The Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) runs a website that is allows people to book tickets on Indian Railways trains online using their debit or credit cards. Now, why a corporation that should be doing catering is running a ticket-booking website is another question altogether, but this question is rarely asked because there are a mountain of other unanswered questions about IRCTC which rank way up there along with questions like “What is the meaning of life” and “Are we alone in the Universe?” Anyway, this particular website very imaginatively named irctc.co.in, can be credited to be India’s very own claim to internet pop-culture infamy akin to 4chan or Reddit. The internet is full of jokes on IRCTC in all of its guises about this site that delivers agony, frustration, anger and rage in all imaginable ways. This portal is the only one catering to online booking of all the 3000+ trains on the Indian Railways and it hence takes on so much load that when at all it works it gets so agonizingly slow that even a mega-gazillion-Googolbyte intergalactic internet connection won’t help you.
Outrage against the site reaches Biblical proportions on days before holidays when tens of thousands of Indians descent upon the portal to grab last-minute Tatkal Quota tickets for the next day’s trains like suitors for an Ireland-based Mallu nurse and the avalanche of millions of hits and requests invariably brings the entire thing crashing down. Passions run high and tempers flame in that period of 1000 to 1030 hours when users will be greeted with the ominous “Service Unavailable” error message telling them to go take a hike. But all that is going to change and we are going to get rid of the old squeaky system! Indian Railways has announced a grand plan of shelling out 100 Crore Rupees to upgrade the IRCTC poral’s booking capacity to 7200 e-tickets a minute before this financial year ends!!
IRCTC – The Indian Internet Superpower!
Hallelujah! 7200 tickets a minute! That is like, more than a crore tickets a day! Hell yeah!! Now all you need to is put on that Rocky theme music, close your eyes and let your fingers do the talking as you book tickets faster than you can say Mangala Lakshwadeep Express. Now you will not have to crib, crave and fret about that Sleeper ticket on the GT to travel down from (IIT) Delhi to Chennai to meet your girlfriend (and later write a book about it). Move over, Google, Amazon and Exbii (now xossip.com), India’s own superpower of the Internetz has arrived! Just wait as we close our eyes and our fingers thunder across the keyboard as book train tickets with our newly-found Jim Carrey-esque Internet superpowers!
So you will get that Tatkal Ticket finally? Nope. Sorry to bake your noodle, but none of the sort is going to happen. In the end, you will still have to squeeze out airfares through your nose or sweat it out in ball-squeezingly crowded general compartments. You are NOT going to get that Tatkal ticket, not even if IRCTC has infinite-tickets-a-minute computing power, forget 7200. Because as Indians it is deeply integrated in our DNA that our much-celebrated superpower of jugaad should be applied to fix things that are broken, to treat symptoms instead of the disease, to cut off the limb for a small wound, to ban mannequins to prevent rape. We never address the real problem but apply paint to over them instead of fixing the cracks.
Why Will Increasing IRCTC Server Capacity Not Help?
Let us assume that IRCTC gets infinite everything-power capable of delivering infinite services a minute (yes, it is difficult even to imagine this, but take a deep breath and summon all your mental power). This magical increase in IRCTC’s power will not cause the number of trains, the coaches in them or the seats in them to increase accordingly. We will still have the same number of creaking trains with the same number of insufficient berths running on the same congested tracks. We still have the single-line track running over 40 trains a day and we will still have the same Island Express with the same 151 Sleeper berths in Tatkal quota as it does now. Right now 50,000 people scramble for as many tickets on a website that does not work. Then, the same 50,000 people will scramble for the same number of tickets on a lightning-fast portal. With no server downs and error messages, whoever can type/paste faster than others will be able to corner all the tickets first, resulting in all Tatkal tickets being sold out by 1003 after sales open at 1000 hrs. What will happen when 500 people jump into the same lake to grab the same 151 fish? The first lucky 151 birds will get the worms. er, fish. Tatkal tickets. The remaining 349 people will find themselves in the same situation they are now, with a WL/REGRET message shoved up their face (minus the Service Unavailable message). You wrongly input a digit of your credit card number? You turned around to swat a mosquito? Boom! There goes your ticket. The Usain Bolts of the Internetz will inherit the Indian Railways. The demand will remain astronomically high as it is now, the supply will remain abysmally low as it is now, only the medium will change which will make no difference.
There is another fallout. IRCTC superstars with their lightning fingers cornering all the tickets will leave the lesser privileged aam aadmis standing in queue at PRS counters with egg on their faces. To combat this the railways will probably split the Tatkal quota into online Tatkal quota and counter Tatkal quota making the whole thing even more complicated. And agents and touts with far more experience in booking tickets faster will still be able to corner more tickets bringing us back to where we started. Unless the number of tracks and trains running on high capacity routes are increased and more efficient rolling stock and systems are put in place, the great Indian ticket booking game will go on. But this cannot be achieved partly because no one gives a damn about real solutions. And even if someone does, people will not give up their land for the nation to build railway lines even if their lives depended on it.
Why is the IRCTC Website Performance so Bad?
Imagine a loaf of bread being distributed among a thousand people. Each person will get an insignificant dust of a crumb which is of no use. When the machines that rule over us created the rules of the Matrix, they applied the same rule for IRCTC servers and loaves of bread because the programmer who designed this rule apparently didn’t get a hike. Irctc.co.in is not some run-off-the-mill small time website like vadakkus.com which gets some 200 hits a day. On an average day, IRCTC books around 4.15 lakh e-tickets! The site has a capacity to handle 1.2 lakh concurrent transactions and to book around 2000 tickets a minute. On an average Friday at 10 am, 800,000 people hit the portal trying to book tickets and the site promptly goes down. IRCTC is only the front-end of the booking system through a web and mobile interface which is interfaced with the CONCERT PRS booking database of the railways where all the real data (DB) is stored. IRCTC has 58 webservers of their own and plans to increase these to handle the increased load. The site works on the Broadvision e-commerce platform. The only single railway system in the World which sells more tickets than IRCTC is the Japanese Railway Group (JR). Even the Chinese haven’t been able to find a working solution to allow the masses to book railway tickets online. So we can be happy in the fact that we are ahead of China in at least one field. But it would do good to cut IRCTC some slack, as the booking and seat allocating algorithms it uses are among some of the most complex in the World. The reservation system of the Indian Railways handles real-time seat availability queries and reserved ticket booking for permutations and combinations of 3000+ trains of 12 different types in 8 different classes in 70+ different quotas for 800+ stations for 60 days across 5000+ PRS counters, thousands of agents, quite a number of agent websites and the IRCTC portal. But hey, who cares, right?
The real problem here is not IRCTC’s speed or capability. The real problem is that there are simply not enough trains and seats as required to meet the huge traveling demands of our astronomical population. The Tatkal quota itself is a result and offspring of this problem of inadequacy and not a solution of any kind! If there were enough trains to meet everyone’s needs, the Tatkal system itself wouldn’t have been required. Until this real-world capacity problem is addressed, IRCTC Tatkal tickets will remain what they are now: A Lottery.