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Rail transport in India

Related subjects: Engineering; Railway transport

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Map showing the Indian rail network and travelling times between major stations

Rail transport is a commonly used mode of long-distance transportation in India. Almost all rail operations in India are handled by a state-owned organisation, Indian Railways, Ministry of Railways. The rail network traverses the length and breadth of the country, covering a total length of 64,015 kilometres (39,777 mi). It is the 4th largest railway network in the world, transporting over 10  billion passengers and over 1050 million tonnes of freight annually. Its operations cover twenty eight states and three union territories and also provide limited service to Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Both passenger and freight traffic has seen steady growth, and as per the 2009 budget presented by the Railway Minister, the Indian Railways carried over 7 billion passengers in 2009

Railways were introduced to India in 1853 from Bombay to Thane, and by the time of India's independence in 1947 they had grown to forty-two rail systems. In 1951 the systems were nationalised as one unit—Indian Railways—to form one of the largest networks in the world. The broad gauge is the majority and original standard gauge in India; more recent networks of metre and narrow gauge are being replaced by broad gauge under Project Unigauge. The steam locomotives have been replaced over the years with diesel and electric locomotives.

Locomotives manufactured at several places in India are assigned codes identifying their gauge, kind of power and type of operation. Colour signal lights are used as signals, but in some remote areas of operation, the older semaphores and disc-based signalling are still in use. Accommodation classes range from general through first class AC. Trains have been classified according to speed and area of operation. All trains are officially identified by a five-digit code (changed from four digits on 20 December 2010) though many are commonly known by unique names. The ticketing system has been computerised to a large extent, and there are reserved as well as unreserved categories of tickets.


Extent of Great Indian Peninsular Railway network in 1870. The GIPR was one of the largest rail companies at that time.
Map of the Madras and South Mahratta Railway lines in 1914.
Extent of the railway network in 1909.

A plan for a rail system in India was first put forward in 1832. The first rail line of the Indian sub-continent came up near Chintadripet Bridge (presently in Chennai) in Madras Presidency in 1836 as an experimental line. In 1837, a 3.5-mile (5.6 km) long rail line was established between Red Hills and stone quarries near St. Thomas Mount. In 1844, the Governor-General of India Lord Hardinge allowed private entrepreneurs to set up a rail system in India. The East India Company (and later the British Government) encouraged new railway companies backed by private investors under a scheme that would provide land and guarantee an annual return of up to five percent during the initial years of operation. The companies were to build and operate the lines under a 99 year lease, with the government having the option to buy them earlier.

Two new railway companies, Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR) and East Indian Railway (EIR), were created in 1853-54 to construct and operate two 'experimental' lines near Bombay and Calcutta respectively. The first train in India had become operational on 22 December 1851 for localised hauling of canal construction material in Roorkee. A year and a half later, on 16 April 1853, the first passenger train service was inaugurated between Bori Bunder in Bombay and Thane. Covering a distance of 34 kilometres (21 mi), it was hauled by three locomotives, Sahib, Sindh, and Sultan. This was soon followed by opening of the first passenger railway line in North India between Allahabad and Kanpur on March 3, 1859.

In 1854 Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor-General of India, formulated a plan to construct a network of trunk lines connecting the principal regions of India. Encouraged by the government guarantees, investment flowed in and a series of new rail companies were established, leading to rapid expansion of the rail system in India. Soon various native states built their own rail systems and the network spread to the regions that became the modern-day states of Assam, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. The route mileage of this network increased from 1,349 kilometres (838 mi) in 1860 to 25,495 kilometres (15,842 mi) in 1880 - mostly radiating inland from the three major port cities of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. Most of the railway construction was done by Indian companies. The railway line from Lahore to Delhi was done B.S.D. Bedi and Sons (Baba Shib Dayal Bedi), this included the building of the Jamuna Bridge. By 1895, India had started building its own locomotives, and in 1896 sent engineers and locomotives to help build the Uganda Railway.

At the beginning of the twentieth century India had a multitude of rail services with diverse ownership and management, operating on broad, metre and narrow gauge networks. In 1900 the government took over the GIPR network, while the company continued to manage it. With the arrival of the First World War, the railways were used to transport troops and foodgrains to the port city of Bombay and Karachi en route to UK, Mesopotamia, East Africa etc. By the end of the First World War, the railways had suffered immensely and were in a poor state. In 1923, both GIPR and EIR were nationalized with the state assuming both ownership and management control.

