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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Tatkal Tickets in Trains

No, this blog is not about education. Trains are my other passion. If you are interested in trains, please check the website, www.irfca.org.

Early this week, I bought my first Tatkal ticket during UPA-2 regime. This post is to celebrate that event. (And it will become clear below, why I am referring to the government of the day.)

That buying Tatkal tickets is a nightmare is an understatement of this decade. Not only that, buying any ticket online during the first two hours of opening of Tatkal Quota at 08:00 AM is a nightmare. The response time of IRCTC servers is usually more than the idle time allowed by their software. As a result, you log in, you fill in the details, and you are logged out, and you keep doing this for a couple of hours, and then it tells you that all seats have been sold off.

On 2nd afternoon, I just thought I will check if there is a berth available on Shramshakti Express for the next day under Tatkal Quota. I was shocked to find that indeed it was available. I booked it. It was Side-upper berth in AC-2T, not my favorite place to spend the night, but beggars are not choosers.

Tatkal Quota was introduced to enable people who had to travel in an urgency and were willing to pay for an out-of-turn ticket. So these seats or berths would not be given to those who are wait-listed, but to those who are willing to pay more. It was supposed to be an experiment with dynamic pricing. The experiment was lapped up by the public who have always been willing to pay any amount for reserved accommodation in a train. It had to be a success. The costs were indeed quite high. Besides the Tatkal charges that had to be paid, one also had to pay the end-to-end charges irrespective of the distance travelled on that train. If the train was from Howrah to New Delhi, and you only went from Allahabad to Aligarh, you still paid from Howrah to New Delhi.

During the UPA-1, the Railway Minister considered this success and realized that letting people buy the ticket directly from Railways rather than through all kinds of corrupt means was a win-win situation for Railways (they get the additional revenue), for people (they get the ticket without worrying if it is valid of fake), and for the politician minister (since he could keep the basic fare same for 5 years, and more people were happy). He proposed additional steps towards migrating to a dynamic fare scheme. He announced that fares will depend on "peak season" versus off-peak season, that they will depend on popular trains versus not-so popular trains, that they will depend on convenient timing versus inconvenient timing, etc. So multiple fares for the same section in the same class (but fares would still be fixed by static criteria and only depend on historical data and not on dynamic demand of tickets).

As luck would have it, his party could not retain enough seats in Bihar during the 2009 general elections, while Trinamool Congress did exceptionally well in West Bengal, and as a result, the Railway Ministry was transferred to TC, and Mamata Di became the Minister.

This is when the problem of Tatkal tickets started to happen, and continue to happen, and I can't book any ticket (even a non-Tatkal ticket) every day morning from 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM.

She took a few decisions in the interest of Maa, Mati and Manush. She had a different vision for Indian Railways, and a different view about Tatkal tickets. She felt that this scheme was just a route to increase the ticket price (which is a reasonable way to look at the scheme, I would agree). But unlike the Yadav who looked at it as a politically correct way of increasing the price, Didi wanted more travellers to travel cheaply on railways - those who had urgency could fly. And, she ordered that the number of seats/berths under Tatkal Quota be reduced (except that she started Tatkal Quota in Executive Class, which was not there earlier). She also ordered that the Tatkal charges be reduced. Further, she ordered that the basic fare be charged only for the distance travelled and not the end-to-end journey on that train. She further decided that Tatkal tickets be sold only one day in advance, and not two days, as was being done earlier.

As a result of these decisions, two things happened. One, since the cost of the tickets had come down, the demand zoomed. If the cost of Tatkal ticket was high, then in an emergency situation, one could travel by bus instead of sleeper class, or on the other extreme, one could fly instead of travelling by AC-2T. But now the train option was clearly much more attractive (together with the fact that the fares have not been revised for almost a decade). Two, since the quota of Tatkal tickets was reduced, the probability of booking under this quota reduced. In case of most trains, the quota would be exhausted in the first two hours.

So, in the first two hours every day, a much larger number of potential passengers are trying to book a smaller number of tickets, and this has caused serious capacity problems on IRCTC servers.

