Ever wondered why tickets on popular trains appear to be sold out within minutes of booking opening on IRCTC, the Railway’s online booking platform, or even at the reservation counters?
Millions of frustrated travellers have always suspected graft, and an unholy nexus of touts, agents, booking clerks and even mysterious systems operators in IRCTC.
The real reason is more surprising. The Railways’ army of booking clerks, who operate its over 10,000 counters, actually beat the computer hands down when it comes to the speed with which they can complete a booking.
And while corruption is certainly an issue, most of the agents who ‘guarantee’ a confirmed booking actually manage to pull off the ‘miracle’ by paying someone to queue up at the booking windows, ahead of the rest.
The IRCTC system, and the Centre for Rail Information System (CRIS)-designed system which lies at the back of it, may have the capacity to handle over 1 lakh users simultaneously — but can actually complete only 2,000 bookings a minute.
In contrast, an experienced booking clerk can complete a booking — from entering the passenger details to blocking the seats and issuing the tickets — in an astonishing 35 seconds flat. Multiply that by 10,000 and that is almost 20,000 bookings a minute, 10 times the online capacity.
That is why tickets in 300-and-odd popular trains get completely booked within the first five-ten minutes of counters (as well as online booking) opening.
Some of these tickets get sold out by the time the first e-ticket is booked successfully, said a source on condition of anonymity. This is true for both reservation booking, which opens 60 days in advance, and Tatkal booking, which opens at 10 a.m. one day in advance.
For any user trying to log into the system for online ticket booking at say, 8 or 10 a.m., it takes a minimum of three minutes to log in, select the train, check the status, fill in the passenger name and complete a bank transaction to book a ticket.
It is only after the money is credited to CRIS that a seat is reserved.
In contrast, the booking clerk at the counter has direct access to the CRIS server and takes a fraction of the time. Of course, this is subject to the operator’s efficiency.
“For us, it’s almost like playing fastest fingers first in Kaun Banega Crorepati,” remarked a clerk at one of the booking counters.
However, this has not deterred a growing number of people from avoiding physical queues and booking tickets online.
In 2012-13, about 45 per cent of the total reserved train tickets and 62 per cent of Tatkal tickets were booked online. But the tickets show data for all the trains and also include waitlisted tickets booked during the day.
At 10 a.m. , when Tatkal bookings open, IRCTC’s e-ticketing Web site gets hit by 10 lakh Internet connections, which is 10 times the Web site’s capacity to handle about 1.2 lakh parallel connections on Web servers.
Moreover, the ticket booking capacity is further lower at 2,000 a minute.
The Railway Minister has announced that this capacity will be enhanced by about three-and-a-half times.
This will improve the experience, hopefully, but customers are still unlikely to get a reservation on sought-after trains — unless they queue up!
(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 1, 2013