead. 

The tourist quota...

Many important trains (but not all trains) have a special quota of seats or berths available for foreign tourists and IndRail passholders.  This is very useful:  A train which is fully booked for Indian travellers may still have a few 'tourist quota' berths available within a day or two of departure so that foreign travellers can travel around at short notice.  However, it's not foolproof.  Even using this special quota, you may have to wait a day or so before there is a berth available to your chosen destination in your chosen class.  There is a tourist quota on perhaps 200 trains a day out of a total of 9,000 trains, and the quota might be just 2 places, seldom more than 12 places, spread over each class.  Tickets issued against the tourist quota must be paid for in US Dollars, pounds sterling, or rupees backed by an exchange certificate proving they have been obtained from a bank or bureau de change in exchange for foreign currency.  Rupees backed by an ATM receipt and foreign bank card are usually sufficient.

'Reservation Against Cancellation' (RAC) & 'Waitlisted' (WL) places...

Indian Railways have a unique system:  After a train becomes fully booked, a certain number of places in each class are sold as 'Reservation Against Cancellation' (RAC).  After all the RAC places have been sold, further prospective passengers are 'Waitlisted' (WL).  If you have an RAC ticket, a passenger with a confirmed reservation may cancel before the departure of the train, in which case you will be promoted to a confirmed seat or berth on the train (shown as 'CNF' meaning 'confirmed'), and your name will be shown against a specific seat or berth on the reservation list on the day of travel at the boarding station (so remember to check it!).  A waitlisted passenger will then be promoted to RAC in your place.  Alternatively, even if nobody cancels, if you have an 'RAC' ticket you are allowed to board the train and travel.  You will normally be given a place to sit (but not a berth) in a carriage of the relevant class, for example two RAC passengers might have to share a 2-seat space that would normally convert into a berth for one person.  If one of the confirmed passengers fails to show up for the train, the on-board staff will allocate the spare berth to the first RAC passenger (and the second RAC passenger may then find himself with a berth to himself, solving two RAC passengers' problems!).  Obviously, if there are no no-shows, the RAC passengers will have to sit up all night, or perhaps take turns using the berth to snooze.  However, if you're offered an RAC place, do take it, as you'll usually end up with a confirmed berth on the train.  Indeed, you've a good chance of getting on the train even with a low-number wait-listed ticket.  You can confirm the current status of your booking at www.indianrail.gov.in/pnr_stat.html by entering the 'PNR' number on your ticket, but remember that things can change even on the day of departure.  When the reservation chart is produced on the day of departure, unsold tickets in various special quotas may be released, and WL passengers promoted to RAC and RAC passengers promoted to CNF (confirmed). 

'Tatkal' places...

To allow travel at short notice on trains that had always become fully-booked weeks before departure, Indian Railways introduced a system called 'Tatkal' (Hindi for 'immediate').  A number of tickets on key trains are held back and released at 08:00 two days before departure (originally 72 hours before, but as from August 2009 only 2 days), then sold with a Rs75-Rs300 extra 'Tatkal' charge.  If there's tourist quota places available then the Tatkal system may be irrelevant for you, but if you can't get a tourist quota place, a Tatkal place may be useful.

Tourist reservation bureaux...

The main stations in big cities and tourist centres such as New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi have an International Tourist Bureau where foreign travellers can book trains away from the crowds and queues at the normal booking office.  There is also a 24-hour rail booking office at Delhi International Airport.  For a list of stations with an International Tourist Bureau, and opening times, visit www.indianrail.gov.in and select 'Information' then 'International Tourist'.  Ignore anyone telling you the reservations office is closed, but their travel agency across the street can sell you a ticket!

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