Five different classes of accommodation can usually be found on Indian Railways trains. Here's an explanation of what can be expected in each class of accommodation on Indian trains, as well as some tips to help you choose the right class to meet your needs for a long distance train trip in India.
Second Class (SC)
India’s poorest people travel in second class, as well as those who haven't been fortunate enough to secure a ticket in sleeper class. Reservations aren’t required and the concept of overcrowding really is taken to a new level. There’s sitting or standing room only, and any spare floor space is occupied by those willing to sleep on it. Most seats are simply wooden benches, although some trains do have padded benches the same as what are found in sleeper class.
The unreserved second class is not recommended for long distance train travel in India.
Sleeper Class (SL)
Most of India's middle class travel in sleeper class. Carriages are divided into open-plan compartments with six beds in each. The beds are stacked vertically in three tiers on either side of the compartments. During the day, the middle beds must be folded down flat against the compartment walls to allow passengers to sit on the lower beds. Two tiers of beds are also located outside the compartments, along the aisle. Fans on the carriage ceiling provide some cooling, and the windows have bars to keep intruders out as they are usually kept open.
There's no privacy in sleeper class, and it's noisy, crowded and dirty. However, some visitors do prefer to travel in this class so they can interact with Indians from all walks of life.
Three Tier Air Conditioned Class (3A)
Three Tier Air Conditioned Class, known as 3A, offers a significant step up in comfort and quietness. The carriages in 3A are laid out in the same manner as in sleeper class. However, the windows are covered with tinted glass that’s unable to be opened, and air-conditioning keeps the carriages cool. Sheets, pillows, blankets, and towels are provided to passengers.
Passengers tend to keep to themselves in 3A, but privacy is still severely lacking due to the open plan nature of the compartments. Most importantly, the carriages and bathrooms in usually remain much cleaner than those in sleeper class.
Two Tier Air Conditioned Class (2A)
Two Tier Air Conditioned Class, known as 2A, attracts India’s upper class travelers. There’s much more space, as there are only four beds in each compartment. The beds are stacked vertically in two tiers on either side. Just like in the other classes, there are also two tiers of beds along the aisle outside the compartments. Bedding and towels are also provided, the same as in 3A.
The best thing about 2A is the added benefit of privacy curtains on the entrance to each compartment, as well as across each of the beds that run along the aisle. The curtains are usually always kept drawn and this class of accommodation is quite devoid of any interaction.
First Class Air Conditioned (1A)
First Class Air Conditioned, known as 1A, is found only on the most popular inter-state train routes. The cost is around double that of 2A and is comparable to that of flying. Compartments have lockable doors, carpet and either two or four beds, stacked vertially in tiers. Sheets, pillows, blankets, and towels are also provided.
The only problem with 1A is that it's not possible to specify if you want accommodation in a two bed or four bed compartment when you book. However, couples are normally allocated accommodations in the two bed compartments, while singles and families are accommodated in the four bed compartments.
Indian Railways Travel Tip 1:Travel in sleeper class is suitable for those on a tight budget, or those who don't mind roughing it or who want to experience the 'real' India. If comfort is more of a concern, then travel in 3A is a better option. For those who require space and/or privacy, 2A or 1A is recommended.
Indian Railways Travel Tip 2:
The beds are referred to as "berths". Where possible, always try to reserve an upper level one. They don't have to be folded down during the day like the middle level ones, or act as seats for all the passengers like the lower level ones.
The beds located along the aisle outside the main compartments (referred to as 'side berths') also offer a bit more personal space, and are less claustrophobic. However, they are enclosed at both ends and are shorter than the ones inside the compartments. As a result, they're not recommended for people who're taller than around 5 feet 10 inches.