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The State Of Railway e-Ticketing In India (mindprince.blogspot.com)
70 points by mindprince on Nov 1, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

The whole point of having such a weird system is to make it "difficult" for you to book a ticket. Think about the "common man" standing in a queue for 4-8 hrs trying to book that ticket when you could ideally book using your coolest newest gadget in seconds. Now that would cause a riot at the railway station booth. In Indian you never have enough resources available for the 1.3 billion people. So everything is rationed, including the online train tickets. It's like the IIT's or IIM's conducting the world's toughest entrance examinations only to select a statistically insignificant 1% of the applicants. Great Indian politics demands badly run government services. Private services are still banned in a number of areas including private universities, public transportation, power, Aeronautics ....

I doubt the "weirdness" of system is to bring "tech savvy" in par with "common man". If that were the intention why provide the feature of online booking at all ?

It is not entirely true that online booking benefits the tech savvy/elite. Before the advent of the online booking one has to go to the railway station (as they were the only places where you can reserve a ticket) stand in a long queue and make reservation. With online booking now there are many authorized railway travel agents at many parts of the city to whom one can go (if one is not tech "savvy") and they will do the booking charging a small fee.

Actually much of the sectors that you have mentioned have been deregulated:

1. Private Universities: No. But there are tons of private institutes under universities.

2. Public Transport: Trains no. Buses - in most parts of the country (eg. Madhya Pradesh)

3. Power: Tata Power, Reliance etc. Coal mining is the part that has not been privatized, AFAIR.

4. Aeronautics: No, but airtravel yes. Secondly, the aeronautics industry and research in India is still at a very nascent stage - so I am not sure if it really hurts the economy/society.

Privatization is not deregulation.


No rant on the Indian Railway system is complete without mentioning the disaster that is the 'Thatkal' quota booking at 8 in the morning.

Years ago when I was one of the few people among friends and family that had good internet and a credit card, I used to book a lot of tickets for others. Out of frustration, I wrote a simple python script that automated the process of booking tickets at 8 in the morning.

It would log you in, fill in the passenger details, payment mode etc.. and boot you into a browser for the final bank transaction screen. It was fast because it wouldn't actually wait to download the html screens before submitting the data. It would scrape the main page's date and sync itself with it to submit the booking exactly at 8am. I was able to finish a booking in less than 30sec.

After spending a few days prodding their system to make this hack work, I learned just what a mess their backend was.

They have a form variable called 'clickCount' which they increment and pass around on every page. This is how they 'detect' that you clicked a link twice and helpfully log you out.

Their validation and actual processing of passenger genders is case-insensitive - they accept either 'M' or 'm'. However the final ticket printout you get will show all passengers as female unless the gender you sent in was in upper case (curiously though the actual official print out pasted on the train when travelling contains correct genders - I have no idea why).

I presume many people had similar scripts to what I had and so eventually in an attempt to circumvent it, they introduced captchas. Turns out the captchas didn't actually work.

I know this because my script continued to work for a long time and only a few months after they introduced captchas (when I visited the website the normal way to make a booking) did I even know they introduced it. I can only presume that if you didn't actually submit the 'captcha' form variable then they didn't bother to validate it. So the irony was that the people booking tickets the normal way suffered while the rest of us working around the system were rewarded.

Finally they realized this at some point and threw in the towel and just banned quick booking altogether from 8-9 because they couldn't figure out any other way to actually solve this problem. So yeah, I'm probably part of the reason that happened (though by no means the only one who did this type of hackery,I'm sure).

I believe the captcha was introduced because travel agents were using VB based software to automatically book tickets at 8 am using IRCTC.

For the life of me I don't get why IRCTC doesn't use some good load balancing and improve performance of their mainframe.

For one, they are not IT majors in webspace, they are a travel firm. For a company like Indian railways, they have more important things to do like the safety of trains and ensure better travel experience than just concentrate on making the online user experience better.

FYI the website is not developed and maintained by Indian Railways. It's outsourced to an IT services provider. As far as I recall, TCS, which is an IT Major, currently has the contract. All the Indian Railways needs to do is have a couple of competent people, who can supervise the project to ensure quality.

I don't know if TCS still have contract but this company is http://www.broadvision.com/en/customers_aeroxchange.php part of it. When I tried to get PNR status, I once got this error,

javax.servlet.jsp.JspException: No bean found for attribute key historyDetails and rest of the stack trace. From stacktrace, they are using struts and broadvision's some customized servlet container, most likely tomcat.

