By -Harish Kunwar : Indian Railway is constantly looking for new ideas to simplify and streamline procedures for the convenience of passengers. In this endeavor, several path breaking technologies have been introduced in the Railways system over the years. These technical innovations have included the computerization of passenger tickets amongst several other facilities for passengers.
Every day a million passengers buy tickets to carry out a reserved journey by train. A reserved journey as we all know assures the passenger of a seat or berth on the train. The Passenger Reservation System or the PRS as it is commonly known has been a major boon to the elite million-member club of reserved passengers. Lately with the addition of internet ticketing, e-ticketing and mobile ticketing the prospect of procuring a ticket without ever standing in a queue is becoming a reality. Consumer expectations of course keeps rising and now the defining element of the service is how quickly and conveniently a ticket can be procured. However, there are many many journeys that are undertaken on the Indian Railways without a reserved seat or berth. The number of such passenger journeys is in the range of sixteen million per day. For these journeys the Railways issues what are called unreserved tickets.
A similar effort to the PRS has been made to reach out to these sixteen million passengers, who travel on unreserved tickets. This is the Unreserved Ticketing System (UTS) an initiative that began six years ago. The effort to provide wider and universal access to information technology began in 2002 as a pilot project. In less than six years, UTS today facilitates a daily sale of 4 million tickets though its 3700 plus points of sale, spread over nearly 1300 locations. It has replaced the old printed card tickets, the paper tickets and an earlier generation of machine generated tickets (called SPTMs). The first question that most would ask is how this is significant and why is its success important. Is it not merely a standard progression of IT benefits? Here Indian Railways provide some details that highlight the achievements and underline its importance in the endeavor towards efficient public delivery systems.
The first and foremost element of the system that needs to be appreciated is the large clientele that it supports. There are few public delivery systems that could compete with this in terms of size. Already 10 of the 16 million passengers have been covered under the UTS umbrella. In the next couple of years the remaining 6 million and the incremental growth in traffic will be beneficiaries of this system. The IT system had to be capable of handling such a large volume of transactions on a daily basis. Again one might cite a number of examples where the transactions volumes are high. But this is where the story gets even more interesting. All these transactions take place at different locations spread across the entire country. And add to that the complexity of keeping the system up and running 24 hours of the day, 365 days of the year. The UTS is akin to a broadcasting news channel but with a key difference – there are absolutely no repeats and every transaction is breaking news. Imagine sixteen million stories being filed in daily!
It is this aspect of large volumes and wide geographical spread that needs to be highlighted. The fact that most of the passengers belong to lower income groups is what makes this a commendable achievement. One of the key elements is that it allows for continued service even if there is temporary power break down or loss in connectivity.
The second major value addition is in the area of administrative efficiency. The advent of UTS has meant a reliable delivery system. The earlier system of printed card tickets was fraught with the problem of tickets being out of stock. Every station had to keep a stock of tickets for likely destinations pre-printed and in sufficient number. This meant assessing the demand based on past patterns, indenting in time to the Printing Press and keeping track of all the tickets in the inventory. When we think of these procedures in the context of the number of tickets being issued one can easily imagine the variety of problems that could occur. Today at locations where UTS has commissioned, tickets can never be out of stock and the inventory problem has been eliminated. Dispensing printed card tickets took time as the counter clerk pulled out one ticket from the ticket tube and punched it through the dating machine and delivered it to the passenger. Today queues have become much shorter and dissipate quickly with tickets being issued in less than 20 seconds. Four passengers can be accommodated on a single ticket whereas earlier every passenger had to have a card ticket. The counters used to be organized by direction of traffic with each counter dispensing tickets for limited destinations. Today with UTS every counter can cater to any destination. The earlier system gave unscrupulous elements the opportunity to dupe the passenger by overcharging or issuing a wrong ticket. The computerized system has cleansed the process and provided greater transparency. The electronic display of fare and journey details at the counter provides much comfort to the passenger. The passenger walks away confident that he has the right ticket and he has paid the right amount for it. Even the last minute traveler can no longer give the excuse of a long queue at the ticket counter for not buying a ticket. At the end of each shift the staff would close the counters to account for every paisa earned thus inconveniencing the passengers. Now it is a smooth transition of a few minutes comprising of a sign off and sign on the system. The procedures for accounting of the printed card tickets and the money collected from the issue of blank paper tickets was always a major issue. There were rigourous inspectorial checks required to prevent fraud. Today accounting has become a non-issue – merely a database that rests safely on the server. The system also has special security features to prevent fraudulent printing of tickets. What is probably most redeeming for Indian Railways is that all the enabling software has been developed indigenously by Centre for Railway Information Centre (CRIS), a public sector undertaking under the Ministry of Railways, through its in-house resources. The effort throughout the developmental process has been to create software so friendly that training requirements were minimal and in consonance with the available skill sets.
The third important feature is how the organization as a whole has benefited from this system, the spurt in traffic in recent years has been catered to with no addition to manpower. Personnel earlier engaged in back office activities have been redeployed to man the counters and cater to passengers. Three years ago UTS had been installed in 165 locations. Today the system can be accessed through 3700 points of sale at 1300 locations. The process is well on its way to capture the entire network and printed card tickets will soon be a collector item.
In the next couple of years it is envisaged that all stations would sell tickets using UTS. That would include small and remote stations like Ghutku or Katora in the heartland of India. In terms of physical coverage, it is planned to expand the number of locations to 6275 with 21000 points of sale. The expansion is not only geographical. Technological innovations are also on the anvil. Automatic Ticket Vending Machines (ATVMs) an offshoot of the UTS were introduced in October 2007 at Mumbai. This is a prime example of extending IT benefits to the average daily commuter. It uses smart card technology to empower the passenger with the ability to transact. A friendly touch screen based user interface provides the commuters a quick way of defining their requirement and printing their own ticket. Here the challenge was to create a sturdy yet friendly system that would give confidence to users from low income groups who were sometimes technologically disadvantaged. The successful installation in Mumbai serves the customers in three languages English, Hindi and Marathi. In Chennai the service has begun with Tamil as the third language. It also provides visual aids to the less literate. With the success of the ATVMs, the Indian Railways and CRIS have shown how IT can reach out to every section of the society. All it needs is a strong commitment to the cause of taking technology to the lower strata and creativity in finding solutions that are unheard of in other protected environments.
Spurred by the confidence gained in automating ticket vending, Indian Railways and CRIS are now considering enabling the passenger to procure a ticket on their cell phones. CRIS is now evaluating various options to determine a service specially designed for urban commuters that is friendly, quick and effective in its reach and eliminates queuing. As the economy continues to grow we expect smaller towns and their surrounding areas to generate more passenger traffic – reserved and unreserved. In preparedness for this our current efforts are towards providing unified terminals that can serve PRS and UTS customers.
Innovative ticketing solutions for the unreserved passenger have come a long way in the last five years. For CRIS as service providers, the journey has just begun and the big ticket to the impending revolution is yet to come.