Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation
The mere mention of the website of IRCTC is bound to make any seasoned railway traveler start quaking. This is not out of any disrespect to Indian Railways. After all it is one of the largest railway networks in the world (and according to Wikipedia the 9th largest commercial employer!). It transports about 30 million people every day. You just have to walk into Chennai Central station at any point during the day and you realise immediately that this is a city by itself- a city with its own rules and codes. Anyway it’s only the online portal of the company that I’ll be talking about.
In the 90s when we used to go on our family annual holidays, we always took the train. And back in those days you went to the railway station as soon as you made your plans (the bookings opened 60 days ahead- remember India has a very large population- if you snooze, you definitely lose), filled in a form, stood in line respectfully and handed it over to the person behind the counter. You then held your breath to see if you managed to get a ticket or get put on a waiting list- which is a system that was probably devised by a mathematician wanting to test people on their skills in evaluating probability- long story.
Anyway the 90s are long gone (sometimes I can’t believe that! Like wasn’t it the 90s just a few years ago?) and so of course the Indian Railways also gets itself a swanky new website where you can (hold your breath) book your tickets online. What they probably didn’t bank on was the number of people who would try to log in to the website simultaneously trying to book tickets.
From 2002 until 2011 I didn’t travel by long distance trains in India except on one occasion (I still took the suburban lines to commute everyday for a few years) so it is fair to say that I missed this online revolution completely. And call it beginner’s luck- the first time I actually tried booking a ticket in 2011, the transaction went through exactly as it was supposed to- no mishaps (I am still trying to figure out what I did right then- was it the time of the day? was it the credit card I used? was it the server I was accessing it from??????). I looked at the people dissing the IRCTC website on social media and believed they were snobs.
Luck runs out- sometimes sooner than later. The next time I tried using the website I could almost immediately feel that something was amiss. The home page had loaded quickly enough but it was taking ages to log in after I had typed in my user name and password. Some eons later, when I was actually looking at another tab, the website had logged me in. When I finally realised that I am logged in I type in the station details only for the website to tell me it had already logged me out as I had been inactive for far too long (WHAT!!!!!). Anyway back to the home page and same thing once again except this time I stare hawk eyed at the page willing all my energies on the page to load. No luck- the wheel of death keeps spinning and after a few minutes I lose patience and close the window.
I get a nagging suspicion- what if the people complaining about the website were actually right? I still persist in my belief and open another window. This time the system logs me in reasonably quickly- “There you go!” you think “that wasn’t so hard was it!”. You type in the details for your stations and the website even shows you the entire list of all trains running between those stations and the availability for each train and category (you can see if you will actually get a ticket or get put on a waiting list). (***Crazy! As I write this I get an email from IRCTC- maybe they sense something is on the way!***)
But once again you hit a wall after you’ve chosen the train- the page refuses to load and whilst you’re away checking your emails on the other tab/ window the page has loaded silently. You panic when you see that it has loaded and quickly type the passenger details. You hit go and then either nothing happens or you get told that you have been logged out because of inactivity- arrrrrrrrrrrrgh! Sometimes you don’t even get there- you cannot decipher the enigmatic captcha code that sits on the reservation page and of course trying to reload another code is like asking to get slapped.
Depending on how desperate/ bored you are you keep retrying the process (once I spent 4 hours trying to book a train ticket between Chennai and Bangalore) until you get to the page where you can actually click on a button that says make payment. On the payment page there are ominous signs- the website has rated different payment gateways depending on their levels of success (the maximum is 80%- despair ye all!). I take something that has an 80% success rate- use my regular credit card- the first step goes through and I’m then taken to the card company website for the 3d code (I know they are trying to protect us against fraud but sometimes putting in another step means another step for failure). I type in my code and then am promptly told that my transaction is declined. I panic wonder if my card has been deactivated.
Relentlessly (at this point it’s you or the website) you close the page and open it again and login (after about 5 trials). You see an option that says quick book and head there. It seems promising- you enter train number, passenger details and card details all on the same page. You then click the button saying go and nothing happens. I mean that the button go is a dud- you can’t click it. Somebody needs to inform IRCTC that they have a bug right there. This is the stage where you are ready to fling random objects at other random objects/ people.
The trick is to let go and then try again after a while. This way the website also feels that it won and when you log back in- doesn’t mind letting you book a ticket because it feels magnanimous. Sounds crazy? Well you try booking tickets every week and sooner or later you will be feeling the same way. Remember I called the others snobs!
And I am not even talking about booking tatkal tickets (a certain proportion of tickets are released only one day prior to the journey so as to allow people with genuine emergencies etc book- it’s a crazy game that- I haven’t even tried it!)
Of course the website has genuine challenges- the number of people attempting to access it, lack of funds (it’s government owned but if you look at the fares sometimes you want to laugh because it is unimaginably inexpensive to travel by train in India) etc. Still getting better online infrastructure would be one better way to make the entire journey less traumatic.
I had to do I for IRCTC. Wondering what I will do next?