The Second World War severely crippled the railways as rolling stock was diverted to the Middle East, and the railway workshops were converted into munitions workshops. After independence in 1947, forty-two separate railway systems, including thirty-two lines owned by the former Indian princely states, were amalgamated to form a single unit named the Indian Railways. The existing rail networks were abandoned in favour of zones in 1951 and a total of six zones came into being in 1952.

As the economy of India improved, almost all railway production units were 'indigenised' (produced in India). By 1985, steam locomotives were phased out in favour of diesel and electric locomotives. The entire railway reservation system was streamlined with computerisation between 1987 and 1995.

In 2003, the Indian Railways celebrated 150 years of its existence. Various zones of the railways celebrated the event by running heritage trains on routes similar to the ones on which the first trains in the zones ran. The Ministry of Railways commemorated the event by launching a special logo celebrating the completion of 150 years of service. Also launched was a new mascot for the 150th year celebrations, named "Bholu the guard elephant".


A DMU Train
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway, one of the oldest running steam locomotives, in India

Indian Railways use a specialised classification code for identifying its locomotives. The code is usually three or four letters, followed by a digit identifying the model (either assigned chronologically or encoding the power rating of the locomotive). This could be followed by other codes for minor variations in the base model.

The three (or four) letters are, from left to right, the gauge of tracks on which the locomotive operates, the type of power source or fuel for the locomotive, and the kind of operation the locomotive can be used for. The gauge is coded as 'W' for broad gauge, 'Y' for metre gauge, 'Z' for the 762 mm narrow gauge and 'N' for the 610 mm narrow gauge. The power source code is 'D' for diesel, 'A' for AC traction, 'C' for DC traction and 'CA' for dual traction (AC/DC). The operation letter is 'G' for freight-only operation, 'P' for passenger trains-only operation, 'M' for mixed operation (both passenger and freight) and 'S' for shunting operation. A number alongside it indicates the power rating of the engine. For example '4' would indicate a power rating of above 4,000  hp (2,980  kW) but below 5,000 hp (3,730 kW). A letter following the number is used to give an exact rating. For instance 'A' would be an additional 100 horsepower (75 kW); 'B' 200 hp (150 kW) and so on. For example, a WDM-3D is a broad-gauge, diesel-powered, mixed mode (suitable for both freight and passenger duties) and has a power rating of 3400  hp (2.5  MW).

The most common diesel engine used is the WDM-2, which entered production in 1962. This 2,600 hp (1.9 MW) locomotive was designed by Alco and manufactured by the Diesel Locomotive Works, Varanasi, and is used as a standard workhorse. It is being replaced by more modern engines, ranging in power up to 5,500 hp (4.1 MW).

There is a wide variety of electric locomotives used, ranging between 2,800 to 6,350 hp (2.1 to 4.7 MW). They also accommodate the different track voltages in use. Most electrified sections in the country use 25,000 volt AC, but railway lines around Mumbai use the older 1,500 V DC system. Thus, Mumbai and surrounding areas are the only places where one can find AC/DC dual locomotives of the WCAM and WCAG series. All other electric locomotives are pure AC ones from the WAP, WAG and WAM series. Some specialised EMU (electric multiple units) are running on Mumbai Suburban System of Central Railway and Western Railway also use dual-power systems, these are new-age rakes manufactured in ICF (Integral Coach Factory) in Perambur usually white and purple livery colour. There are also some very rare battery-powered locomotives, primarily used for shunting and yard work.

The only steam engines still in service in India operate on two heritage lines ( Darjeeling and Ooty), and on the tourist train Palace on Wheels. Plans are afoot to re-convert the Neral- Matheran to steam. The oldest steam engine in the world in regular service, the Fairy Queen, operates between Delhi and Alwar.

Signalling systems

The Indian Railways makes use of colour signal lights, but in some remote areas of operation, the older semaphores and discs-based signalling (depending on the position or colour) are still in use. Except for some high-traffic sections around large cities and junctions, the network does not use automatic block systems. However, the signals at stations are almost invariably interlocked with the setting of points (routes) and so safety does not depend on the skill of the station masters. With the planned introduction of Cab signalling/Anti collision devices the element of risk on account of drivers overshooting signals will also be eliminated.

