India’s Rail Booking Whiz Kids

While the world’s travel portals have grown enormously over the past decade, an Indian one has been very successful for railway passengers to book tickets online. IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) with an unwieldy URL – has gone on to become a major success. This year, it will have revenues of over $ 2 billion. That’s over Rs.10,000 crores of business transacted. According to Alexa statistics, it is ranked 21st in India and 424 worldwide. I guess a lot of Indians abroad are booking their tickets for rail travel in India online as well.

Log in to the site and it isn’t high on gloss, but extremely functional. Having booked tickets for years on it, I have seen the improvements and modifications. Every single bit of information required for booking – the number of tickets available for the next week or month, the cost, the route, etc., are all on a single screen compared to the time you had to click through and come back each time. I’m not sure that people unfamiliar with India and its cities will be able to find their way through the system, but Indians do not have a problem since the number of tickets being booked every day is close to 300,000. That’s 3.6 million tickets every month. And IRCTC has an appeal on its home page asking passengers not to print out their tickets but to simply show the ticket checker the text message or the email as a confirmation – along with your photographic proof of identity, of course! The bureaucracy is hard to escape in India

It’s just as difficult to escape the hackers. IRCTC has a number of travel agents who have special online access and the system was compromised by them for the Tatkal (or the emergency travel) quota, where tickets could be booked 48 hours in advance. The booking would open at 8 a.m. and just about 5 minutes later, not a single seat would be available for anyone. All gone. So, the system has been completely revamped with access now restricted to passengers and agents at the offline booking counters, with not more than 4 tickets per person, even with proof of identity. Sadly, it means that travelers who have the least time will have to brave the queues and scramble to be the first in line when the counters open for any chance of getting a ticket.

But the employees who built and maintain this system do not have cover stories devoted to them in glossy technology magazines. They put together one of the most efficient systems on the planet in terms of database efficiency, adaptability and scale and their labour are barely acknowledged, let alone celebrated. When a top official Mr. Sanjay Agarwal, was asked about their recruitment policies at a conference and how they managed to retain their people, he said that a large portion came from India’s least known engineering colleges. The students were not articulate or polished and simply grateful to have a steady job after graduation. The majority earns around Rs 25,000 per month and they know they can earn a lot more outside – but they stay because they love the challenges and the problems the job brings.