Ever wondered that a train you just boarded was almost half empty, while you had remained waitlisted till the last day? Where are the other passengers who were ahead of you with confirmed seats? Did they all cancel their journey for some inexplicable reason?
This phenomenon is thanks to a few enterprising individuals, including travel agents, who book tickets ahead of a holiday rush in fictitious names, in the hope that some one would turn up matching the age and gender etc in urgent need to travel, and their ‘tout’ hovering near the booking office could make a kill.
Bad luck if he or she gets caught and penalised for travelling on a false identity. Unsold tickets would then be cancelled for a nominal charge before the deadline is reached, still leaving the individual or travel agent with a handsome profit from the sale of scores of tickets at a hefty premium.
This malpractice had been somewhat curbed with recent rules requiring passengers to carry proof of their identity, though some still take the risk of getting caught, willing to try their luck and hoping the TTE (travelling ticket examiner) could be persuaded to look the other way.
The Tatkal scheme introduced a few years ago, giving passengers an opportunity to book few tickets at a small premium from the IRCTC website, had been quite a success, until unscrupulous elements started cornering these tickets too, as soon as the time slot for booking them opened up.
However, blocking access to agents, Rail Travellers Service Agents (RTSAs), web service agents and web agents of IRCTC for the initial two hours did help genuine passengers to book ahead of them, though only for a while. Soon, a few computer-savvy parties struck back with a unique software which could upload a stack of applications to book Tatkal tickets within seconds of opening of a time slot.
Taking a cue from some airlines which charge a flat rate of R2,250 for cancellation or rescheduling—irrespective of the cost of the ticket—Indian Railways has recently introduced 50% of the cost of the ticket as penalty between 12 to 4 hours, and no refunds for any cancellations once the reservation chart had been prepared, i.e. 4 hours before the scheduled departure of a train.
This has put an end to refunds being claimed via their mobile phones by a few enterprising tech-savvy passengers even as they boarded a train, since they were in possession of a ticket and the reservation chart displayed their name.
As a result, there has been a visible jump of almost 10% more seats available for waitlisted passengers. With the introduction of more handheld devices, TTEs will now be able to not only detect such frauds, but also fine them on the spot, detrain them, and get them arrested if they are unable to pay the fine.
In a recent initiative, children aged between 5 and 12 will now be charged full tickets if they desire a full berth or a seat, and only half rate if they share a berth or seat with an adult, thereby making available an estimated 20 million extra berths or seats, while generating R525 crore annually from passengers paying full fare.
Minor irritants remain. For instance, a passenger with an RAC (reservation against cancellation) ticket has to depend on the mercy of the TTE or the conductor to allot him/her a seat or a berth likely to fall vacant when another passenger detrains at an intermediate station.
Universal availability of mobile phones and pan-India mobile coverage means that a passenger can receive an SMS allotting the vacant seat without any intervention by the TTE. A recent MoU signed with ISRO to track the passage of a train on a real-time basis will also enable a passenger to be in greater control of his/her travel plans.
Sky is the limit, and various initiatives are being worked upon by railway minister Suresh Prabhu and his team on top priority to eliminate the tout menace once and for all, enabling the passenger to book a ticket as and when needed, easily and without being cheated; no one would be allowed to jump the queue.
A la airlines, reservation charts and printed tickets in the Indian Railway universe may soon be things of the past.
The author is former member, Railway Board