IRCTC’s next-gen system is a nightmare

Rajkamal RAo | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on March 07, 2017

Height of frustration: An IRCTC ticket booking experience?

The much-hyped, ‘revamped’ website is a poor demonstration of India’s technological competence and finesse

With much fanfare in 2014, Indian Railways announced that the launch of its Next Generation Reservation System from IRCTC — a massive ₹180 crore rewrite — was going to make passenger travel easier. The new system boasted a host of new easy-to-use features, including showing train availability for multiple dates, across multiple classes, in dedicated tabs.

The relaunch was, after all, badly needed. The old system’s user interface was terrible. Page changeovers were horribly designed. The infrastructure was clearly not sized to handle demand because logins would frequently time out under load. Or connections to the site would drop during booking, leaving passengers frustrated and in limbo.

Today, the site is more stable than before but the clunky user interface continues to haunt users. India is supposed to be a superpower maintaining computer systems and sites of companies around the world. But the IRCTC website is a poor demonstration of India’s technological competence and finesse.

Confusion galore

Logging on to the website, travellers are still expected to know the names of destinations that only the Railways uses — not the other way around. Try booking a ticket to Kolhapur. You just can’t because this important town, home to one of the most sacred temples in India, is not listed. You will have to perform a Google search to learn that the official Indian Railways name is C Shahumharaj Train Station. Who in the world would ever know this? Couldn’t the website designers add Kolhapur in the dropdown?

Assuming you get past this hurdle, the first confusion is when the site responds to your request to show availability. The Railways has clung on to ticket codes and abbreviations from the days of the Raj — shorthand which made sense when everything needed to fit into a small paper form. It is bizarre that a computerised system should still be restricted in this manner.

What in the world does GNWL145/WL80 mean? The site helpfully defines WL as “Wait List” and RAC as “Reservation Against Cancellation” but why is GNWL not defined? How can you have two different status priorities such as GNWL15/RAC94 be listed together?

Veteran train enthusiasts may remark in jest that one needs to know this lingo or is otherwise not fit to travel by India’s trains. But the reality is that many travellers, especially senior citizens, find these codes breathtakingly confusing.

Senior woes

On the booking page where you list passenger details, age and gender are important fields. Suppose a person in your travelling party is a woman who is 74 years old. A separate box asks if this person is a Senior Citizen. But, wait. Can’t the site figure this out automatically? If by error you don’t select “Yes” to the Senior Citizen question, the site denies you the discount and doesn’t say so until after the transaction completes.

On inquiry, an IRCTC agent told me later that unless you specifically ask for the Senior Citizen discount, you don’t get it even if the traveller qualifies. Nor can the discount be retroactively granted. Wouldn’t it have been better if the system was designed to get you the lowest fare that you qualify for regardless of whether you ask for discounts?

Now, on to seat selection. The desire of passengers to know and select which seat they will spend their journey in before they commit to the trip — window or aisle, side seats or regular, lower berth or top berth, central part of a car or towards the end — is not only reasonable but is expected in any kind of reservation system. It is also something airlines charge extra for.

The new IRCTC system still not only does not show a seat/berth map to allow you to choose your seat, it seems to complicate everything. Suppose you want a lower berth as a precondition to travel. You can request a lower berth by checking a radio button.

But unless you choose a second button that forbids the system from booking a ticket if at least one lower berth is assigned, your original preference is generally simply ignored.

And the unkindest cut of all: your assigned seat is revealed to you only after the financial transaction is complete.

Wrong steps

If your preference for lower berth is denied, the system thankfully provides you with a choice to either proceed with the reservation or not, without penalty. But remember that money from your bank has already been debited for what potentially is not yet a completed transaction.

If you choose to abandon the transaction at this stage, the system gravely marks the transaction “failed”. Not “transaction cancelled by user because IRCTC did not grant user’s request”, but “transaction failed”, as though there was some technical/user problem somewhere.

IRCTC is good at issuing refunds to the original payment mode (bank, credit card) when passengers cancel tickets but it is not clear if failed transactions automatically trigger refunds. There is no acknowledgement by IRCTC about failed transactions — only successful transactions merit an email. To be safe, passengers are forced to log in to their IRCTC accounts under the failed transactions heading and write to IRCTC requesting a refund. And then continue to follow up with the bank to see that the money is back in. Architects of the IRCTC system need only visit the websites of private bus aggregators such as Redbus, bus companies such as VRL, or public bus corporations such as KSRTC to learn a few simple tricks about online ticket management.

These latter organisations do not have ₹180 crore to spend on a system rewrite. But their websites are a lot more user-friendly than the Next Generation Reservation System of one of the largest rail networks in the world.

The writer is the managing director of Rao Advisors LLC, Texas

Published on March 07, 2017
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