THE UNRESERVED TICKETING SYSTEM OF INDIAN RAILWAYS
Director (Operations), Centre for Railway Information Systems
17 million passengers travel by Indian Railways every day. Less than 1 million travel on reserved tickets which guarantees them a seat or a sleeping berth. The remaining 16 million buy unreserved tickets at more than 6500 stations across the country, which give them the right to board and travel by coaches or trains nominated for unreserved passengers but do not guarantee a seat or sleeping berth. Around 9 million of the 16 million unreserved passengers are daily passengers commuting mainly for business, to work or to study, either within the same city or to nearby cities and towns.
Earlier, all ticketing was through manually issued pre-printed card tickets or paper tickets. As the number of trains run and the passengers carried increased phenomenally over the years, the logistics of indenting, procuring, distributing, stocking, issuing and accounting for such a large number of tickets, posed a formidable challenge to the Indian Railways. In 1985, computerised ticketing for reserved tickets was introduced in Delhi. This system, known as the Passenger Reservation System (PRS), proved extremely successful, both from the administration and the public perspectives and over the next decade was extended to cover most of the stations where trains with reserved accommodation stopped. PRS has kept pace with emerging technologies and today you can buy a reserved ticket through the internet and through mobile phones.
Unreserved ticketing, which accounted for the bulk of the tickets issued but catered predominantly to the ordinary second class passenger â€” who paid the lowest fares and was perceived as a â€˜subsidisedâ€™ customer â€” was by and large technologically neglected till 2002 when a computerised Unreserved Ticketing System (UTS) for Indian Railways was conceived, sanctioned and introduced in Delhi as a pilot project. The system was designed, developed and implemented in-house by the Centre for Railway Information Systems â€” the IT arm of the Indian Railways. </i>
Most people, when they think of railway tickets, think of a reserved ticket. A reserved ticket is associated with a passenger journey by a particular train in an assigned coach on an assigned seat or berth. In some cases, when the bookings are fully saturated and one wants to purchase a ticket, the passenger has an option of buying an unconfirmed ticket â€“ either one which is an RAC (reservation against cancellation) or a wait-listed one. An RAC ticket assures the passenger of a nominated seat on the train with the hope of a berth if there is a cancellation or if a passenger with a confirmed ticket does not show up. The wait-listed passenger either gets confirmed against cancellations or has to change travel plans if it remains unconfirmed. Some of the more adventurous ones, board the train in the hope of obtaining a place en route.
The story of reserved tickets and the romance associated with it is well documented. But such travelers form only six per cent of the total passenger traffic. The other 94 per cent of the passengers buy tickets which are neither for a specific train nor for an assigned seat. The unreserved passengers account for 16 of the 17 million passengers commuting daily on the Indian Railways. They get tickets for a destination and are free to board either any train which has all unreserved accommodation or any coach nominated for unreserved passengers on trains that have both reserved and unreserved accommodation. The only limitation is that the journey should be completed within a specified time window. A seat is not guaranteed. The validity of the ticket is usually up to midnight of the day for which the ticket is issued except for the commuter services of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai where journeys must commence within 1-2 hours of ticket purchase.
Unreserved passengers mainly travel in ordinary second class coaches, which have the lowest fares, but contribute over Rs. 8,700 crores annually to railway revenues, which is around 53 per cent of Indian Railways income from passenger traffic.
Unlike the reserved passengers, who generally book their seats in advance, the unreserved passengers normally buy their tickets just before boarding their trains. So demand for tickets peaks just before departure of popular trains at all stations and during office opening and closing hours in big cities. In such a situation, if a passenger cannot be sold a ticket quickly and conveniently, the railway is likely to lose a business opportunity because the passenger will either opt for an alternate mode of transport or, worse, travel without a ticket.
Till the 1990s, tickets were manually issued. The ticket was normally a Printed Card Ticket (PCT) which had all the details like origin, destination, class, fare etc. pre-printed. The booking clerk had to stamp the date and time of issue using a dating machine. The system worked well for decades but when there was a dramatic increase in traffic, various problems began to surface:
1. Every station had to stock tickets for every possible destination, combined with every class of travel, every type of train service, route and concession, which could be accessed from that station, regardless of the frequency of demand. Since indenting, procuring and distributing tickets for such a large number of stations involved elaborate, expensive and time consuming procedures. Stations were required to stock 10-20 months requirement of tickets, depending on their consumption patterns. This meant that busy stations had to stock millions of tickets and zealously protect them from termites, rodents, leaky roofs etc. because each PCT had a monetary value. They would alsohave to guard it from human miscreants.
2. As the number of passengers increased, it became increasingly difficult to ensure that every station always had its full requirement of tickets on time. This led to a greater dependence on paper tickets, where the Booking Clerk filled in the ticket details in a pre-printed format. Paper tickets were prone to frauds by the ticket issuers and caused complaints of overcharging.
3. Since PCTs had the fare pre-printed on them, the station staff at each station had to manually correct the fare on each ticket in stock whenever a new fare change was to be implemented. This not only led to wastage of manpower and errors but also increased whenever a new fare change was to be implemented. This again increased the opportunities for malpractices leading to complaints. It was also difficult to ensure that such a large number of geographically disparate stations implemented the new fares on schedule, resulting either in loss of railway revenue or overcharging of the passenger, depending on whether the fares were going up or down.
4. PCTs were also prone to misuse in the form of fake tickets which couldnt easily be detected and re-use if the issue-date impression was faint.
5. At important junction stations, the number of types of tickets to be sold became so high that one counter could not possibly handle tickets for all destinations. This lead to the introduction of direction or destination specific counters which often caused inequitable distribution of queues and passenger dissatisfaction.
6. Tickets had to be bought from the station of journey origination only and on the date of journey, as providing more flexibility would have increased the type and number of tickets to be stocked beyond manageable limits.
7. The system required elaborate accountal processes which not only resulted in the creation of a large back office but consumed half an hour of each Booking Clerks ticket issuing shift as each ticket in stock at the window had to be taken or handed over.
8. Accounting reports were sent manually to Zonal Railway headquarters on a 10 day periodicity. These were often missed or incomplete so there was no reliable and up-to-date revenue accountal at the central level.
A step towards modernization
The first tentative steps towards computerizing unreserved ticketing were taken in the 1990s when microprocessor based Self Printing Ticketing Machines (SPTMs) were introduced at selected busy stations of Indian Railways. SPTMs, were stand-alone devices, which issued tickets and then transferred the transaction records at the end ofthe day to a PC kept at each station which generated accounting reports. There was no connectivity beyond the station level. These machines highlighted the advantages of computerizing ticketing:
1. Large stocks of pre-printed tickets were not required. The machines printed the details of each ticket on demand on pre-formatted security paper.
2. Paper tickets were eliminated.
3. SPTM tickets could not easily be faked or re-used.
4. Universal counters selling tickets for all directions became possible.
5. Station Accounting was done by the computer, saving manual effort.