Technology at the Wheels



When the spirit of ‘technology for public good’ drives the wheels of the
nation, the lives of common men are bound to change for the better. Truly
implementing this ideal and reaching out to millions of passengers, is the
Indian Railways-the world’s second-largest railway network. It carries 11
million passengers everyday in 8520 trains, departing from 7000 stations.
Shorter queues, additional revenues, good RoI and happier customers-all these
did not come without the Railways’ vision and the dexterous labour of its IT
arm, Center for Railway Information Systems (CRIS).

The Ministry of Railways instituted CRIS in 1986 to be an umbrella for all
computer activities going on in the Indian Railways. Mainly project oriented,
CRIS was created as a separate organization because it was considered better
that a separate arm takes over all the computer activities, and also to avoid
duplication of efforts, to ensure IT standardization across them, and to
insulate it from the day to day workings of the railways.

The need for greater flexibility to keep pace with fast changing technology
has kept a team of railway domain experts, tech pros and research specialists at
CRIS on their toes for the development of numerous computer applications. The
first project was to design, develop, and implement the Freight Operations
Information Systems (FOIS). The major milestones: Passenger Reservation System
and the Unreserved Ticketing System, which have turned the once-not-so-charming
ministry to one of the most advanced ministries in India.

Passenger Reservation System
In the mid-80s, Indian Railways first computerized its reserved ticketing
operations. This was done from five regional passenger reservation centres, each
of which was a stand-alone site with its own local database. Though efficient,
it could not provide one-window ticketing. Rajesh Narang, chief system manager,
Passenger Reservation System (PRS) says, "It was then that CRIS stepped in
to make a new in-house software. In 1994, we decided that the earlier used PRS
had to be rewritten for a distributed work environment, which would exploit the
client server paradigm."

Indian
Railways A Little Better

Stations6,853
Kilometers
of track
63,028
Passenger
coaches
37,840
Freight
cars
222,147
Annually…
Passengers4
bn
freight492
mn tons
11
mn passengers travel daily; about 550,000 have reserved
accommodations

Two and a half years and a million lines of code later, a mission critical
software for networking the PRS-Countrywide Networking Computerized Enhanced
Reservation and Ticketing (CONCERT)-was deployed in Secundrabad. On Sept 9,
1996, a two-way handshake between Secundrabad and Delhi, set the ball rolling
for the one-window ticketing system which the nation enjoys today. The most
difficult part was the migration of the 60-day advance booking records (9 lakh
records) from the old system to the new. Finally, on April 18, 1999, with the
networking of Chennai PRS and all-major metropolitan cities and Secundrabad
completed, the ‘anywhere to anywhere’ reserved ticketing has become a
possibility on any PRS booking terminal.

The IRCTC angle
In 2000, when the Web wave came in a big way, CRIS developed and deployed
the Indian Railway’s Web site www.indianrail.gov.in.
On February 28, 2000, all common enquiries like trains between a given pair of
stations, reservation availability, PNR status, fares, train schedules and
station codes were made available to the common public through the Internet.
Shashi Bhushan Roy, group GM, PRS remarks, "Within a very short span of
time this site has become one of the most popular Web sites in India, with daily
hits to the order of 40 lakh. Our new sites www.trainenquiry.co.in
and www.indianrail.gov.in are both
hosted by CRIS and are updated every half an hour."

In 1994, we decided that the earlier used Passenger Reservation System had to be rewritten for a distributed work environment which would exploit the client server paradigm” 

Rajesh Narang, chief systems manager, PRS

The IRCTC system was developed on the BroadVision suite of e-commerce
platform. According to Narang, "The futuristic vision with which PRS was
built used a scalable bus architecture that allowed us to build a Web layer
around it. We had to define virtual terminals to ensure necessary accounting
between the Internet user and the railway reservation system." IRCTC passes
the booking details to CRIS, which, then, on the basis of virtual terminals,
decides the point of transaction after which the packet IDs are forwarded to one
of the five booking zones.

"The CRIS and IRCTC sites are banded together to make the full
availability of disintegrated information available on demand," says Deepak
Chhabra, general manager, PRS. "Our receptiveness to the public’s
feedback is what propels the change in our systems. We have gone another step by
making train inquiry available through mobile phones via SMS."

Unreserved Ticketing System
The Unreserved Ticketing System (UTS), CRIS’ most recent milestone, was
inaugurated in August 2002. Implemented by Rajesh Narang, this system turned
things around for millions of unreserved travelers and for the management as
well. It also got Narang the Computerworld Honors Laureate award for visionary
use of IT in transportation. He comments, "We replaced the earlier heavily
manual ticketing system with a new three-tier application-the first tier is
the Indian Railways central server, the second consists of the Zone Headquarters
and Station Servers, and the third the dumb terminals and thin-client machines
at the ticket generation points. Based on current standards, and using leading
edge hardware, data management and network technology, Indian Railways has been
able to produce a more efficient and cost-effective ticketing system."

Given the 16 zones of the Indian Railways, the task of getting all the
distributed systems in place was mammoth. Of the 16 zones, four have been
brought under the UTS and the next phase would see its implementation in 2000
more counters at five more zones. The system has a failover and failback
capability to ensure continued ticketing operations in the event of hardware or
network outage that interrupts the connection between the server and the point
of sale. Unlike PRS, which is a 12-hour runner, UTS is up and running 24×7.
"Therefore, we had to increase its sensitivity to failures. Very recently,
when the servers at Kolkata went down for 5 hours, the systems were directly
logged on to the Patna server to ensure business continuity," says Narang.

CRIS has come a long way and has to go still further. So what is it that
keeps the Railways on the IT track? As Shashi Bhushan Roy, sums it up: "We
are a team of tech savvy professionals and railway domain experts with a common
resolution. As demand augments, supply has to be met proportionally, and in the
end, it is the best system which comes to the service of society, when needs and
technology marry."

Jasmine Kaur

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