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On Travel and Railways…

Posted on: 06 December '10

I was on a family vacation for a couple of weeks and I was amazed thinking about all the different modes we used for travel. Of course, reflecting further on it, I realize that when you’re in India, this is nothing but normal: we used the Train to travel from Bangalore to Kerala overnight. Inside my hometown of Thrissur (where my parents reside); we used an Auto rickshaw (for those who don’t know, this is a three wheeler that is unique to India and some other Asian countries). When it was not raining; my wife and I rode on a scooter. We walked to the nearby temple and took a Taxi to go to Munnar; a beautiful resort set in the mountains. We ended up using two wheels, three wheels, four wheels and scores of wheels for travel!

I used the Internet to find a resort at Munnar. However, I called them on the phone and negotiated a deal better than what was available on the Net. It’s really interesting to see how things have changed. Options have increased. Facilities have improved. Infrastructure has improved. And yet; stress levels have gone up. Why?

Part of the reason must be expectations. We expect more. In our childhood; just going to Munnar would be a dream come true. We would not care about the bed, the pillows, the food, or the drive. Now we are particular about everything.

I discovered the hottest commodity in India while planning this vacation. It is an AC 3 tier berth on the Indian Railways Train. The bookings open at around 8 AM; 90 days ahead of the travel. I tried to book this return berth at around 9:30 AM; 90 days ahead of our return and I was already on a waitlist. The risk averse person that I am, I also booked a (backup) normal sleeper ticket as well which also went into the waitlist. My prospects did not improve considerably in the ensuing 3 months. The wait lists only converted to sit and travel through the night on the sleeper. The AC 3 Tier just did not move.

While we were getting back in relative discomfort; my mind surprisingly wandered into the world of revenue management and technology. I wondered whether our Railway Authorities can maximize their profits from the current scarcity of berths. Would they know what type of reservations yield maximum profits? Which sector brings maximum revenues and which sector is bleeding? Can our authorities use this information to dynamically change pricing? Or alternatively, change the type of coaches in trains? Should they use more AC coaches than Sleeper coaches in some sectors?

Given the humungous volumes of data they generate from reservations every-day; I am sure it will be a simple exercise to mine and obtain actionable information. If there are sectors that always have waiting lists; one can increase the coaches. If some sectors do not have enough reservations, one can run a smaller train. One can use this information to also add new trains on sectors. We could charge more for lower berths and less for upper berths. We could even auction premium AC seats.

One argument I have heard often is that we cannot increase the number of bogies because Railway platforms are not that long. But major stations have longer platforms than smaller ones. Our authorities can ensure the last few coaches are used only for major station reservations.

A lot has changed in the last 20 years in India. Technology and affluence has increased facilities and expectations. However; the Train continues to be one of the most sought after modes of travel in India t. It is comfortable, inexpensive and devoid of traffic blocks. Gone are the days when trains would be hours late. The railways have brought in significant technology upgrades. We can make online reservations today. I am certain there have been other improvements through technology as well. But I am convinced much more can be done. While the Railways continue to serve the nation’s poor, they can utilize the latest in IT to deliver more.

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  • KP

    Nice article, Vinod. The data mining section made lot of sense, I never thought about it 🙂

  • Senthil Balakrishnan

    Nicely written.

    Indian Railways is the 2nd largest profit making public sector company & it was supposed to be filling bankruptcy in 2001. I guess the revenue optimization & huge measures of improvement have already gone into the system. Now it’s just matter of doubling it’s capacity as the demand is so high, so people like us can secure a reservation 🙂

  • Vinod

    Thanks for your feedback KP.

  • Uma Goudar

    It’s a nice article Vinod 🙂

  • Jas Sivakumar Janarthanan

    it is an interesting article. With so much of demand for railway tickets, that too with summer holidays approaching, i found the following site very useful in understanding the waitlist concept of indian railways.
    http://imran121.blogspot.com/2009/01/understanding-indian-railways-booking.html

  • Debasmita

    I think, Indian Railways are onto the track of using the reservarion data to find out the haut root (most travelled ones) and that when they have come up with the concet of Garib Rath (entire train is with AC facility & one needs to pay minimum amount for the spreadsheet & pillow) or Duronto (complete ac, food served to all passengers on-board & most interestingly – its a start point to end point booking)…
    Hope, utilizing own data approach is adopted across the travel industry to make travel headache free in India…