Indian Railways is one of the wonders of the world.
Not only is it the largest employer in the world, I am now convinced that riding on their trains is the best way to see India. After a few weeks of travelling on trains, here is my advice to others who want to enjoy the fun.
1. Start with absorbing the UK-based website, A Beginner's Guide to Train Travel in India. I see that it was updated again just last week - so it becomes an accurate and helpful starting point.
2. Having done this I found myself with questions in two areas:
(a) One is related to making decisions about the 'class' in which to travel. There are eight different classes and I didn't find the pictures on this website helpful until after I had done some train travel. If you are new-ish to India and you draw a salary in some foreign currency - like dollars or pounds - then my strong recommendation is to select 'AC2' as the 'class' in which to travel. Just that little bit of comfort without being cocooned - and still reasonably priced.
(b) The other is related to the names of train stations. I found two issues confusing. One is that blessed-India keeps changing the names of towns and cities ... and then with some of the major centres, the name of the train station is not the name of the city and there are often multiple train stations in a city. So, for example, there is no Kolkata train station - there is Howrah and there is Sealdah. There is no Cochin/Kochi train station - there is Ernakulam. This becomes very tricky when you are planning an itinerary! To help sort this out I would encourage you to buy Samit Roychoudhury's The Great Indian Railway Atlas - ISBN 81-901457-1-1. A second edition has come out in 2010. Every single train station is mentioned - and don't miss the glossary on all those blessed name changes!The author also has a website here.
3. Then I'd encourage you to explore the Indian Railways website. The crucial thing which you learn quickly is that every train has a unique number which identifies it. It is the key thing to remember. [NB - about three weeks ago all the old four digit numbers have had a '1' added to them!]. The helpful information I needed was contained by clicking 'Train Between Stations' and selecting a train with its unique number - but then I found entering that number into 'Train Schedule' to be useful as it gave me all the details of the train trip. Under 'Train Type Information' always select Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains whenever possible.
4. The difficulty with the Indian Railways site is that you need an Indian credit card to purchase train tickets. I found the service from an Indian-based travel agent to be very poor and quickly learned that I could make bookings and payments for myself. The cleartrip website was superb. So easy to use. Just enter the train stations, select the train you want (with its number) and the class in which you want to travel - and make your payment.
5. Train tickets can be purchased up to three months in advance. Again my strong advice is to get on these websites at that three-month mark and make the decisions and the payments and things should be straightforward. If you leave it until later - as our travel agent did - it becomes complicated and nasty acronyms like RAC, W/L and PNR will become a big part of your life - and a hassle that you don't need.
6. With tickets in hand, the fun begins. Arrive at your train station in good time because not only does the platform for your train need to be identified, the carriage on the train in which your seats/berths can be found (clearly stated on your ticket) also needs to be located. This can take time.
Bring it on! I can't wait for my next train trip in India...