Whoa, what? Which website? Everything in indianrail.gov.in and indianrailways.gov.in is developed by CRIS. The ticket booking in irctc.co.in is developed with IRCTC itself on top of a BroadVision product. IRCTC links with the PRS of CRIS.

TCS is not at all related to IRCTC online ticketing operations.

Whoa, the huge amount of misinformation in this item's comments is staggering.

Every day from 23:30 to 0:30 the server is down for maintenance. Seriously, every day? Their server needs maintenance every fucking day? Which technology are they using?

A mainframe that does batch processing at night.

They use OpenVMS on Alpha it seems. Look at this: http://h71000.www7.hp.com/openvms/brochures/indiarr/indiarr.... I don't think HP is winning any customers here.

Its not down for maintenance. Its to prevent the system from being taken advantage of by Internet users and put the rest, which is the vast majority at a disadvantage.

The IRCTC website was frequently cited as an example of "what not to do" during the training phase in my company.

Cleartrip on the other hand is a shining example of stuff done right. It's one of the friendliest websites I have ever used. Don't have an account? No problem. You can still go ahead and book a ticket, Cleartrip will drop a gentle reminder to set your password to create an account, after you have booked your ticket. Forgot your password? Again, no problem. Cleartrip will allow you to go ahead with the booking, and send the link to reset your password to your email.

Wait, ClearTrip is actually pretty pathetic in terms of the UI. Try MakeMyTrip - it is way better.

This might be just a personal preference, but I find Cleartrip's UI to be far superior to any of its competitors. Btw, I just remembered another good example of Cleartrip "getting it". I was trying to book a hotel. And due to messed up internet connection it didn't go through. I think I attempted to book the same hotel twice or thrice. This was after midnight. The very next morning I get a call from Cleartrip enquiring if I was facing any issues with their website, and offering to do the booking over the phone.

I like how @dcurtis approached a similar problem with his open letter containing a redesign of the horrific aa.com website:


I'm not sure how effective such an approach would be considering it's much harder to get Indian organizations (especially a Government one, oh boy) to respond to feedback of the people, but it's definitely worth a try.

As some of us know, Anna Hazare and his stellar campaign against corrupt politicians in India is an inspiration to get Governments to act.

It didn't even work that well on this side of the ocean - if I recall correctly when this redesign first hit the web HN ripped dcurtis a new one.

Without addressing the Indian trains issue at all, there's a common mistake designers make that particularly annoys me - which is that "clean looking" is often conflated with "usable". As much as we hate to accept it, there is a lot of data out there that indicate many extremely busy looking, messy looking websites out there work very, very well.

I survived backpacking in India using http://www.cleartrip.com/trains for all train reservations.

Seconded. There are multiple third party apps/sites which provides almost all these functionalities. But my only gripe is that there is no public api im aware of. You need to put in a request for aceess to train schedules/routes and other details and i assume you need to pay for that. Or the only option left is scrapping their site which is against TOS and illegal.

Oh boy that reminds me of all my similar experience with IRCTC. If I need to book a ticket for a busy weekend, I get my friends at various other locations to try and book the same. We all stay on conference call and when one person books it, others stop trying. Usually tickets open for booking at 8:00 am and the server is literally dead for the next 1 hour.

Well, let's just hope that they don't do it like they did in Finland. Good luck! 1. http://www.helsinkitimes.fi/htimes/domestic-news/general/167... 2. http://www.trainorders.com/discussion/read.php?17,2578324

I just spent 6 months in India, which included a 12,000km circumnavigation of the country by rail. A team of 20 of us, half rail enthusiasts, half travellers and entrepreneurs, spent 2 weeks on Indian trains venturing to the country's most Western, Northern, Eastern and Southern points (in that order). We travelled a little in unreserved and Sleeper class, but mostly 3AC and 2AC. It was by far my favourite travel experience ever (after travelling extensively across 6 continents).

The Indian rail and ticketing systems are chaos personified. As a traveller post-India, I love the adventure of just trying to buy a ticket from a station. (Quick tip: stand wide, shoulders broad, with ticket form in hand blocking access to the hole in the ticketing window so others can't push through.) But, thinking back as an Indian-rail newbie, my goodness!

As an entrepreneur on a trip like this (full of industry experts), I couldn't help but see business opportunities. When I say experts, I mean guys that can recite the Indian rail timetable (approx. the size of the Yellow Pages) without missing a beat. They're also the guys that dominate the popular India rail forum called IndiaMike.com. The depth of their knowledge was staggering. When someone like me meets people like them, we can't help but plot and conspire.

