Different classes of train travel in India (First class, 2 Tier AC, 3 Tier AC, Sleeper, Ac Chair Car, Chair Car)
The Indian railways are a complex beast and it takes a while to understand its systems and multiple differences. When you go to purchase a ticket you have multiple options of the kind of seat you can avail of. Most long distant trains have Air condition and Non Air condition options. But the following are the different options available
First Class (Air conditioned) (AC1 or First AC)
This has a old school train travel charm. A coupe with four beds, a lockable door And all necessary bedding. The berths convert to seats for daytime use. AC1 is a very comfortable way to travel, although it is found only on the most important long-distance trains and costs about twice the price of AC2. It comes with a attendant, who will make your beds and give you more personalized service. The windows are slightly tinted and do hamper the view a bit, but you can see the scenery change as . Each bed has a reading light and a power connection to charge your phones, ipads, laptops etc. The Washrooms have western style WC, and are normally equipped with Toilet paper.(But its always better to carry your own). They are normally very clean well maintained.
AC 2 Tier (2 AC)
Not too different from the AC 1, the Ac 2 tier does not have a lockable door and the additional space for luggage. But it is very peaceful way to travel across India. It is very comfortable and the bedding (pillow, blanket and bed sheet) are provided. The air conditioning can fluctuate and so the temperature can vary, but overall it is a good experience. For people over the height of 6.2 ft your legs might stick out of the sleeper. Even in the Ac 2 tier the seats can be pulled down and converted into seats for daytime use. Each AC 2 tier also has a reading light and common power connections for the four passengers. The washrooms have western style WC and Indian Style , They are normally very clean but depending on how the other passengers use them, their usability decreases.
AC 3 Tier (3 AC)
The AC 3 tier is the cheapest of the AC options, and the only discomfort is that instead of being a 2x2 seating it is 3x2 seating. It has three tiers of bunks - upper, middle and lower on one side and two (upper and lower) along the the other side of the aisle. It's more crowded than AC 2-tier, and it lacks the privacy curtains and individual berth lights found in AC2. You are still provided with bedding for overnight trains. There are also plug points for charging, though they are unreliable at times. The Washrooms have western style WC and Indian Style , They are normally very clean but depending on how the other passengers use them, their usability decreases.
This is non Air condition and available in 3 tier seating format of 3x2, a replica of the AC 3 tier. This is the way most Indians travel and every single train has a sleeper class. Bedding is not provided, so bring along a blanket/sleeping bag for long journeys. Sleeper class can be quite crowded (although in theory all berths must be reserved, so it can't get overcrowded) because of locals using the sleeper class for regular day to day travel. The sleeper class is very basic and the bathroom hygiene can be below par. But saying this you get a great view of the countryside compared to the AC coaches, where the windows are sealed, tinted, and sometimes dirty. Summer journeys can get hot with the ceiling fan and breeze while the train is in motion cooling things down. The monsoons are probably the best and worst time to take this because as the windows have to be kept shut it can get quite stuffy, but the views are most spectacular. Winter journeys on the other hand can be quite cold so wrap yourself up at night and take a sleeping bag and fleece. Normally Sleeper class is used by the more adventurous backpackers who are ready to experience India with its masses.
Normally shorter journey trains and certain frequently travelled business sectors have Ac chair cars. These are similar to an airplane and have overhead space for your luggage. They have common charging points, and normally have one charging point for three travelers. This is fairly comfortable and can be used for a day journey. The bathrooms are clean and basic. And have a western and Indian style
Non Ac Chair car (SS)
The Non AC chair car is a little more cramped than the AC one and does not have power connections either. These are recommended for more daily travelers and tourists often do not choose this class. But when tickets are hard to come by, a 2-4 hour ride can easily be enjoyed. The bathrooms will not be perfectly hygienic and for shorter trips we recommend you clear your bladder before starting out on the journey.
Now this is a experience only for the seasoned backpacker, who can handle crowds, pushing shoving and enjoy being one of the masses. Wooden or padded plastic seats, definitely not recommended for long journeys. Before the train starts you will see a large group of Indians fighting to secure a space on this bogey, as it is the most economical and does not require booking hassles. This scrum results in the first few securing sitting space and the rest standing on their toes for hours. You will be amazed as to how more and more people seem to enter that compartment and like a harry potter film actually fit in.