Coloured signalling makes use of multi-coloured lighting and in many places is automatically controlled. There are three modes:

  • Two aspect signalling, which uses a red (bottom) and green (top) lamp
  • Three aspect signalling, which uses an additional amber lamp in the centre
  • Four (multiple) aspect signalling makes use of four lamps, the fourth is amber and is placed above the other three.

Multiple aspect signals, by providing several intermediate speed stages between 'clear' and 'on', allow high-speed trains sufficient time to brake safely if required. This becomes very important as train speeds rise. Without multiple-aspect signals, the stop signals have to be placed very far apart to allow sufficient braking distance and this reduces track utilisation. At the same time, slower trains can also be run closer together on track with multiple aspect signals.

Semaphores make use of a mechanical arm to indicate the line condition. Several subtypes are used:

  • Two aspect lower quadrant
  • Three aspect modified lower quadrant
  • Multiple aspect upper quadrant
  • Disc-based: These signals are located close to levers used to operate points. They are all two-aspect signals.

Production units

The Chittaranjan Locomotive Works in Chittaranjan makes electric locomotives. The Diesel Locomotive Works in Varanasi makes diesel locomotives. The Integral Coach Factory in Perambur makes integral coaches. These have a monocoque construction, and the floor is an integral unit with the undercarriage. The Rail Coach Factory in Kapurthala also makes coaches. The Rail Wheel Factory at Yelahanka manufactures wheels and axles, Diesel-Loco Modernisation Works, Patiala upgrade the WDM-2 Diesel loco from 2600 hp to 3100 hp. Some electric locomotives have been supplied by BHEL, Jhansi and Palakkad, and locomotive components are manufactured in several other plants around the country.


The Secunderabad Railway Station is one of the major stations in India

Trains are sorted into various categories that dictate the number of stops along their route, the priority they enjoy on the network, and the fare structure. Each express train is identified by a five-digit number, the first digit as 1 and 2 for long-distance Express trains. If the first digit is 0, then the train is a Special. The first digit as 5 denotes a passenger train. The second digit indicates the zone that operates the train, the third the division within the zone that controls the train and is responsible for its regular maintenance and cleanliness, and the last two digits are the train's serial number. The system was changed from four digits from 20 December 2010, in order to accommodate an increasing number of trains.

For super-fast trains, the second digit is always 2 (the first remains 1 or 2), the third digit is the zone, the fourth is the division and only the last digit is the serial number within the division. Trains travelling in opposite directions along the same route are usually labelled with consecutive numbers. However, there is considerable variation in train numbers and some zones, such as Central Railway, has a less systematic method for numbering trains. Most express trains also have a unique name that is usually exotic and taken from landmarks, famous people, rivers and so on.

Hierarchy of trains

Trains are classified by their average speed. A faster train has fewer stops ("halts") than a slower one and usually caters to long-distance travellers.

Rank Train Description
1 Duronto Express These are the non-stop point to point trains (except for operational stops) introduced in 2009 connecting metros and major state capitals and are faster than Rajdhani Express. They consist of first AC, two-tier AC, three-tier AC and sleeper classes.
2 Rajdhani Express These are air-conditioned trains linking major cities to New Delhi. They are one of the fastest trains in India, travelling at about 130 km (81 mi) per hour. There are only a few stops on a Rajdhani route.
3 Shatabdi Express and Jan Shatabdi Express These are air-conditioned and non-airconditioned respectively intercity trains for day travel. They generally have only seats. Some of them also have one coach with berths.
4 Garib Rath These trains contain AC three-tier and AC chair car coaches with fares less than the fares for the same classes in other trains. They are almost as fast as Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains.
5 Superfast Express These trains have an average speed greater than 55 km (34 mi) per hour and stop at a few stations. The tickets for these trains have an additional superfast surcharge.
6 Express and Mail trains These are the most common kind of trains in India. They have more stops than their superfast counterparts but they stop only at relatively important intermediate stations.
7 Passenger and Fast Passenger These are slow trains that stop at most stations along the route and have the lowest fare. The trains generally have unreserved seating accommodation but some night trains have sleeper and 3A coaches.
8 Suburban trains These trains operate in urban and suburban areas of major cities, usually stop at all stations, have unreserved seating accommodation and also have one or more separate coaches only for women. They have the same low fare as passenger trains. Monthly and quarterly tickets (referred to as season tickets) for suburban trains are also available at subsidised prices.