From a business perspective, the problem with building an Indian Rail startup was getting access to the rail information. We had grand plans and certainly the expertise, but then came the stories of bureaucracy. Forget publicly accessible APIs, the IRCTC would apparently only give access through bribes. A couple of people I spoke with talked of requests for US$40k. (Dinner and expensive champagne is one thing, but $40k is on another planet.)

So why compete with Cleartrip, et al? Well, they're just not intuitive or efficient. They're actually a pain in the ass. We envisaged something like Hipmunk for Indian train travel. But rather than being satisfied with just better design, we saw an opportunity to bring Indian rail travel to the average foreign traveller. Of course, the last thing the Indian rail system needs is more passengers, but it felt such a shame that most people would never experience India the way we did.

In the end there were just too many hurdles. For starters, you can't book foreign tourist allocated seats over the internet (despite bribes and access to APIs). You can't even book them at most stations. Then there are issues with IndRail passes and availability. You can book tickets 90 days out, but the volume of ticket sales in India is mind-blowing. If someone wants to travel cross-country next month, sometimes they'll buy 5 different days and just cancel the 4 extra as they get closer to the day. The cancellation fee is so low that it makes sense. So in a country with 1.1 billion people, imagine people booking multiple tickets to provide flexibility. This is why there's such an insane last minute frenzy.

I still think there's an opportunity here, but the data needs to be made accessible. In my opinion, this kind of openness requires structural and cultural change in government. I hate to say it, but don't hold your breath.

All of that said, I highly recommend travel by Indian rail to anyone. We were a mixed group of Brits, Americans, Canadians, Australians, etc and were treated more warmly than anywhere on the planet. Of course there were a couple of "incidents" (e.g. breast groping), but hanging out the door a speeding Indian locomotive in the middle of nowhere is something everyone should experience.

If you're a foreigner wanting to book Indian train tickets with minimum fuss, I've written a detailed guide here: http://globetrooper.com/notes/plan-book-train-trip-india/

Clearly the solution is to offshore the job to the US.

The reason is; people who can influence a change (bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen etc) use intermediaries (agents) to get things done. They never experience the pain of the "common" people. All government services are like this.

It is so funny, that I've been unlucky with 90% of my cleartrip train ticket bookings. No I did not mean, failure to book. But it is that, I end up cancelling those tickets! LOL.

IMO, IRCTC UI with its "just-ok"user experience, has almost all the options readily available. Whereas, Cleartrip does not. Cleartrip tries to keep things simple here, but I guess it does not work good for certain areas like Cancelling the ticket, or filing for TDR etc. Often it takes extra clicks to refine my train searches.

It's the same experience most of the indian railway travelers have faced (including me) and so i have put my 2 cent by creating this website which helps travelers to track their ticket status on mobile/email. site: http://www.railpnrstatus.com

I think as a HN reader you should also think in those line and give ur 2 cents by improving the system.

This is the state of the English language edition, forget about the it in local language with translator's laziness there actually no word of the local language used instead the English is just transliterated in the local script. It might be possible to learn English the same day and read it rather than trying to read in the local language.

Not sure why you are downvoted here. This is a valid point and it is true that much of the web content/computer generated content that is available in local language is obtained using transliteration. Also much worse is that many of the English words are written in local language as is, where as the actual need is to translate that word to local language and use it.

I think Transport For London used to be more protective of its data, but ironically budget cuts meant govt departments like TFL realised they can get much better leverage by opening up to third-party apps. The creative power of constraints.

I believe it is interesting and relevant but I'd be more sympathetic to the author if he hadn't disabled the ability to go back to HN after I read it. WTF?

Why cant they hire ONE decent programmer who can come up with a good design !!

Son, It aint easy to scale up a system like that. "ONE" programmer within a small timescale can never achieve something as scalable as that all by "himself". I have been using IRCTC since its inception and I see it the user experience is constantly evolving. Let the product evolve.

Well.. True that ONE programmer cant scale. But we are not talking here just about scaling. The way the current site works, I doubt if any one with a decent programming experience is working on it. The current site is clearly not user friendly. Takes huge efforts to book a simple ticket and if you havent experienced being logged out constantly now and then, just cos you did some thing wrong, I refuse to believe anyone sane is working on the other side of the website !

sounds like you could hack around much of that with a firefox / chrome extension.