Railways has tried many things to control the situation. They do not allow any IRCTC agent to book Tatkal tickets from 8 to 10 AM. For individuals, there is a restriction of buying only one ticket per day. So if you want connecting trains, you can forget about it. And only 4 names on a ticket (as opposed to 6 for a regular ticket). As anyone can guess, these are baby steps, as they will reduce the load on the server by a very small amount.

Railways also decided to open the reservation for general tickets 120 days in advance (as opposed to 90 days earlier). This meant that the opening day rush for the tickets at 8:00 AM would be greatly reduced, as it would be difficult to plan 120 days in advance. And since only Tatkal rush will be there at 8:00 AM, it could be managed.

That has not solved the problem, of course. Railways has not understood that the primary rush for tickets at that time is from Tatkal users only, and unless their demand is distributed over the 24-hour period, there will be no respite.

Now, Railways has come up with the idea that Tatkal Quota will open at 10:00 AM. This will happen from 10th July. I am convinced that this will only shift the load from 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM. Now, I will find it difficult to buy a ticket from 10 to 12.

Can anything be done at all? Railway Minister says, nothing much can be done since the basic problem is a gap between supply and demand. Only small tinkering can be done with the system to make sure that tickets are bought by genuine passengers and not by touts who will sell the tickets at a higher price.

I beg to disagree.

I think the Railways has not understood that the travelling public is facing two distinct problems. One is a simple lack of tickets, the supply and demand gap, as Minister has correctly articulated. But there is another problem, to which Railways are paying only very little attention (not that they are paying any attention to the first). The second problem is that for two hours a day (and sometimes more), getting ANY ticket is a pain for most potential customers of Indian Railways. And for solving this second problem, one needs to distribute the Tatkal load to a 24-hour period.

Let me first look at the first problem, the mismatch between demand and supply. Overall, there is a mismatch. But does there have to be a mismatch in each segment. Is it not possible to create a match between demand and supply just for Tatkal tickets. After all, this mismatch wasn't as serious just 3 years ago.

What is wrong if 80% of the tickets are sold on a first-come-first-served basis, but 20% of the tickets are sold to someone willing to pay a higher amount, may be the highest bidder. Do people travelling in AC classes need subsidies from the government. Would you really lose a lot of votes, if you ask the AC class travellers to pay a premium for an emergency ticket.

So, I think Railways should increase the number of seats under Tatkal scheme at least in the AC classes, to improve the supply side, and should increase the Tatkal charges, to reduce the demand, till a reasonable match is found. Ideally speaking, Railways must introduce a dynamic fare system on lines similar to airlines. This system may be introduced first for AC-1st. I am sure no vote bank will be affected by it. It can then be extended to Executive Class. Once more people are used to it, and Railways has learned how to configure it, it can then be extended to other AC classes, AC-2T, AC-3T, and AC Chair Car, in that order. May be it can first be introduced in Rajdhanis and Shatabdis, then in superfast trains, and then other mail and express trains. So do a slow transition, and do it for the class of passengers who will prefer confirmed reservations at higher fares than paying somewhat less but waiting for ever to get some wait-listed ticket to get confirmed. The Indian middle class has taken to flying in a big way, and has not complained about the dynamic fare system in the airline industry. I am sure they would not mind it on Indian Railways either.

But suppose the demand and supply for Tatkal (even in AC classes) cannot be touched, there are other things that Railways can do to at least solve the second problem of huge peak load on its reservation servers for 2+ hours in a day.

One possible solution is to have a lottery. Don't laugh it off. We already have a lottery. We only need to design a better lottery, which will cause distributed load on the system, rather than high peak load.

Currently, we keep trying and trying, and it is purely our luck that our request goes through at some point in time. This is nothing but a lottery.

A different lottery mechanism would be that everyone can book a ticket 2 days before the train departure time. At the time of booking, they are only told that they are being registered for "Tatkal lottery." After the day is over, the computer goes through Tatkal Quota for each train in each class. If the number of requests is less than or equal to the number of seats/berths available, then all of them are granted confirmed reservation. If the number of requests is more, some tickets are confirmed based on an in-built lottery system. Those who are not confirmed are given a random waitlist number. They have an option to keep waiting till the chart is prepared, or get a refund early on.