Rapid Transit

Kavi Subhash Metro Station ( Kolkata Metro) 17th Zone of Indian Railways
Delhi Metro, operational since 2002
Namma Metro,M.G.Road, Bangalore

The first modern rapid transit in India was the Kolkata Metro, with operations starting in 1984. Chennai MRTS acts as second urban mass transit system since 1997 and differs from country's other MRTS suburban systems. The Delhi Metro in the capital city of New Delhi is third conventional metro beginning operations in 2002.The Namma Metro in Bangalore is India's fourth operational rapid transit beginning operations in 2011. Currently, rapid transit systems have been deployed in these cities and more are under construction or in planning in several major cities of India.

Cities that have a metro system:

  • Kolkata Metro
  • Delhi Metro
  • Namma Metro (Bangalore)
  • Chennai Mass Rapid Transit System

Metro systems under Construction

  • Mumbai Metro
  • Rapid Metro Rail Gurgaon
  • Pune Metro
  • Jaipur Metro
  • Lucknow Metro
  • Kanpur Metro
  • Chennai Metro
  • Navi Mumbai Metro
  • Hyderabad Metro
  • Kochi Metro
  • Patna Metro
  • Indore Metro

Suburban rail

Chennai MRTS

Many cities have their own dedicated suburban networks to cater to commuters. Currently, suburban networks operate in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Pune and Lucknow-Kanpur.

Mumbai's suburban trains handle 6.3 million commuters daily.


India has some of the lowest train fares in the world, and passenger traffic is heavily subsidised by more expensive higher class fares. Until the late 1980s, Indian Railway ticket reservations were done manually. In late 1987, the Railways started using a computerised ticketing system. The entire ticketing system went online in 1995 to provide up to date information on status and availability. Today the ticketing network is computerised to a large extent, with the exception of some remote places. Computerized tickets can be booked for any two points in the country. Tickets can also be booked through the internet and via mobile phones, though this method carries an additional surcharge.

Discounted tickets are available for senior citizens (above sixty years) and some other categories of passengers including the disabled, students, sportspersons, persons afflicted by serious diseases, or persons appearing for competitive examinations. One compartment of the lowest class of accommodation is earmarked for ladies in every passenger carrying train. Some berths or seats in sleeper class and second class are also earmarked for ladies. Season tickets permitting unlimited travel on specific sections or specific trains for a specific time period may also be available. Foreign tourists can buy an Indrail Pass, which is modeled on the Eurail Pass, permitting unlimited travel in India for a specific time period.

An Indian Railway Ticket from Chennai to Vijayawada by Howrah Mail.

For long-distance travel, reservation of a berth can be done for comfortable travel up to 120 days before the date of intended travel. Details such as the name, age and concession (if eligible) are required and are recorded on the ticket. The ticket price usually includes the base fare, which depends on the classification of the train (example: super-fast surcharge if the train is classified as a super-fast), the class in which one wishes to travel and the reservation charge for overnight journeys.

If a seat is not available, then the ticket is given a wait listed number; else the ticket is confirmed, and a berth number is printed on the ticket. A person receiving a wait listed ticket must wait until there are enough cancellations to enable him to move up the list and obtain a confirmed ticket. If his ticket is not confirmed on the day of departure, he may not board the train. Some of the tickets are assigned to the RAC or Reservation against Cancellation, which is between the waiting list and the confirmed list. These allow the ticket holder to board the train and obtain an allotted seat decided by a ticket collector, after the ticket collector has ascertained that there is a vacant (absentee) seat.

Reserved Railway Tickets can be booked through the website of Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited, and also through mobile Phones and SMS. Tickets booked through this site are categorised in to iTickets and eTickets. iTickets are booked by a passenger and then printed and delivered to the passenger for carrying during journey. eTickets are printed by the passenger and carried while travelling. While traveling on an eTicket, one must carry one of the authorised valid Photo Identity Cards. Cancellation of eTickets are also done online, without the requirement for the passenger to go to any counter. Unreserved tickets are available for purchase on the platform at any time before departure. An unreserved ticket holder may only board the general compartment class. All suburban networks issue unreserved tickets valid for a limited time period. For frequent commuters, a season pass (monthly or quarterly) guarantees unlimited travel between two stops.

International links

India has rail links with Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. It also plans to install a rail system in southern Bhutan. A move to link the railways of India and Sri Lanka never materialised.

