One of the flagship projects of the Narendra Modi-led NDA government has been a marked shift onto the route of digitalisation. The Indian Railways is the single-largest State-owned commercial entity in the entire world, and adaptability is pivotal to its survival in contemporary times. Over the past couple of years, a number of schemes have been initiated, all of which take a step forward to riding the Digital Wave. It is indeed commendable to witness the progress that the Indian Railways has made over the course of the yesteryears, mutating from issuing manual tickets to being a pioneer in the era of paperless tickets, from having the quintessential pantry cars in the long-haul trains to e-catering services seeing the light of the day, a plethora of such success stories have cropped up. An effective analysis of how Indian Railways has transfigured itself as per the changing demands of the passing years is surprisingly remarkable.
To fully comprehend the present, knowing the past is of vital significance. The stride to the journey towards modernisation of the Railways transpired in the early eighties, when in 1982, the railways set up a central organisation named COFOIS (Central Organisation for Freight Operations Information System), to look after the increasing volume of freight operations. Till 1985, all tickets were issued manually. This led to the process being cumbersome and time-consuming, leaving behind a probable scope for errors to creep in. Stand Alone Computerized Ticketing and Reservation System was then rolled out, albeit phase-wise, starting in 1985 as a pilot project in New Delhi and concluding in 1989 with computerized ticketing system being initiated in Secunderabad. Fast forward to today, and there be no more manual tickets in sight.
The Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), a subsidiary arm of the Indian Railways, has under the present government taken on itself the primary responsibility of ensuring the process of digitalisation of the Railways- a far cry ahead from the days of mere computerization of reservation systems. Today, one can sit back in the comfort of his home and yet reserve tickets from the IRCTC portal. While travelling in train and en-route to some destination, a passenger may opt to purchase meals from the next station halt, via the process of e-catering that has been recently facilitated by the IRCTC. From its inception in 2002, the IRCTC has come a long way ahead: from twenty nine tickets booked in a day to thirteen lakh tickets booked in a single day. In 2016, tickets worth rupees 24,022 crores were purchased via the online platform. All these amenities have been made possible due to the untiring efforts of the Railway Board and the Ministry of Railways, which has continually strived to provide the best-in-class service to the passengers that, in all respects, remain unparalleled.
This razzmatazz around the keyword of digitalisation has proven useful on many counts. Industry major Google, in a bid to tap into the millions who commute by the Railways on a daily basis, had partnered with RailTel to provide free Wi-Fi services at a targeted four hundred stations. Such collaborations have given the Digital India campaign a solid momentum and have been a model example to further the Public-Private partnerships that are equitable for both parties involved. At present, this partnership has materialised brilliantly, with over a hundred stations being connected to the network. This joint effort has been christened the title “Project Nilgiri”. As per latest statistics made available by Google, over ten million Indians now have access to high-speed internet, with an average estimate of around fifteen thousand people connecting to the free networks for the first time every day. Internet penetration in India has thus been effectively catalysed by the Indian Railways, providing the platform for private ventures to provide internet access to millions of Indians.
One significant domain where the Railways have latched onto, is harnessing the power of social media. The Railways have developed an in-house analytics tool that processes complaints and suggestions on a real-time basis. The Indian Railways receives seven thousand tweets on a daily basis, out of which around a thousand are actionable. Through Facebook, it is said to receive around two hundred complaints per day. Former Railway Minister, Shri Suresh Prabhu, had highlighted the fact that the response time to complaints of actionable nature had been reduced to thirty minutes. Such prompt responses to suggestions, and/or feedback by the passengers, have ensured a substantial and appreciable increase in passenger satisfaction. In a recent survey that was launched by the government to let the people rate the services rendered by the government, the results of quick response and follow-up on individual complaints was understandably evident: the Railways had secured the highest possible five-star rating from 74% (seventy-four percent) of the people who participated in the survey.
To build on the noble initiative of Digital India, the Railways have not left any chord untouched. Continuous innovations and development, fuelled by imagination and an acute understanding of the demands of the day, have propelled the Indian Railways into bringing out several applications and services that can be accessed by having a phone. At the forefront comes the Railway’s autonomous IT cell, popularly christened ‘CRIS’- Centre for Railway Information Services. This is the organisation that has made possible the launch of the widely popular PNR Status enquiry online, or the National Train Enquiry System (NTES) that can be used to track the live running status of a train. The launch of the UTS App- Unreserved Ticketing System has been a formidable success. On 10th of February, 2016, Shri Suresh Prabhu launched hand-held terminals for Travelling Ticket Examiners (TTEs), which relays information from a running train to the next immediate station. A facility for online booking of disposable linens on trains has also been established.
This expedition towards digitalisation has an inherent positive effect on the finances and economy of the Indian Railways. Digitalisation of essential services would reduce manual operational costs, and thus help to bring down the total expenses. Moreover, facilities such as online booking of tickets and related services have convenience surcharges attached to them that helps bring in additional revenue. Revenue earned through service charges doubled from Rs. 256.34 crore to Rs. 551.49 crore in fiscal 2016. This forms one-third of the entire revenue generated by the IRCTC, as per reports published by the Economic Times. Another matchless example of the unending benefits of digitalisation for the Railways was made clear during the e-auction of scrap materials. More than fifteen thousand wagons, twelve hundred coaches, and around a hundred locomotives are auctioned by the Railway every year. The mandatory e-auction helped to generate around Rs. 3000 crores in 2014-2015. In more ways than one, liberalisation of the Railway finances to accommodate online services will eventually help the Railway resuscitate from its financial woes at present.
This paradigm shift in adopting the digital and cashless as the preferred mode of transactions and services has improved transparency and accountability on the part of the Railways. This has, in turn, has had a chain effect on the common man’s image of the Railways. If passenger satisfaction is ensured, it would immediately convert into rising revenues and better service reviews, with fewer complaints and Grievance Redressal Workload.
As the largest commercial organisation in India, the Railways shoulder colossal social responsibilities. It is indeed heartening to learn that under the able guidance of the Minister of Railways, Shri Suresh Prabhu and the Railway Board, the gargantuan organisation is striving to its last breath to ensure the common man takes the jump towards digitalisation. The Railways is one of the pioneers of change; it wonderfully metamorphoses itself to acclimatise to the dynamic requirements. In this era of globalisation and technological advancement, the Digital Indian campaign has only reinforced the roots of this sesquicentennial organisation: making it better, secure, and ready for the leap towards greater heights of success in the upcoming years.