C Y Gopinath : How not to book a train ticket

May 29, 2018, 06:37 IST | C Y Gopinath

Rule#1: Don't do it through the Indian Railways online booking website. Unless you enjoy going slowly mad

User interfaces of Eurail
User interfaces of Eurail

C Y GopinathIf you should type 'Indian Railways online booking' as keywords into Google Search, the top hit will be www.irctc.co.in. IRCTC stands for Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited. The website's title on the search list is impressive: IRCTC Next Generation eTicketing System.

Who knew the Indian Railways had cracked the generation barrier and entered the future of railway e-ticketing? Adrenaline rushes through your veins as you excitedly click the link to see yet more proof that the new India is ahead of the rest even in such simple matters as buying a train ticket. Don't hold your breath. Whoever decided to call it the next generation of train e-ticketing has only travelled from one village to the next in the back seat of a bullock cart.

I'm not a website designer, but like you, I'm a keen student. Here's what I learnt right away about Next Generation Railway e-Ticketing user interfaces.

IRCTC's Next Generation Railway e-Ticketing System
IRCTC's Next Generation Railway e-Ticketing System

1. They don't believe in cluttering up space with gorgeous photos and graphics of train travel, tourist sites, promotional deals and so on. Instead, they offer you a mysterious, large white space.

2. They use tiny typefaces. Reading what's written becomes a multi-player game. Senior citizens are invited to fish out their magnifying glasses or enlist the nearest grandkid.

3. They understand chaos. Years of experience with pandemonium has taught the Indian Railways that websites must mimic life itself, and be stunningly meaningless and chaotic.

4. They don't believe in using graphic designers or UX specialists. The Indian Railways is a standalone UX experience all by itself.

SITTING IN BANGKOK, I tried just for heck to book a Goa-Mumbai ticket by the recently launched Tejas Express, which runs back and forth between Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) and Karmali, north Goa. I'd heard much about this amazing train, built with cutting edge technology that actually enabled doors to close automatically — ground-breaking! And whose toilets were clean — never before! And odourless — another first for India! Plus, the taps magically sensed your hands and released water automatically! More proof of the rise of India as a global player.

I quickly realised that while ticket booking happens at irctc.co.in/eticketing, you have to go to a different website to find out which trains go where (enquiry.indianrail.gov.in). This site has a cutting edge feature called auto-predict, which tries to guess which station you're trying to type. After breezing thus through Karmali, I tried typing 'Mumbai'. Nothing happened. Now I tried Chhatrapati — maybe it was called Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus. But nope. You have to presciently start typing 'C Shivaji' — and only then, the name appears as you'd never have expected it: C Shivaji Maharaj T.

Who'd have thunk it? The enquiry showed me that the Tejas ran on all days except Mondays and Thursdays. So now I went to the Next Generation site to book a seat. Hmmm.
'This site cannot be reached'.

No, I'm not being finicky. IRCTC's servers are down more than up. Even when booking through a travel portal like Yatra.com or MakeMyTrip.com, you will be redirected to the Indian Railways Next Generation website, to be told that the servers are not responding.

Certain fine print reveals that IRCTC only allows ticketing during half-hour windows between 8 am to noon of India time, making it even harder for those in other time zones. What if I'd been in Vanuatu or Kiribati? To book on IRCTC, you must log in at their convenience, not yours. Never mind that the Internet never sleeps. When the website finally loads, the IRCTC train list for that Friday didn't show any Tejas Express.

I still don't know if the Tejas Express runs on that Friday or not, because the Next Generation Railway e-Ticketing website says it does and that it doesn't. I finally booked an air ticket.

IT'S NOT THAT INDIA DOES NOT have world-class website designers. Both Yatra.com and MakeMyTrip.com have stunning, attractive and high-performance designs and an outstanding user experience.

But the multi-faceted Indian Railways bureaucrat is yet to realise that the web page, unlike a paper page, is endlessly long. Things can be bold and giant. And that Gandhian economy and austerity need not rule. He doesn't have to save paper and ink or print on khadi.

A week earlier, I'd booked Eurail train tickets online (www.eurail.com/en) for my daughter to travel in Europe. Unlike IRCTC, Eurail's was just a plain vanilla This Generation e-ticketing system, issuing mere train e-tickets and e-passes. You couldn't, for example, order a pizza.

Maybe the Indian Railways should take a step back before it takes a step forward. Maybe I should have gone to Salzburg.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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