In the past few years, Indian Railways (IR) has realised the importance of leveraging technology for driving business efficiency, delivering quality service and ensuring customer convenience. A much-needed push has come in the form of the Digital India initiative, which promises to transform the service delivery experience offered to travellers. IR has undertaken several initiatives including the roll-out of Wi-Fi services at various stations, the launch of integrated mobile applications, and the introduction of paperless and cashless ticketing to improve customer interface. Further, the usage of drones and geospatial-based satellite technology has improved project management and monitoring significantly.
tele.net takes a look at some of these initiatives taken by the railways…
The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) is providing e-catering services, which allow passengers to order meals of their choice from railway as well as private caterers. Since its trial across 45 stations in September 2015, the service has now been extended to all of the major 408 stations in the country.
Passengers need to provide their PNR number at the time of ordering their meal. The food gets delivered to the passengers at the station they had requested it for when their train arrives. Currently, 140 trains provide e-catering services to their passengers. In addition to the meals supplied by its own Jan Ahaar cafeterias, food plazas and fast food units, IRCTC has collaborated with food suppliers such as Bikanervala, Nirula’s, Sagar Ratna, Saravana Bhavan, Haldiram’s, McDonald’s, Domino’s and Pizza Hut for this service.
IRCTC has also introduced the e-bedroll service, which allows passengers to book bedrolls online. They can also buy these over the counter at select stations. The takeaway bedroll kit is priced at Rs 250 and includes two bed sheets, a pillow and a blanket for overnight journeys.
Besides passenger-focused services, there has been an increased adoption of technology to enhance day-to-day business processes and make them more transparent. For instance, travelling ticket examiners (TTEs) in Northern Railway have been provided with special hand-held devices to expedite the process of information exchange with IR’s master server. TTEs are able to download information through GPRS, update the charts regarding vacant seats, collect excess fare, penalty and other charges, as well as issue printed receipts to passengers in a timely manner. This information is then sent back to hand-held terminal application servers, passenger reservation system (PRS) terminals and the IR website.
Mobile ticketing and payments
IR has launched a mobile application for booking unreserved tickets, utsonmobile. It has been developed with the help of the Centre for Railway Information Systems and allows passengers to download their tickets, thus eliminating the need to carry a printout. The application, which is currently being used to book unreserved tickets in places like Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi has not seen significant uptake. One of the main reasons stated for this is the mandatory usage of IR’s own e-wallet for booking tickets. The application requires passengers to first load money into their IRCTC e-wallet account and then book a ticket.
In a bid to encourage usage of this app, IR has been contemplating partnerships with commercial e-wallet players such as Paytm, MobiKwik and Airtel Money, which are being increasingly used to book movie tickets, pay utility bills, etc. In fact, with the government’s recent demonitisation move, there is immense scope for collaboration with commercial mobile wallets.
RailTel, in association with Google, is implementing the Station Wi-Fi project. Under this partnership, RailTel is providing high speed, end-to-end network connectivity on optic fibre, while Google is providing the radio access network along with technology support.
The project, touted as the biggest such project in the world, will connect 400 stations with Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi service has so far been commissioned at over 60 stations with 3.3 million users availing of it on a monthly basis. The average bandwidth usage stands at 500 Mbps per day. This service is expected to provide a suitable platform for internet of things (IoT) and other railway-based applications to proliferate.
Drones and GPS monitoring
IR is exploring the deployment of drones for monitoring track-laying projects. To this end, it has contracted a private operator to provide drone services to monitor the ongoing dedicated freight corridor (DFC) project in Rajasthan and Bihar, at Rs 3,000 per km. The drone is being used to ascertain the progress on the 42 km long track between Baghega and Srimadhopur in Rajasthan and on the 56 km long line between Durgawati and Sasaram in Bihar. IR is currently implementing around 170 projects, which involve laying new lines and doubling tracks, and it is expected to employ drone contractors to monitor the progress.
IR also plans to use the drone aerial survey service for providing assistance during rescue missions in the event of a train accident. In addition, it is in the process of implementing a GPS monitoring system.
Railway display network
IR has proposed a Rail Display Network (RDN), a high-tech centralised network of screens across major stations to enable real-time flow of information to passengers. It also plans to unlock the revenue potential of leasing screen space for digital advertising.
RailTel is responsible for conducting the feasibility study and the project is currently recommended for proof of concept (PoC), which is under implementation at the Old Delhi, Gorakhpur, Gwalior, Jaipur and Varanasi stations. Zee Media will be conducting the PoC at the Old Delhi and Varanasi stations.
In the long term, the project is envisaged to cover over 2,000 stations with a network of 100,000-plus networked displays. This would include a minimum of 20 screens per platform. Further, the concourse, waiting halls, reservation areas, foot overbridges, etc. will be covered. These screens will run on a centralised content delivery platform, giving information pertaining to trains and PRS, and real-time infotainment.
Going forward, the new services launched by IR as a part of its commitment to the Digital India initiative aims to ensure an easy, convenient and improved travel experience for passengers. In addition, these initiatives will open up a plethora of opportunities as IR looks to collaborate with private players for their roll-out, thus generating additional revenues. For instance, collaborating with mobile wallet companies will bring additional revenues as it will help earn commissions on each ticket sold as well as retainer fees. Similarly, RDNs promise high revenues as the digital medium is gaining popularity amongst advertisers. IR expects to earn up to Rs 100 billion through coach, wagon and station advertising.
Net, net, with IR leveraging technology and telecom tools in a big way, millions of passengers travelling on trains can now look forward to a digitally enhanced experience.
Akanksha Mahajan Marwah