In this scheme, it would make no difference whether you booked your ticket at 8:00 AM or at 8:00 PM, and hence will distribute the Tatkal load evenly throughout the day. Of course, people have to pay money at the time of booking the ticket without knowing the status of their ticket. But they can make use of booking agents/sites like "cleartrip" and "yatra.com" to make life simpler for them.

I think Railways need to think of AC class passengers differently than non-AC passengers. Non-AC classes need subsidy. Any policy that affects them negatively can possibly have political repercussions. But they can do various experiments with AC class passengers. Generally, these will not have much political repercussions.

Dynamic fares and if that is not possible than a "Tatkal lottery" would be a good experiment to try with at least some class and with some trains.


16 comments:

rishant said...

An interesting post.The idea of lottery really got me thinking.

Lottery has this envelope of doubt around it. I will give an example. I was in hall 2 IIT Kanpur, we had a lottery for room allocation in hall 1. This has arisen because batch size has increased and there are not enough rooms in hall 1. Hall 1 with its long history of being the centre of power in IIT Kanpur campus, just like the parliament in Delhi.It is also close to the academic building.

Everybody had suspicion that Gymkhana members will give rooms to their own wings. So to remove that doubt, the lottery was done in the presence of one representative of every wing from all the Hall 2, 3,5 and 9 hostels. The problem I see that there has to be some similar mechanism where people to know that there is a fair lottery being done. People who will loose the ticket will always otherwise complain.

Can fair lottery be done? Well, we all thought we had a fair lottery in hall distribution. Than a wing which was excluded was a wing of hall 2 which had anatargni head and techkriti head. The funny part was that the lottery was done three times and every time they were the poor guys.Then they used all their influence in every hall. They got a request from majority of wings in hall 2,3,4 and 5 that they should be an exception and they should be sent to hall 1. They had the power to influence every wing in IIT Kanpur as the people who manage the festivals come from all most every wing. They finally used their power to come to hall 1.
I feel that soon the people who are influential enough will bend the rules of fair lottery even in ticketing also.

I am from economics and still I will present a technological solution. I feel that this solution was missing in the post.

Every person can have a pre paid amount with the railways. As every most of the Indian people use railways very frequently.
The system will ask how many tickets you want. Suppose the person says 5, the system will check whether it has the money to purchase five tickets.

Then every request that go forward after this will stand in the same line. Now there will be race. The one who enters the information first about his tickets will get the tickets. But there will be a lot of requests!!
I have heard about Amazon elastic web services. They increase the server space in the time we need it. Suppose there are 50 million requests, they will increase the server space for that short duration only and afterwards when the server need is reduced they will reduce the supply of server capacity. This way the application will not crash. IIT Kanpur can take the lead in this application building and help in bringing the respite to millions of people and still maintaining the meritocracy. The guy who enters information first will be given priority.

It helped to do courses of computer science in first year. :)

Rohan Kushwaha said...

I am totally agree with the idea of "tatkal lottery" and I am sure that this would work but I doubt that railways have insight for such innovative ideas...one could hardly find any innovative idea implemented by railways.....

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Rishant, Railways anyway have lots of different quotas, popularly known as VIP quotas, which are pretty substantial in AC classes. They can take care of VIP requests through those quotas.

Ram Ji Gupta said...

one slightly different idea is that one should be allowed to book Talkal Ticket 48/36/24 hours before the train departure time..So this will distribute the load over the day as well as trains also...

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Ramji, Yes, one could have different trains quota getting released at different times of the day. One would have to be a bit careful though. You want to release all quotas between 8AM and 8PM so as to not give extra advantage to internet users. They are considered elite. In fact, the quota has to be released latest by 6PM, so that everyone waiting for it can reach the booking window by the time they close at 8:00 PM.

Ritesh Maurya said...

Can't the railways lay additional parallel tracks and run more trains.
It'll benefit both passengers and railways.
I'm saying this as on some route like Allahabad - New Delhi, one cannot get a confirm ticket even before 50 days of journey.

A.T.R said...

I was thinking
1)if there were slots for a fixed number of seats every 2-3 hours (as 20 in Ist slot, 20 in IInd slot & so on)
2) increasing price with every slot
3) if demand is high, then as you pointed there should be some lottery system.

