Let us consider a not-so-hypothetical journey. I want to travel from New Delhi to Kanpur on 30th. I check for my favorite train, Shramshakti Express, and I can only manage a waiting list ticket. But the waiting list number is small enough that there is a chance that it might get confirmed. So I book it. But then what would I do if it does not get confirmed. One option for me is to wait till 29th, and if the ticket is not confirmed yet, try to get a Tatkal ticket. This is not a realistic option as the number of tickets available is small, and there is just too much rush on the website at that time. Cannot depend on luck for an important journey. What are the other options.
This is what I normally do. I will look for other trains, which may take a bit longer, may go earlier or later than what I want to travel, but have a berth available. Book that one too. Now, 2 days before the second train schedule departure time, I will check the status of my desired train, and if my ticket has become confirmed, I cancel the alternate ticket, else I cancel the desired train ticket. So, for a 100 rupees cost, I am able to keep two bookings till 48 hours before the scheduled departure time of less preferred train.
If my preference for this train is really strong, and I won't mind losing a bit more of money, I will check up to six hours before the scheduled departure of the less preferred train, and if I have got a confirmed ticket in my preferred train, I would cancel the less preferred ticket, thereby losing 25 percent of the ticket cost.
Now, think of a scenario when Indian Railways (or IRCTC) provides this as a service. They allow me to book two tickets at a time, and specify a preference order, and as soon as the ticket in preferred train gets confirmed, the other is cancelled. If it is not confirmed till a deadline, the waitlisted ticket is cancelled. I don't have to worry about "what happens if I forget to cancel" and I don't have to pay for two tickets. Since I have told IRCTC that one of the two tickets must be cancelled, IRCTC may charge me for the maximum amount that I am incur as cost (including cancellation charges) which will be less than the cost of two tickets. For all this convenience, I would be happy to pay an extra amount as well. Not only that, IRCTC can mine data on such duplicate reservations, and make this statistics available to others so that people have a better idea of the probability of getting a ticket confirmed. So it is a win-win situation for customers as well as Railways.
Last year, I was invited by National Academy of Indian Railways (erstwhile, Railways Staff College) to address a large group of DRMs (Divisional Railway Managers) there. In my presentation, I gave examples of many things that Information Technology can do to help travelers and Railways, and this idea was one of them. (Of course, I must add that many DRMs were extremely technology savvy and had similar and even better ideas on what all technology can do.)
I am so happy that Indian Railways has decided to implement Vikalp, the new Alternate Train Accommodation System. The details are not very clear from the media reports (ToI) but it seems to be somewhat different than what I do for myself. There does not appear to be any extra charge since they are only looking at it as a way to push passengers into less popular trains. Passenger wouldn't have a choice of train, it appears. But, whatever it is, I applaud Indian Railways to start something very useful, and I am sure they will keep ironing out the glitches during the testing period.