The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Net or cell, rush is for queues for a ticket to ride

New Delhi, Feb. 8: The railways have gone tech-savvy — tickets can now be booked on the Internet and mobile phones. However, a reality check shows that there are few takers for these options.

The ticket windows at the railway booking counters remain the best bet. And if they run out of tickets, the shifty-eyed tout is in great demand.

Fourteen months ago, Union railway minister Nitish Kumar announced Net booking with a lot of fanfare.

However, out of the 6.5 lakh tickets sold across the country everyday, only 3,000 are booked on the Internet.

In last week’s interim railway budget, Kumar had announced that tickets could also be booked over mobile phones. But how many will use this option is uncertain.

Railway officials refuse to hazard a guess, but they reckon things might change when the mindset of the Indian railway passenger does.

It will depend on how quickly passengers realise the benefits of the alternative ticket booking system.

“The numbers will grow fast and online booking will get a boost as a result of this decision. The reason for low numbers of online ticketing is the fact that in India, not many people have credit cards and Internet connections. However, there are more than 30 million phones,” said M.. Chopra, the managing director of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), the subsidiary of the Indian Railways responsible for booking tickets through the Internet.

However, statistics released by the department of telecommunications show there are about 4 million Internet subscribers and 20 million users — making them potential users of online booking. There are also about 4 million credit card holders in India.

“It is a combination of mindset and those who do not understand how to book on the Internet. It has been a slow process, but it should pick up with more advertisement and education,” said V.K Agarwal, former chairman of the Railway Board.

Only 8 million out of the 33 million mobile phone users will be able to use the facility of booking tickets on their phones as it will be made available only on those handsets that can browse the Net.

About 6.5 lakh tickets are booked everyday and 1.3 crore passengers travel on 8,500 trains run by the railways.

“Their journeys can start in any part of India and end in any other part, with travel times as long as 48 hours and distances up to several thousand kilometres. The challenge is to provide a reservation system that can support such a huge scale of operations — regardless of whether it is measured in kilometres, passenger numbers, routing complexity or simply the sheer scale of India,” said a senior official of the Railway Board.

“The aim is to make it easier and simple. The reservation of tickets online and through mobile phones is an attempt to leverage the benefits of technology to help passengers,” the official added.

The total number of reserved tickets sold each day, including suburban tickets, is about 10 lakh.

While 40 per cent of the passengers hold season tickets and many are daily passengers, about 75,000-1 lakh travel without tickets, admitted a senior Railway Board official.

The Indian Railways is the second largest in the world with 6,853 stations, 63,028 km of track, 37,840 passenger coaches and 222,147 freight cars. It carries some 4.83 billion passengers and 492 million tons of freight.

The passenger reservation system was started in 1985 as a pilot project to provide reserved accommodation on any train from any counter.

“The availability of tickets through Internet became effective from last year, and the reservation of tickets from mobile phones will become operational within a month. We are also bullish about starting a new service by the middle of this year that will allow passengers to book their tickets online, print the ticket at home or any cyber café and board the train. They will have to pay the train fare to the ticket collector on the train,” said a senior executive with the IRCTC.

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