A complete guide to train travel in Pakistan. Includes all the information you could possibly need to make your journey as pleasant as possible.
Pakistan is vast. Luckily, for travelers and locals alike, it invested heavily in infrastructure, making traveling around relatively straightforward. Buses zip between major towns and cities, and there’s always some form of local transport to be found. In the northern part of the country, Jeeps and minibuses (“coasters”) reign supreme. But if you’re traveling in the center or south, and especially if you’re traveling long distance, nothing beats using a good ol’ train.
Pakistan’s rail network stems from the British colonial days, and nothing much has changed since then. The old trains have been rattling since the English assigned them to the rails, and the bricks of the fortress-like stations still stand strong. Train tracks throughout the country lie deserted, awaiting Chinese investment to revamp them.
However, Pakistan’s rail network is still extensive, and traveling by rails is by some considered a quintessential South Asian experience. Unfortunately, traveling by train can be a bit confusing: there are different classes, different types of names, erratic ticket offices and timings, dozens of stations, you name it.
But travelers can now rejoice! We’ve created this guide to train travel in Pakistan just for you, so you won’t have to go through all the trouble we had to go through when we first arrived in Pakistan.
Lost With Purpose’s guide to train travel in Pakistan
- Finding the right train
- Types of trains
- Train classes
- Buying a ticket
- Female safety
- Train travel tips
- Packing list
Finding the right train
First things first: if you want to travel by train, you need to find the right train for your journey.
To do this, go to the website of Pakistan Railways. Here, you’ll be able to find your train under the “plan your journey” section of the page. Although getting to the information you want is a bit roundabout, the process of navigating the website is rather self-explanatory.
This route map gives a good indication of all the railway lines in Pakistan:
Types of trains
There are several types of trains. From the comfortable Green Line train between Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, to the historic—but less than comfortable—Bolan Mail between Karachi and Quetta. On some routes there is only one train, on some routes there are several.
Some trains stop at almost all train stations along the way, and some at only a few. Unfortunately, the names of the trains aren’t always indicative of how long a train journey will take. For instance, the Awam Express between Lahore and Karachi takes more than a day, while the Business Express on the same line takes roughly 17 hours. Clearly the meaning of “express” is fluid in Pakistan.
Luckily the Pakistan Railways website indicates how long each train journey should take, and you can make your choice depending on that metric. As a rule of thumb, the slower the train, the cheaper (and often less comfortable) it is.
Train class types
Pakistan Railways offers seven different classes on its trains. Not all trains will have all seven; most will have two or three classes available on a train.
The classes are divided as follows:
- ACSL – AC Sleeper
- PC – AC Parlour Car
- ACLZ – AC Business
- ACL – AC Standard
- ISL – First Class Sleeper
- EC – Economy Class
- SEC – Second Class
Unfortunately, for the novice train traveler, these classes don’t make much sense. We’ll try to explain the different classes below to make things more clear, and your choice more informed.
ACSL – AC Sleeper
The highest and most expensive class. AC Sleeper class gives you a private compartment to be shared with one or three other travelers. The compartment will contain two to four long bunks that can be used as both bench and bed. Bring a blanket, as it might get cold.
PC – AC Parlour Car
Comfortable AC chair class, reminiscent of European commuter trains. Not recommended for long journeys, as the seats don’t really recline.
ACLZ – AC Business
Similar to the luxurious AC sleeper class, but shared with more people. Each closed compartment houses six travelers in total.
ACL – AC Standard
Sometimes known as “AC Lower”, this class depends on the train. On short rides, this class can be compared to riding on a bus with AC. On longer rides, this class will have bunk berths for sleeping.
ISL – First Class Sleeper
Standard sleeper type compartment with an open berth style coach. Meaning, arrangements of open compartments with 6 bunk beds, and upper and lower bunks running along the path through the train car. No AC.
EC – Economy Class
Similar to First Class Sleeper, but the seats to the side are only for sitting, not sleeping.
SEC – Second Class
Standard train seating arrangements. Don’t be surprised if you spot people sitting and sleeping on the floor.
How to buy a train ticket in Pakistan
Now that you have a solid idea of the train and class you want to take, it’s time to buy a ticket. Although it’s theoretically possible to buy tickets online, foreigners will usually buy a train ticket at the train station, ticket office, or with a travel agent.
In smaller towns and cities, you can usually only buy tickets at the train station. In bigger cities, there are also ticket offices. Make sure to bring some patience, as ticket offices can get busy. Note that there are separate lines for women… as we learned when Alex jumped to the front of the men’s line to join me one day, and a heated shouting match ensued.
Buying tickets online
To buy tickets you have to set up an account, for which you need a CNIC (Pakistan ID document number). Using your own passport number doesn’t work—you need a local friend to provide one for you. Tickets can only be paid for with a Pakistani debit or credit card.
If you buy a ticket online, make sure to get a copy of the ID card of the person whose CNIC number you used (unless you travel with that person, of course!). Conductors will likely ask for a copy to cross-reference their data with the CNIC number of the person who booked the ticket.
