By Prof. S Sadagopan & Suneeti Goel
Indian Railways (IR) is the second largest train systems in the world carrying more than 20 million passengers every single day. This is in addition to carrying many more millions in suburban trains across the metros of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata, that too with the lowest tariffs asked globally and thus providing and serving even “poorest of the poor”.
IR is the 4th largest railway network in the world comprising 119,630 kilometres of total track and 92,081 km of running track over a route of 66,687 km with 7,216 stations at the end of 2015-16. In 2015-16, IR carried 8,107 billion passengers and 1.101 billion tons of freight with Rs 442.83 billion (US$6.9 billion) earnings from the passenger segment alone.
Needless to say, IR is the backbone of our Nation. In fact, till the year 2016, IR even had a separate annual Budget, independent of the Budget of the Government of India; in February 2017 the Railway Budget finally got merged into the main governmental Budget.
It is well known that for nearly three decades “seat booking” on the Indian Railway was done manually. In 1976, as a preliminary experiment, Secunderabad-based CMC Ltd., the then leading public sector IT services company, was asked to develop a computerized passenger reservation system (PRS) called IMPRESS. IMPRESS started as an Open VMS-based system running on DEC mini-computers. It must be noted with great pride that over the past four decades this preliminary system has grown enormously, keeping the core objective exactly the same, namely, a “state-of-the-art”, cost effective and efficient home-grown system. To a country the size of India, it cannot be overstated how this is most important.
The initial IMPRESS system couldn’t give bookings across the entire country from one single window, and so the Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS) was formed as an internal IT organization for the Railways and was asked to create a new software that would provide a one-stop window for all Railway bookings. This software named CONCERT (Country-wide network for Computerised Enhanced Reservation and Ticketing) was launched in 1999 all over the country to replace IMPRESS.
CONCERT has complex business logic catering to more than 15 type of trains, 10 journey class, 165 coach types, 40 types of quotas, 250 type of concession and other features such as circular journey ticket, multi-leg allocation of a berth, upgradation to higher class, alternate train accommodation, Party booking for 99 passengers, and, more recently, dynamic pricing. It has more than 300 forms and 2.5 million lines of code. It still continues to be an Open VMS-based system but with an upgraded n-tier 3 tier architecture with RTR (Reliable Transaction Router) as middleware, which runs on HP Itanium servers now. It has a distributed database architecture with data residing at 4 data centers at New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai. The database is a customized implementation of hierarchical database with necessary functions of locking, indexing, partitioning and logging; transactional integrity is handled by the application to achieve millisecond response time at very low cost. The data centers are connected using full mesh network with links from two different service providers for complete redundancy. The terminal network, spread across the country, has an “Inverted Tree” topology with partial mesh distribution.
In the two decades since CRIS has been running the Railway ticketing system, the system has expanded to more than 3,400 point of presence all over the country and is now able to successfully deliver more than 8,000 enquiries and 550 bookings per second. The system is created in such a way, not only for accountability, but also for the scalability, availability, ease of maintenance and upgradation of IT in Railways over the years; today, with the new API-based architecture, the new system is able to serve millions of customers every hour through the Web, via mobile App and other multiple business and customers.
On evolutionary timeline, PRS was just an ‘inquiry website’ in 2000. Subsequently, in 2002, IRCTC (Commercial company of Indian Railways) through outsourcing, introduced the facility of booking I-tickets, and also made available E-ticketing for the very first time in 2005 (www.irctc.co.in). By year 2012, the e-ticketing system was not able to scale and meet the user expectations.
In the year 2014, CRIS not only upgraded the entire e-ticketing system, but also made it scalable so that the system can handle many more users and can facilitate instant transactions than ever before; this allowed hundreds of thousands of people to depend on the Indian Railways in their daily lives. As a result, the upgraded system (Next Generation E-ticketing System – NGeT) was highly scalable for the future and has catered to more than 16,000 tickets per minute and 4,90,000 concurrent users.
NGeT is an open standards-based system and uses advance technologies such as In-Memory Data Grid (IMDG) for high performance. The local area network is 10G (non-blocking). The entire set of ICT equipment is deployed in “High Availability” mode to preclude single point of failure. It has multi-layered network security with Front-end & Back-end Firewalls, Intrusion Prevention system (IPS) and Web Application Firewall (WAF).
NgeT today is an extremely user-friendly system and provides multiple payment options to the users such as Net Banking, Rupay, Credit card, Debit card, Cash cards, Wallets, Scan-n-Pay, QR Code and UPI/BHIM.
In early 2017, CRIS also launched a mobile application on Android platform which till now has 81,50,000 installed base and a user-rating of 4.2 /5 on Google play store. Using this app, more than 100,000 tickets are being booked per day.
CRIS is planning to revamp the passenger reservation system further by using the latest available technologies. By leveraging the benefits of newer technologies, the new passenger reservation system would be able to provide even better services to the citizens of this Nation.
(This column is third of the 15-part series on Transformational Projects making Digital India a reality. Prof. Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan, Director, IIIT-Bangalore has co-authored this column with Suneeti Goel, Chief project Engineer at the Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS). Prof. Sadagopan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. and Suneeti Goel can be reached at email@example.com. Views expressed are personal.)
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