Friday, June 09, 2017

"Tatkal" Railway Bookings

It is amazing how the Indian railway reservation system has evolved over the last two decades.

Today I tried my hand, for the first time, at a system called "Tatkal". It is a system for last-minute bookings, for travelers who have not planned their journey in advance. The computerized system turned out to be a lot easier than expected.

I needed to make a quick trip to Mumbai, which is about 1400 km from New Delhi. There are about 20 trains connecting the two cities, giving you a wide range of options. You could start your journey at midnight, or take the last train after 11:00PM. You could cover the distance in 15.15 hrs in the fastest train, the Rajdhani Express (no. 12952), in 1st class AC comfort, for INR 4755, or reach there at a more leisurely pace in the Amritsar Express (no. 11058), which takes no less double the time - 31.15 hrs. A journey on the latter, on a 'sleeper' ticket would cost you just INR 600 (USD 9.30!).

You also realize that in the egalitarian world of Indian Railways, even the slowest train is called an "Express" :)

My travel priorities were quite straightforward:I did not want to start my journey at unearthly hours, and I waned to travel cheap. This brought down my choices to five trains, all of which were fully booked. So I opted to go for "Tatkal" which is a option that sits discreetly as a narrow banner, alongside the others: General / Ladies / Handicapped.

The first option was Paschim Express (22 hrs) and it showed 17 seats available when I logged in at 11:00AM. However, by the time I reached the payments page, the IRCTC website went into its 'daily maintenance' mode. When I returned an hour later, all the seats were gone!  The next best option seemed to be the 12284 'Nzm Ers Duronto' (20 hrs), and this too was running on a waiting list.

Now, a surprising thing happened when I opted to take a wait-listed ticket. The IRCTC servers now gave me a pop-up "Vikalp" option - in case this ticket was not confirmed, I had three other trains to choose from, all of which were the next available trains to Mumbai. This saved me the trouble of going back, retracing all the steps to make an alternate booking. Cool.

The ease with which the whole process was completed reminded me of the late 1990s when the only option was to line up at the railway reservation counters. You had to reach the station two months in advance, stand in a long line, and wait for your turn at the counter. There had been times when the bookings closed by the time I reached the window, or was shortchanged by the ticketing officers. Either way, you lost at least half a day for rail bookings.

Now, thanks to IRCTC, the online booking system has become amazingly simple. So much so that it is easy to forget that it represents just a small fraction of the effort put in by a government agency, CRIS (Centre for Railway Info Systems), to help railways carry 6 billion passengers, and 6 million tons of freight, every year!

Scope for Improvement:

* Acronyms are confusing - it would be useful to have the full-form appear on a mouse-over. Eg. Train no. 12172 s described as "HW LTT AC SF", which is no better than Morse-code. Turns out that this is "Haridwar Lokmanya Tilak Terminus Air-Conditioned Super Fast Express"!


* VIKALP Scheme -

* Raghuram (2007): Turnaround of the Indian Railways -

* Tatkal Booking Guide -

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