Long Lines and System Limitations Drive the Need for Change
The Center for Railway Information Systems (CRIS) was created in 1986 by the Ministry of Railways to be an umbrella organization for all computer activities for Indian Railways. As a technology partner, CRIS conceptualizes and realizes technology-driven business transformation initiatives, through consulting and IT services to Indian Railways.
Before the UTS, unreserved tickets had to be purchased at the railway station from which the passengers were departing and were available for purchase only one hour prior to departure. Unreserved passengers have had little choice but to wait in serpentine queues at congested stations to buy their tickets. This process gave rise to considerable passenger discomfort, and at the same time posed a number of operational and administrative problems for Indian Railways including system downtime, lost revenue, fraud, cumbersome reporting and accounting, and high maintenance costs.
The conventional ticketing system used printed cards based on different series of ticket stock classified by destination, time, class, and route. The sale was carried out through staffed service counters with a long queue of people waiting to buy the tickets. These counters were destination and route specific, so lines for popular destinations could not be allocated over a number of counters, but were limited to a single, long line. Additionally, monitoring of counter staff performance was difficult, as there were no means to check opening times and hourly per clerk transactions. So instead of focusing on the primary task of selling tickets effectively, a large amount of effort was expended in backend jobs like ticket inventory and distribution.
To address these problems and to reduce queues, the SPTM system was introduced. This was a computerized system where a standalone PC was connected to a number of ‘dumb' clients. However, there were a number of significant drawbacks to this system as it was enabled for a particular station only: Ticket cancellations were limited to the issuing ticket counter of that station; there was no online accounting and ticketing was limited to only those destinations served by that PC; fare changes and other database updates had to be carried out at each terminal at every station; and transaction data storage was at station level and was prone to manipulation and physical damage.
In short, this interim solution did not adequately meet the Indian Railways requirements for its users, or ultimately, for passengers.
The Unreserved Ticketing System
Determined to remedy these problems, under the directive of the Ministry of Railways, CRIS undertook the creation of a new system for issuing unreserved tickets. The result? The Unreserved Ticketing System (UTS).
UTS is a complete solution providing computerized unreserved tickets to railway passengers from dedicated counter terminals, automatic vending machines, and other venues. UTS also incorporates additional functionalities like cross-counter cancellation of tickets issued from any station, and advance booking of unreserved tickets up to 3 days, neither of which were previously possible. It also enables fare enquiries, ensures correct accounting of tickets issued, and minimizes the possibility of manipulation and ticket misuse. In addition to providing centralized system administration and software upgrades, new terminals, users, location, routes, etc. can be easily added.
Complemented with a user-friendly interface, this new system eliminates the high personnel resource requirements, high costs of printing, packing and stacking ticket cards, and problems of defacing and forgery.
The New System: Automated Ticketing, High Availability and Data Synchronization
The entire countrywide system of Indian railways is distributed in nine data centers with each data center encompassing a number of zones. The Unix-based servers in each data center and station deploy Sybase ASE, Sybase Replication Server and leverages the high availability Sybase subsystems. CRIS deploys Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise (ASE) with the High Availability (HA) option to provide database management capability at each of its area servers, and SQL Anywhere mobile database for better information management at the thin clients. The ASE HA subsystem is configured to ensure near-zero downtime, and SQL Anywhere is a full- featured yet easily embeddable DBMS.
The application layer is developed in C++ while Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise (ASE) is used as the database to drive the unreserved ticketing application. The UTS architecture has been designed with the approach of "no single point of failure." The consolidated database resides on an area server, connecting all the stations within that zone while the remote database, SQL Anywhere, resides on each individual thin client installed at various stations. The thin client is an independent small-footprint server performing ticketing operations running a ‘light' Linux operating system. These ticketing functions and transaction details are stored in its Flash ROM. The SQL Anywhere thin clients update the zonal server every few minutes with transaction information for cancellation and accounting, increasing the uptime and availability of the system considerably.
For example, suburban ticketing in a large city like Mumbai requires up-to-the¬ second precision support to enable time-starved individuals to board trains on time. Also, to reduce the queue length at the booking counters, a new technology of Automatic Ticket Vending Machines (ATVM) has been introduced. These kiosks are embedded with Sybase SQL Anywhere and along with the use of RFID smart cards, enable customers to buy tickets through a user-friendly application supporting regional languages (in addition to English and Hindi) facilitating the issuance of tickets without any human interaction.
The bi-directional synchronization between thin clients and area server is performed by Sybase MobiLink Server. Dynamic information, i.e. transactions done by thin clients, is transferred to a synchronization server where these are stored till they are successfully replicated to the area server. Similarly, static information (routes, etc.) to be transferred from the area server to the thin clients is also routed through the synchronization server which ensures a successful replication to thin clients. Additionally, every transaction occurring at a few critical stations identified only in Northern Railway is replicated to an area server using Sybase Replication Server.
The combined Sybase-powered system enables ‘Always Available' operations. This allows for ticketing operations to continue uninterrupted, even if links to area servers are down, as well as provides database and synchronization infrastructure in areas with extremely poor connectivity.
UTS: Delivering Value, Security and Consistency
Employing cutting-edge Sybase technology, the Unreserved Ticketing System delivers non-stop ticketing at remote locations, easy embedding of the ticketing application to Disk-On-Chip, eliminates the possibility of fraud, is an extremely cost-effective solution for regions with limited or poor connectivity, reduces passenger lines and crowds at booking offices and stations, and improves the customer experience. With UTS, the dramatic increase in railway traffic in recent years has been accommodated effortlessly with no additional personnel.
One of the key success factors of this solution is that it allows for continued ticketing service even in case of un-availability of back-end infrastructure. A second major successful element is administrative efficiency. The advent of UTS has meant a reliable delivery system. The previous problems of out ¬of-stock tickets, demand estimation, long queues, and inventory management have been eliminated. Ticket distribution is quick – in less than 20 seconds. Also, up to four passengers can now be accommodated on a single ticket, whereas previously, every passenger was issued an individual card ticket.
The system has streamlined the process and provided greater transparency. The procedure for accounting of the printed card tickets and the money collected from their issue was always a major concern and rigorous inspections were required to prevent and detect fraud. Today, this accounting has become a non-issue — resolved by a database that rests safely on the server. The UTS also has special security features to prevent fraudulent ticket printing.
Sybase and CRIS – The Fast Track to Success
The award-winning solution created by CRIS handles 60% of Indian Railway's total unreserved traffic today, yielding average revenue of about USD$4.7 million daily. Passengers can immediately buy an unreserved return ticket for any of the 8,520 trains that cover about 63,000 km of track. With Sybase technology, the unprecedented UTS system has simplified Indian Railway operations and administration, in addition to providing superior service to the passengers.