When we booked tickets online for our last journey, know that it took four or five tries before the booking went through. It’s also not possible to invoke a foreigner discount when booking online.
Protip: It’s possible to get a 25% – 50% discount as a foreigner when buying a train ticket. Check this article on how to get a discount on train tickets as a foreigner.
Female safety on trains in Pakistan
Alex: Unfortunately, female safety is always a concern when traveling through Pakistan (or anywhere, really).
Lecherous men copping a feel should generally be the extent of your concerns in the train. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the risk of something happening:
When booking a train ticket, opt for the middle bunk if riding in the open-plan cars. On Indian trains, I always went for the top bunk, as there are dividers between each section. However, I recently had an unpleasant encounter on the top bunk of our last train journey, where there was no divider. Next time, I’m going for the middle bunk—it’s more secluded and safe.
Be wary of closed compartment cars (higher class) if traveling alone. They might seem safer from prying eyes than the open seating plans, but if you get stuck in a compartment with only men as travel companions, things could get uncomfortable.
Buddy up with women and families around you. They’ll often feel protective around you and take care of you, and men are much less likely to do something when women or a family is watching.
If something happens, call a conductor or police officer. You’ll see them wandering around the trains, and they can take care of the situation if anything unpleasant occurs.
Tips on train travel in Pakistan
Boarding the train
Some trains have information written in English, but many trains only have information written in Urdu on them. If you’re unsure about which train to get on, just ask. A station employee, security person, or friendly local will help you get on the right train.
At major stations, trains will stop for an extended period of time (anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour), so no rush if you want to get out, stretch your legs, and hunt for pakora on the platform. At minor stations, however, the train will only stop for a few minutes, enough time to unload old passengers and bring on the new.
Electricity and charging in the train
Starting at AC Standard class, there will be power plugs available (for round, two pronged plugs). However, there are usually only a few in each coach, and electricity does go out at times. Load shedding in the train, perhaps?
Of course, this depends on the train—nothing is consistent in Pakistan. For long journeys, make sure to bring a power bank. Even if you don’t use it, someone else surely will.
Food & drinks on the train
Although there are juice, chai, and food wallahs walking up and down the lengths of the trains, most people bring their own supplies. Don’t be surprised to see porters carrying in bags, buckets, or boxes stuffed with food for families!
The food cooked on the train is notoriously bad and dirty, and it can take ages between stations where you’ll stop long enough to buy some food. Packing some snacks for the ride is a good idea, as well as being cheaper (and probably cleaner) than buying food en route.
Note: Good luck finding trash bins on the train or at the stations. Though people generally use the great outdoors as one giant trash heap, it’s good to resist the urge. Bring along a plastic shopping bag, collect any plastic or paper waste you generate en route, and dispose of it properly once you reach your destination.
Toilets on the train
As you would expect, toilets aren’t in the best of conditions, and they get progressively worse as the journey continues. Make sure to bring some anti-diarrhea medicine in case you ate some bad food the day before your journey, and some hand sanitizer for after you emerge from the toilets. We’ve gotten sick several times from not washing our hands before eating while on the train.
Safety on the train
Use common sense when on the trains: don’t leave valuables unattended, be wary of other passengers, watch your bags, etc. We recommend putting a bag with your valuables at the end of your bunk or seat, and using it as a pillow while you sleep.
Also, though most people have good intentions and will take care of you, people keep warning us about this particular point, so it’s worth a mention:
It’s happened before that people drug food, then offer it to other passengers so they can take advantage of them later on. Though this is more commonplace in touristic destinations in India, rather than Pakistan, it doesn’t hurt to stay vigilant. Use common sense and your traveler’s intuition when accepting food and drinks from other passengers; if someone is looking shifty or uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to reject their offer.
Keeping your train ticket
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you’ll be asked to present your train ticket upon leaving the train station. You can feign foreigner ignorance, but in 2016 we had some trouble getting out of the Bahawalpur train station because we couldn’t find our tickets. In the end, we just gave the guy a piece of paper saying that it was the folded ticket, and walked away before he could say anything else. But it’s better to just keep your ticket.
Pakistan train travel packing list
In case you’re the list-type (we’re gradually realizing we need to embrace the list, or risk forgetting… well, everything), here’s a quick packing list to ensure your train journey goes as smoothly as possible.
- Hand sanitizer for the toilets
- Plastic bag for trash
- Snacks and water
- Power bank for charging if/when power is out
- Lightweight blanket or sleeping bag for overnight journeys. It can get cold!
- Your train ticket, of course!
Safe travels, and enjoy your train adventures!
Want more practical Pakistan travel tips? Don’t miss our Pakistan travel guide!
Yay transparency! There are some affiliate links in this post. If you buy something using our links, we’ll make a bit of change at no extra cost to you. All profits will likely go towards ice creams on our next sweltering train ride.