Before the Partition of India there were eight rail links between what are now India and Pakistan. However, currently there are only two actively maintained rail links between the two countries. The first one is at Wagah in Punjab. The Samjhauta Express plies this route from Amritsar in India to Lahore in Pakistan. The second one, the Thar Express, opened in 2006 runs between Munabao (in Rajasthan in India) and Khokhrapar (in Sindh in Pakistan). Other discussed links are Ferozepur–Samasata, Ferozepur–Lahore, Amritsar–Lahore, Amritsar–Sialkot and Jammu–Sialkot.

After the creation of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), many trains that used to run between Assam and Bengal had to be rerouted through the Siliguri Corridor. As of March 2010, there exists one passenger link between India and Bangladesh, the Maitree Express, which plies between Kolkata and Dhaka twice a week. A metre gauge link exists between Mahisasan (Mohishashon) and Shahbazpur. Another link is between Radhikapur and Birol. These two links are used occasionally for freight. A rail link between Akhaura in Bangladesh and Agartala in India was approved by the Government of India in September 2011. The 15 km rail line will cost INR252 crore and is expected to be completed by 2014.

There are two links between India and Nepal: Raxaul Jn., Bihar– Sirsiya, Parsa and Jaynagar, Bihar– Khajuri, Dhanusa. The former is broad gauge, while the latter is narrow gauge.

Proposed rail links

  • The Indian railways is also pursuing to build the highest railway track in the world overtaking current record of Beijing-Lhasa Railway line.
  • Indian Railways has planned to install a rail system in southern Bhutan Bhutan that would be connected to India.
  • A railway between Manipur, India and Myanmar Myanmar is under construction.
    • On April 9, 2010, Union Minister of India, Shashi Tharoor announced that the central government is considering a rail link from Manipur to VietnamVietnam via MyanmarMyanmar.
    • Indian Railways and rail authorities in ChinaChina are interested in starting a high-speed rail link that would link New Delhi with Kunming, China via MyanmarMyanmar The rail link would utilise the under construction railway from Manipur, India to Myanmar and the under construction railway from Kunming to Myanmar.
    • A rail link to Thailand Thailand is possible if Burma Railway is rebuilt. Would also allow trains to Malaysia Malaysia and Singapore Singapore.

Private railways

Though the Indian Railways enjoys a near monopoly in India, a few private railways do exist, left over from the days of the Raj, usually small sections on private estates, etc. There are also some railway lines owned and operated by companies for their own purposes, by plantations, sugar mills, collieries, mines, dams, harbours and ports, etc. The Bombay Port Trust runs a BG railway of its own, as does the Madras Port Trust. The Calcutta Port Commission Railway is a BG railway. The Vishakhapatnam Port Trust has BG and NG, 2 ft 6 in (762 mm), railways.

The Bhilai Steel Plant has a BG railway network. The Tatas (a private concern) operate funicular railways at Bhira and at Bhivpuri Road (as well as the Kamshet–Shirawta Dam railway line, which is not a public line). These are not common carriers, so the general public cannot travel using these. The Pipavav Rail Corporation holds a 33-year concession for building and operating a railway line from Pipavav to Surendranagar. The Kutch Railway Company, a joint venture of the Gujarat state government and private parties, is involved (along with the Kandla Port Trust and the Gujarat Adani Port) to build a Gandhidham– Palanpur railway line. These railway lines are principally used to carry freight and not for passenger traffic.

Although generally IR has decided the freight tariffs on these lines, recently (February 2005) there have been proposals to allow the operating companies freedom to set freight tariffs and generally run the lines without reference to IR.

Arshiya Rail Infrastructure

In April 2008, Arshiya acquired Category I license to operate pan-India rail service, giving rise to Arshiya Rail Infrastructure. Arshiya Rail is a specialised entity of Arshiya International offering unprecedented rail infrastructure, including an abundance of modern rakes, customized containers, new sidings, pan-India network, and connectivity.

Arshiya's first state-of-the-art rail siding will be operational soon in Khurja near New Delhi in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Spanning 50 acres its part of our 315 acres mega logistics hub which also includes 130 acres Industrial & Distribution Hub and 135 acres Free Trade & Warehousing Zone (FTWZ).


A Daily Telegraph article says that Indian railway officials say that a large proportion of bodies found dead on Indian railways died elsewhere and were put on the railway in dishonest attempts to get compensation from the railway authorities and companies.

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