Indian Railways should arrive at Platform Number 1 [Of Org Structure, API, Data Platform]

Instead of divesting the core of Indian Railways, a better approach is to strengthen the core, and make it a platform on top of which other commercial services can exist!
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[Editorial notes: Today is the 160th anniversary of the first passenger train journey in India. Guest author, Sundar L brings a deeper perspective into how Indian Railways can leverage the platform.
Sundar earlier wrote a super insightful post :  Five things IRCTC ticketing site must fix: A geek’s wishlist for IRCTC/Indian Railways]

Finally Indian Railways are getting the attention they deserve as the country’s prime movers. Apart from business newspapers, mainstream blogs are discussing the railway budget with interest. A PM-aspirant has even proposed the privatisation of Indian Railways in his agenda. On the face of it, it sounds like a sensible thing to do. But, there have been a lot of opposing views based on past experience.

Google Doodle : Indian Railways
Google Doodle : Indian Railways

Of the three major railways that got “privatised”, only the Japanese case has had unambiguously positive results. Sweden and UK are facing a number of issues after privatisation. Chinese are going radical: because of large-scale corruption and inefficiencies, they’ve shut down the railway ministry altogether! Commercial operations are going to be corporatised while infrastructure goes to the transport ministry.

When it comes to India, let’s not just jump on privatisation as a panacea for all the ills and perceived ills of Indian Railways. Let’s structure the debate around the goals for such an organisation and then decide what’s best.

“Test disease, its cause and cure

And apply remedy that is sure.” – Thirukkural 948, translated by Suddhananda Bharathi

UNDP transportation expert M.Q.Dalvi has refuted the privatisation option based on socio-economic theory. He thinks that the Railways have more to lose than gain with privatisation and prefers corporatisation instead. I believe that private participation does help, but have a specific approach to suggest. Many of the goals of Indian Railways will suffer if the rolling stock (comprising the trains) is privatised. Hence, rolling stock along with the track infrastructure should be held as a basic utility unit. Build a commercial platform around this solid block and vest it with a newly-created Indian Rail Service Corporation or something like that.

Indian Railways : Org Structure
Indian Railways : Org Structure

Then, disentangle and corporatise all the allied services of railways with full autonomy. Grant equity to the central organisation in return for the assets they’ve spared to these allied companies. Encourage them to move out of Delhi if it makes sense. CRIS could be headquartered in Bangalore, CONCOR in Kolkata, Railtel in Chennai, and so on. Strive to make these become profitable (many of them already are). Allow joint ventures. Raise capital from the open market. CONCOR, IRCON, IRCTC, ICF etc. are already exploring non-rail markets and export markets. IRCTC now uses its food production capacity to serve IT companies and BPOs. In a way, this process of spawning off had begun years back, but some of the changes have been reversed recently. The current organisational structure should be radically altered for any improvement to happen. Operational control should rest in a CEO.

Divest suburban railways with the state governments and authorise them to take decisions in newer intra-state projects. Projects like Namma Railu can get off the ground faster.

Instead of merely focusing on divestment of existing properties, if railways are leveraged as a platform, there’s a huge scope for new value creation. Let private players build new stuff on top of the platform, pay for it, and monetise. Below are some services that sprouted (and some thrive) not with the Railways’ support, but despite the lack of it. They can all be showcase successes in a platform scenario.

Mera Food Choice and TravelKhanatravelkhana

Part of the travel experience is the gastronomic opportunity. Why not get fresh food from restaurants around passing by stations instead of limiting oneself to the hyper-standardised meal packets? In fact, I read a lament in an official rail magazine how chai specialties in various stations got replaced because of the rigid specifications of price and ingredients by railways.

Thankfully specialty snacks like the palkhova at Virudhunagar Station survived the rules. Mera Food Choice and Travelkhana have a growing network of restaurants from which they deliver great food at the stations. What if Railways got out of tendering out access rights and facilitated such ventures instead?

Pyka

Disclosure: It’s a product from Ideophone which I co-founded.

Your train passes through Nagpur at 2:30am. You keep an alarm for 2am. It buzzes on and on until the annoyed passenger at the next berth wakes you up. You get up, apologise to them, get down and look through the window to see where the train is. No idea. You anxiously wait for the next station, seated with half-a-butt on the berth where some Chachaji is snoring. And, all this time you’re oblivious to the fact that the train is running late by two hours!

Enter Pyka.

You get a wakeup call prior to your reaching time, taking the current running status of the train into account. After a successful pilot, we’re still waiting for more than a year for approvals for commercial use of the real-time train running data. The officials we’ve interacted with empathise with us, but since there’s only the tender precedent for Railways to buy services, they await a policy change (from the Railway Board) to allow API licensing model.

We even forged a partnership with a bigger company in the ticket booking space to bid for a tender for data access under the garb of maintaining the official website. However, the terms for use were too restrictive that it didn’t work out. Interestingly, National Rail UK sent us the API sharing agreement after just two emails from us. In the API model, there’s no discretion involved and decision-making is risk-free.

Travel planning and booking interfaces

When IRCTC decided to allow access to a special version of agent account to online booking companies, a number of innovations bloomed. Ngpay allowed mobile booking which was very flexible and time-saving. It had a mobile wallet, it allowed prefilling the form data, and had a number of nifty features (which later became default options in the official booking interface). Many a time, I’ve booked tickets while on the move. Similarly Cleartrip, Makemytrip etc. provided an airline-booking like interface for their users. Erail provides a hyper-optimised travel planning interface that also seems to minimise the number of hits to the railways websites. iXigo gives a natural language querying option too.

PNR Status Watchlist Plugin

A fellow entrepreneur found that PNR status is required in very many ways and over various media. With his Web 2.0 background, he built an API on top of his scraping script. He built a browser plugin himself using that API too. Once installed, every time you book a waitlisted ticket, the booking page will have a little ‘+’ button next to it. Click that and the plugin does the querying for you. It proactively informs with alerts at strategic intervals. And, if your ticket moved to confirmed status, it alerts you of the coach and berth just after the chart is prepared. This useful app and other proactive information services can be built if the API was exposed to developers for a fee.

Tripit for Indian Railway

I met the brothers behind this nice service for frequent rail travellers. It’s basically TripIt for Indian Railways. They had a lot of traction when they launched, but were taking the passengers’ IRCTC account authentication to get the journey details. Boom. They were called to Delhi and issued stern warnings. Yes, getting the auth details of a third party site is not the right way to do things. But, would they have done that if an oAuth platform existed?

IndiaRailInfo – PNR prediction

It’s one thing to proactively alert you of your waitlist status. You may also need to look at alternative arrangements if the chances are slim. How to do that? Indiarailinfo has an army of volunteers who predict your charting status by applying a variety of heuristics as well as data about individual trains! But, the site has to remain underground and “unofficial”. When I was discussing such applications with Indus Khaitan once, he just sprung up and said “if you can build an automatic PNR prediction system, I’ll back you.” Yeah, we can, but …

Conclusion

Privatisation, drastic cut down and similar approaches aim to work on the cost side to improve the operating ratio of Indian Railways. Instead of divesting the core of Indian Railways, a better approach is to strengthen the core, and make it a platform on top of which other commercial services can exist. Apart from not compromising on the goals of a utility like Indian Railways, it will create a new rVAS market worth at least 5000 crore rupees per annum for companies of various sizes to benefit from, simultaneously improving passenger experience greatly.

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