Dungara Choudhary said...

The idea of lottery system is interesting however it is the details which will make much difference and if not thought enough, will unnecessarily create stress for passengers and a new set of issues will pop up.

In my opinion IRCTC must improve its IT infrastructure to handle this situation better.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Dungara, Two points. At the current infrastructure, it takes about 2 hours to let people buy tickets in a randomized fashion. If you improve the infrastructure, you are only reducing the time. Instead of 2 hours, it may become one hour, for example. But within that one hour, it is still a random process. In the best case, where there is infinite capacity, and one can simply login, fill up the form, and all that, and there is no delay because of infrastructure issues, then one is really giving tickets to those whose clocks are better synchronized than others, and those who can type faster. Is that a fair way of giving tickets.

While infrastructure improvement is a must so that non-Tatkal tickets can be sold without random delays, but infrastructure improvement alone will not change the random nature of tatkal bookings.

Anand Srivastava said...

The problem in the north is still ok. In the south you cannot even book tickets after the first week of opening up of the quota in any train. In some trains it will get full on the first day. There are too few trains there. I realized this after living in Bangalore and trying to use the trains for travel. But they do have good Private Bus Service, I guess because of this problem.

charan sai said...

I seriously agree with you about the demand and supply gap theory, sir,but the real problem,in fact lies with the sleeper class(This does not mean the AC classes are comfortable).I agree that there has been a sheer mismanagement in the server potential but that itself does not solve the problem. The issue clearly lies with the number of trains. For the past decade or so the number of train travelers have increased and there hasn't been a proportional increase in the number of trains especially in the northern,western and eastern zones.
It's high time to concentrate on increasing the infrastructure to accommodate the growing number of travelers. The lopsided development and neo-liberal policies have increased the migration from villages in the aforementioned zones which we can clearly see in the sleeper classes and general compartments(I have personally interacted with them for the past 4 years of my journey). The government is simply maintaining the status quo by simply sprinkling the freebies and trying to profit from them. The time has come for infrastructural changes and increase the budget for accommodating more trains.

rmandala said...

How about opening the tatkal quota per train basis "24-hours in advance w.r.t. the scheduled start time at it's starting station"???

This would work because people who try for Tatkal ticket generally have mostly one (or may be two) specific trains in mind and this would also guarantee distribution of the load on IRCTC servers and the back end systems w.r.t. time dimension.


One problem is with trains that start at around mid-night. In this case it would be a competition between people who can stay awake vs. people who can't, people who book tickets online vs. those who book at reservation counters. An intelligent but easy-to-understand tweak on top of this scheme can solve this problem.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@rmandala, yes, as I responded to Ramji's comment, all trains will have to be mapped to 8AM to 6PM time. A simple mapping of 24 hours advance will not work since the counters are open only from 8AM to 8PM, and Internet access is considered elitist.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Anand, I just checked the availability of reservation between 110 and 120 days in AC-3T and SL classes from Bangalore to Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Chennai in the most popular trains each. The reservation was available on all days, in all 4 trains, in both classes.

I still maintain that 120 days in advance is long enough that the first day rush for tickets at 8:00 AM is not there any more, and the primary peak on reservation system is from Tatkal quota only.

Piyush P Kurur said...

The IRCTC site is designed by Neanderthals.

Proof:

I just tried a curl http://www.irctc.co.in and what do I get. A javascript page that too inline. This
means that every connection to the main page
requires two connection (at-least). Why in the whole world would any one want their homepage to be dynamic. Just simple bad design. I am sure that if I hunt for more, I will find more nonsense (for exampe how are the images and javascript served).

Besides it runs M$ ISS and ASP. Not a sane thing to do when you have such a busy site.

Piyush P Kurur

Rohit Thakur said...

although lottery and bid idea are awesome but besides i have a different idea...for the seats of tatkal there should be a scratch card system.the passenser who have to apply for tatkal ticket ...first have to purchase a scratch card only on window at the time of reservation...if he get an''available'' tag,,he will get seat otherwise...next.this will distribute the load and solve demand supply gap optimally