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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Railways discourages online reservation

There has been a flurry of activities ever since Mr. Suresh Prabhu has become the Railway Minister, mostly positive. But there are things being done which are so stupid and idiotic that one wonders what is going on in the Ministry. The latest stupidity is a new rule which says that one can book at most 6 tickets online in a month. (Media reports: The Hindu, Hindustan Times, and Business Standard.)

While Prime Minister Modi keeps talking about Digital India and Ease of doing business, Railways Ministry is living in a time warp, and is coming up with newer schemes to encourage paper tickets at the PRS counters, making it difficult for travelers. Of course, travelers are smart people too. And they try to bypass these difficulties by doing things, which Railways consider illegal (like having multiple IDs on IRCTC portal), and then Railways start claiming that since there is so much of illegal activity happening, they will put even more restrictions and make it even more difficult for genuine passengers.

There was a time when one could book 10 tickets in a month, not counting the tickets that were canceled. This posed a bit of difficulty for people like me. I was, in those days, traveling every weekend to meet the family, and sometimes needed to book alternate reservation, if the preferred train was giving me waitlisted ticket only. Sometimes, the travel would need to be changed from Friday evening to Saturday evening, and I would not have any means of booking it online since I would have exhausted the quota of 10 tickets. For me, the quota of 10 tickets was a serious problem, since one weekend visit required three tickets - Jaipur to New Delhi, New Delhi to Kanpur, and then Kanpur to Jaipur. So at times, I will take the overnight Volvo sleeper bus, and sometimes I will take flights. These were easier options than to go to the station to buy a paper ticket.

They made it much worse about 6 years ago when they started counting canceled tickets also within the limit of 10 tickets. Now, one had to be really careful, particularly for such weekend travelers and particularly in those months where there are 5 weekends. Even otherwise, there have been several months when I have had to undertake more than 10 rail journeys for official purposes and/or family emergencies like death in the family.

The argument of the Railways is that only 10% of the users book more than 6 tickets. But 10% of the users is a LARGE number. Is there any business in the world which will work really hard to find ways to make it inconvenient for its most loyal customers. Indian Railways is doing exactly that. Those who are booking more than 6 tickets a month are the most loyal customers, and only a small fraction of them are touts. And this restriction only means that professional touts need more SIM cards. First they stopped Frequent Railway Travel Card. Then they started restrictions on number of tickets in various time slots, number of Tatkal tickets in a day, number of connections from an IP address, and so on. And now this.

Everything that Railways does these days is keeping in view that touts are a huge problem, and apparently, there are only touts in the system, and all passengers go to touts only. It is like in my sector (higher education), all policies are made with the assumption that only coaching classes exist in the country and there are no genuine students outside those classes. Of course, it is possible that the real issue may not be touts, but the pressure from unions. IRCTC is continuing to increase its market share, and PRS counters are not seeing as many foot falls. I am sure the unions are worried about such a situation and would like to put pressure on the Ministry to do something, anything, to ensure that more people come to PRS counters. Otherwise, their numbers will go down over a period of time. And no union would like reduction in work of its members

Railways is just making a joke out of Digital India and Ease of doing business, and in that sense I see a conflict between PMO and Rail Bhavan. I hope someone in PMO points this out to Rail Bhavan. Ideally, they should put an extra charge for paper ticket instead of an extra charge for online ticket, and over a period of time, keep moving towards more and more e-tickets. Issuing paper tickets cost much more than issuing electronic tickets and therefore, all transporters in the world are moving to e-tickets.

There is another possibility as to why Railways is doing this. The basic problem that Railways has faced for decades is that the demand is more than supply. This has been handled by following the policy of First-come-first-served for all these years, with, of course, VIP quotas for those connected. For the last decade or so, the policy has shifted to having 80% capacity sold on first-come-first-served basis, and 20% capacity sold at a higher price, even dynamic price. The higher price ensures that the demand reduces as many people find it worthwhile to travel by car/buses/airlines. And this generates more revenue for Railways which will be helpful in increasing the supply in the longer term. However, the demand continues to outstrip supplies, and the policy to reduce demand by increasing the price has not been liked by people used to subsidy even in AC1 class. So how do they reduce demand. Well, make traveling in Railways so painful that people will voluntarily move to other modes of transport, and we can match demand and supply.  Everyone can live happily ever after. The airlines are happy. The bus transporters are happy. The taxi drivers are happy. Only the railfans like us are unhappy. But who cares for this breed anyway.

I hope Railways Minister will try to identify officers who are working to derail his initiatives by doing such mischief and transfer them to places where they will be harmless.