The more interesting and useful thing about this rant is that companies have come in and done something about this problem and started making money doing so. Historically you could avoid the lines at Indian railways by using offline travel agents who charged their commission. A few venture-backed* companies have brought that model into the 21st century - IRCTC sucks, so they put a pretty interface on it that doesn't suck and charge 10-20 rupees (25-50 US cents!) extra per booking:

http://www.cleartrip.com/trains, http://www.makemytrip.com/railways, http://www.yatra.com/trains.html

Solve a problem like the Indian Government (IRCTC is a government undertaking) like this and you'll have lots of takers for 10-20 rupees. They offer a better user interface, saved payment details, a consolidated place for air & rail bookings and better customer support.

*Cleartrip is funded by Kleiner Perkins, Ram Sriram, and Concur. MakeMyTrip by several top asian funds, and Yatra by Norwest Venture Partners and Intel Capital

You seem to imply that IRCTC had no role in the train ticket booking done by Cleartrip and others; that it was completely initiated and done by the private companies.

It isn't that "companies have come in and done something about this"; it was IRCTC who first published an API that enabled these companies to book tickets. Without the API, Cleartrip and others wouldn't have been able to book tickets.

The other point about a better user interface, well they just don't have a better UI. At least Cleartrip requires more info in the first step than IRCTC. The PNR status functionality in Cleartrip doesn't work most of the time. Filing TDR (a claim for refund) for tickets booked is much more complex in Cleartrip than in IRCTC.

The only problem with IRCTC right now is that it can't cope with the rush at 8 am tatkal and opening day bookings.

The funny thing is that another booking site was made (by the in-house CRIS) and that didn't work for more than a month.

But the dumb government has stopped them from providing full fledged service. These other sites cannot book "tatkal tickets" from 8:00 - 9:00 AM, after which there would be no useful tickets anyway. The least Indian Railways can do is to fully deregulate. So, right now IRCTC is monopoly and that explains why it is like it is.

8-9 Tatkal booking is not allowed in irctc also.

Its not allowed only for Agents, as there have been past incidents when mass booking is done by agents and normal customers don't get any tickets.

No it is. I just spent 1/2 hr logging in.Then the site crashed. Go figure...

... and it may interest some that Cleartrip has lispers in it.

Frankly, I am shocked to see why this story is trending on HN. A college student ranting about the biggest railways booking system ? really ?

Why the hate? Its an interesting read. Thinking about and discussing awful systems like this can help in figuribg out how to better make non-awful systems.

And why exactly is it relavant that he is a college student?

Awful system ? yes, but a massively scaled. think about the scale of the system. One single backend is serving kiosks at thousands of railway stations, lakhs of booking counters and several agent terminals. True that there are downtimes and slowness - but consider this system as a classic usecase and study of how massive a system can be. The student who wrote this rant just talks about the downsides and how bad the whole system is. I would appreciate a few ideas on how he in his great might would do to fix this massive system. Are there any constructive ideas in this article ? do we learn from this article ? It is very easy to rant about everything...if you don't like my views and downvote my comment, you are free to do so.

Awful is still awful :) And from that description it is a truly awful system. And saying "if your so great why don't you fix it yourself" is a really stupid response to criticism. Why be so defensive about a bad system, YOU didn't write it, right?

Well, its beneath me to respond to an ignorant and snide remark. I think the level of language on HN has gone down a lot

Oh come on, your originally comment was a nasty little dig at someone for writing up their experiences and a suggestion that they don't count because they're "just a college student". You made that comment from a new account so you either are new here (in which case, what's with the complaining about the discussion going down hill?) or you where not prepared to stand behind your comment so used a throw-away account.

I have no idea why you consider the Indian internet rail booking system a subject above criticism, it just seems bizarre.

This post imho is attracting way too much attention than it actually deserves. Well IRCTC is the least of the worries about Indian Railways. Well, the technology they seem to be using is not the best around, but considering their financial and time limitations, they are trying to put out the best they can.

Best service certainly comes at a greater cost(yes, monetarily) which the govt is in no luxury to afford and IMHO, they certainly are trying to put out the best they can. (Just look at the figures the internet majors spend on scaling up and you'd understand.)

Convenience charges : You sir have to realize that because of IRCTC you need not waste fuel, stand in huge queues etc. and thus you have to appreciate that part and pay up the nominal amount. I think they should charge the convenience charges at least for the next few years, may be because the employees still have to be paid and can not be asked to quit their jobs even if you do not go to the reservation counter.

I do accept that Indian Railways being a govt. organization as expected is corrupt and is not efficient etc, but well its not all that bad.

This post is attracting way too much attention just for the simple reason that so many people are pissed off at the service. I refuse to believe that lack of money is the cause for all this. For all that we know, more than half of funds are being eaten by politicians.

why are blaming "Politicians" for bad UI ...

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