The First Time: Travel in First AC of Indian Railways!
Indian railways is an emotion for every traveller in India. Your love for train travels increase as much as you want to hate it. Although buses took over to being the option of choice for the younger generation and the frequent traveller population, trains continue to be the lifeline of the country. With complete electrification and doubling happening at brisk pace, the Indian Railways is doing its best to regain the ground it lost to the roadways.
Back in the mid 2000s, when buses hadn't completely taken over long distance travel, and trains had their own mad fan following, long journeys inevitably meant taking the train. Train tickets were always difficult to get and the railways had a very unique tatkal scheme, where you had to pay ticket fare for the entire journey, irrespective of the distance you actually travel, along with a tatkal premium.
In mid 2006, my dad and I had to travel urgently from Mumbai to Bangalore. Flights were prohibitively expensive and buses weren't an option those days. We targeted Udyan express, and tickets were mostly sold out. While casually checking for tickets, I spotted confirmed tickets in first AC, the highest class in Indian Railways. The ticket was only slightly costlier than a tatkal ticket in AC 2-tier. The fare was around Rs. 1600, going by my vague memory. We booked two tickets and the stage was set for my first journey in First AC.
Air conditioned First class, AC First as the railways call it, is the highest class on Indian Railway trains. AC First coaches accommodate passengers in coupes and cabins. Coupes have two berths (one lower and one upper), while the Cabins have 4 berths. Each of these coupes or cabins have sliding doors which open into a common corridor. The doors could be locked to give complete privacy to the occupants. The berths are wider (as wide as a single cot) and more comfortable. The lower berths have great backrests which resemble sofas. Proper ladders are provided to get on to upper berths as well. A coach carries around 20 or so passengers, about the half as an AC 2-tier coach. The coach has a dedicated coach attendant who helps passengers with setting their berth and even assist with baggage! Older ICF built AC First coaches had showers as well. Each coupe or cabin even had its own wash basins.
Coming back to the journey, I was at the peak of excitement from the time the ticket was booked. The train (Udyan Express) was to depart from Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CSTM) at 0805hrs - and we were staying about 90 minutes away from the CSTM. Early morning starts are always demanding - getting public transport from the place we were staying in was not easy. After getting to the nearest railway station, we took an EMU to Mumbai CST - reaching over a hour before the departure of our train. My excitement had no bounds - I was so excited that I was at the door of the EMU as the train rolled in to Mumbai CST - because I badly wanted to see my train!
The first ride in an AC First was in an Integral Coach Factory built carriage - built in December 2019. I still remember the excitement I had as I got into the coach. It was a AC First-cum-Second coach - it had 10 berths in AC First, and 20 berths in AC 2-Tier. There was a door dividing the 1A portion and the 2A portion - the door was mostly kept open during the journey, except at night, when it was locked. The coach attendant was available to help passengers with their baggage - the guy was polite and friendly as well. We got our berth in B-Cabin. With tickets in 1A, the ticket never mentions the berth number at the time of booking. It just says "CNF" (Confirmed). Berths are manually allotted during charting - they ensure that a single lady doesn't get allotted a cabin with strangers, and families are kept together as well.
I distinctly remember the maroon coloured fabric seat covers used on those wide, luxurious berths that more resembled a sofa, than a railway berth. It was really comfortable to sit, and even more comfortable to sleep on. There was a small wash basin inside - which was camouflaged as a side table. The bed roll was slightly better in 1A than 2A - it had two bed spreads, a hand towel and a fresh smelling blanket. The pillow was definitely better than the other AC coaches - wider and thicker as well. The berth is wider - as wide as normal single cot one sees at home. The attendant helps with setting the berth as well.
Udyan express, in those days, used to carry slip coaches from Solapur to Bengaluru, and hence did not have a pantry car. The biggest challenge those days was getting food during the journey. The attendant doesn't permit all the vendors to get into 1A - only the authorised ones are permitted in. Meals from base kitchens on the way were served - the meal was the same at the ones served in other coaches. On the contrary, I had a contrasting experience during my second journey in AC First - that was on Karnataka Sampark Kranti Express from Pune to Bengaluru. The food served was different than in other coaches - as confirmed by my co-passengers on that day.
What is special about 1A in Indian Railways?
It more comfortable and spacious. It gives you privacy, security and unparalleled experience!
Does the cost justify the experience?
Absolutely! Especially if you are traveling with family. It gives you private space, and gives you peace of mind when traveling with young ones!
Read the original Travelogue of this Udyan Express 1A journey here. Unfortunately the photo links don't work anywhere. I am really sorry that I do not have images of my 1A ride - I am still searching if I can retrieve the pictures taken 14 years ago. I am looking forward to my next experience in AC First to bring you pictures and a virtual feel of how it is to travel in 1A.