From ticket-booking blues and fraud passengers to unclean coaches and unhygienic food on trains - rail minister Pawan Kumar Bansal on Tuesday unleashed technology as his weapon to solve the myriad problems passengers face from the moment they decide to travel, all the way through their actual journey.
India will join countries like the US and UK in allowing passengers to book electronic rail tickets on mobile phones, and the railways will soon start SMS alerts to passengers on their reservation status, Bansal announced on Tuesday in his first rail budget.
Bansal's strategy to use technology as a key tool in improving passenger experiences represents a stark contrast to the earthy kullad that came to epitomise the tenure of former rail minister Lalu Prasad, credited with turning around the railways' financial fortunes during UPA-1. Under Prasad, the railways replaced plastic cups with kullads on stations and trains in an environment-friendly move that was aimed at helping potters and improving the experience of passengers sipping beverages.
To improve catering standards, Bansal instead announced that all railway kitchens would be ISO certified, and that the railways are signing agreements with independent food testing laboratories. A toll free number - 1800111321 - where passengers can complain about caretaking services was launched on January 18.
The railways will introduce free Wi-Fi connectivity on select trains "to cater to the increasing aspirations and requirements of our youth," Bansal said. He announced a pilot project to create a mechanism by which passengers can SMS, phone or email complaints, for immediate, on-the-spot redresssal by staff on the train. Announcement facilities and electronic display boards on trains will alert passengers about approaching stations.
The Aadhar programme to create unique identities will be used for GPS-enabled passenger verification, to reduce the losses suffered by the railways because of ticketless and fraudulent travellers.
But the technology solutions - if implemented as announced by Bansal - may help passengers most in booking tickets more easily. The railway e-ticketing website, which frequently crashes at peak hours, will be enhanced to support 7200 tickets every minute, instead of 2000 at present, and to accommodate 1,20,000 simultaneous users instead of just 40,000 today.
Internet ticketing will also be opened up for a longer, 23-hour daily window - from 12:30am to 11:30pm.