The e mail confirming that you have purchased a train ticket says “Congratulations! …” and well it might.  Although travelling by train in India is one of the quintessential things to do, sometimes that is easier said than done.

First you have to buy tickets.  This process has been simplified, in theory, by the introduction of online booking thus saving you having to go to the station and battling with the long queues when more than one person is served at the same time all adding to the confusion.

But to book on line, you have to register with the IRCTC (Indian Rail Catering and Tourism Corporation) including entering a valid e mail address and mobile telephone number which then have to be validated by the use of a one time passcode (OTP).  Nothing particularly unusual there except for the fact that the details on the online application form have to be completed in a very prescriptive manner (e.g. a house number must have precisely 3 digits) and when you register the OTP codes to activate the account, an error message comes up to say “telephone number already in use”.  Well of course it is as I’ve just registered it.  For some unknown reason, it is easier to activate the account via the app on your phone rather than via the website with all its unduly complicated captcha codes that also have to be entered.

Once you have a live IRCTC account, the next stage is to book tickets.  But here again there are a myriad of challenges.  If there’s no direct train from your source to your destination on the specific day you are looking, the system just returns an error message and won’t help you either with connecting trains and/or telling you that a train does in fact run from A to B just not on the day you were looking.  Likewise there can be problems if you get the wrong station even in the same city (the main cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata etc all have more than one station).  So there’s a lot of trial and error involved.

You’ve also got to decide what class of travel you want to go in: but the fly in the ointment here is that not all trains carry all classes.  Woe betide you if you choose a class that’s not actually on the train you want: don’t expect the system to automatically offer you a class that does exist (that would be far too helpful).

As always there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved: you have to carry ID with you (and register your ID number into the system) which can then be checked by the train guard en route.  That’s fine in principle, but for me there’s a slight problem in that the booking system only allows you 15 characters in total for your full name which isn’t enough – therefore the ID doesn’t exactly match up that well in the end.  15 characters seems a little on the low side – I’m sure there’s lots of Indian names which are longer.

Indian trains are busy.  I guess that’s not that surprising in a country with 1.2 billion people but it does mean that trains get booked out and so advance bookings are essential.  If you are unlucky and don’t get a “confirmed” ticket (hopefully with an assigned seat number but not always), then you end up in the “wait listed” or “reserve against cancellation (RAC)” bucket which leaves you in limbo: are you on the train or not?  Who knows?  Technically the answer is no but you might get a confirmed ticket between the time of booking and the time of travel.  But then again you might not.

And it’s even more complicated than that: there are various (7 to be precise) sub categories of wait listing, some of which mean you are far more likely to get a confirmed ticket in the end.  Although I’ve read the explanations several times, I can’t for the life of me work out some of the nuances between the different waiting lists e.g. RLWL (remote location waiting list) apparently means a ticket is issued for an intermediate station but then there’s RLGN (remote location general waiting list) which is issued where a user books a ticket where the waiting list quota is RLWL.  Why have 2 waiting lists? Either way, apparently your chances of confirmation are not as high as if you are on the general waiting list (GNWL) which has the highest chances of confirmation.

But wait for the rub: when you’re booking your ticket, you have no idea which type of wait listing you might get so it’s a real lottery.  Best of course always to go for trains where confirmed seats are still “available” but even then we’ve had problems: we’ve been sure that it said “available” at the point of booking and then suddenly found ourselves notified that we’ve been wait listed having just coughed up for the ticket.  And what would happen then if one of us got confirmed and the other didn’t?  Who knows?

To try to assist with the whole booking process, a whole raft of related mobile phone apps have been developed e.g. to help answer questions like how likely you are to get a confirmed seat based on historic statistical data. I’ve no idea who has had time to create all these but the fact that they exist is quite telling.   There are also some pretty good booking apps that can also help (and crucially which accept international payment cards as the IRCTC app doesn’t seem to (albeit its website does)).

Generally we’ve found that by using a combination of these apps plus the official website and app and having got a bit of experience under our belts, we have (normally) come out with something we vaguely wanted in the end.  But it’s an absolute minefield and one requiring lots of patience and perhaps a PHD or 2 to circumnavigate.

No wonder the IRCTC booking confirmation e mail says “Congratulations!” and with the exclamation mark too!

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