Vishwas Dass speaks with the managing director of Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS) Mukesh Nigam about the progress of its various projects and challenges ahead
The Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS) is a society set up by the railways ministry in July 1986 to provide IT related services to the Indian Railways. CRIS deals in a gamut of functions, like passenger ticketing, freight operations, train dispatching and control, crew management, e-procurement, management of fixed and moving assets of the railways, and production of rolling stock. Vishwas Dass spoke with its managing director Mukesh Nigam about the progress of its various projects and challenges ahead.
CRIS has evolved a lot in the last ten years and, with advancement in technology, its responsibilities to render IT services to the railways has also gone up. How has CRIS grown as an organisation?
CRIS was started with an aim to digitalise freight operations in 1986. During the first 10 years, it received aid from the World Bank. In its initial phase, the core software was taken from the Canadian railways, which was not successful, because train operations in India are entirely different from those in the US and Canada. After a few years, CRIS developed its own software which had two modules – rake management system and terminal management system. CRIS offers a whole gamut of services to the railways. In 2003, CRIS started ticket booking over the internet in a small way. Today, 70 percent of ticket booking is done through the internet, including 50 percent of booking through the mobile app. These are the two bedrocks on which CRIS was founded. A major development happened in 2005-06 when the online unreserved ticketing system (UTS) was started. CRIS unveiled the ‘UTS on mobile’ app, for buying unreserved tickets, in 2018. It was initially launched in the Mumbai suburban section and within a few months CRIS launched it in non-suburban sections. It has shown phenomenal increase from 5,000 tickets sold in a month in February 2018 to 1.50 lakh tickets booked per day now. It has got a huge potential and is well received in Mumbai. Indian Railways sells 80 lakh unreserved tickets every day.
Indian Railways recently introduced the QR code system which enables passengers to scan the code at a particular station to buy online tickets. Tell us more about it.
The QR code establishes that a person trying to book a ticket is at the station. The usage of mobile apps after the introduction of 4G has really shot up. The QR code system was rolled out in Mumbai. It was later extended to Secunderabad, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai. It is yet to be launched in Delhi. The adoption rate in Mumbai is very good because the number of footfalls is huge.
The railways has been working hard to use technology to track the location of trains. We hear that antennas are being installed atop locomotives for this purpose. Can you share details of the project?
CRIS has collaborated with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to install antennas on locomotives for real-time monitoring. The project is called Real Time Information System (RTIS). The railways use ISRO satellites to track down position of trains in real time. The project is an example of the introduction of Internet of Things (IoT) in the railways. Indian Railways have 11,000 locos (both freight and passenger) and around 1,700 of them have been equipped with antennas as of now. There is a plan to equip 7,000 locos with these antennas by August 2019 and all locomotives will get these antennas within a year.
The national transporter started collaboration with ISRO in 2007 and a memorandum of understanding was inked between the two in 2016 to use ISRO satellites for real-time monitoring of locomotives. Earlier, when there was no digitisation, there were many problems in tracking the train’s location. The RTIS project (earlier known as SIMRAN) was started around 10 years back to have an anti-collision feature which is now changed to tracking locos’ location. It has got a huge potential because the whole satellite system has developed so much. The project has enabled the railways to have bidirectional communication. The data which the railways get is very rich from the IT perspective.
The first monitoring of a train equipped with an antenna took place on a January 8 2019 trip from Mata Vaishno Devi to Bandra in Mumbai. The train did not require involvement of the section controller. It passed through eight divisions and four zonal railways and the section controllers did not have to do anything except monitor the movement and the reporting was done through a satellite. Many trains have got this device except a few including the newly launched Vande Bharat Express, India’s first engine-less trainset.
What are the major challenges in the functioning of CRIS?
The challenge is to deal with a huge volume of information, which is rapidly growing. The 10 crore transactions are going to increase at least 9-10 times in the next three years. We get information about trains’ running every eight minutes and if I can start getting it every 30 seconds, imagine the explosion of information! The data inflow is going to be enormous. Managing data is absolutely challenging. Every day, lakhs of tatkal tickets are sold and the website does not crash despite the massive load. During festivals like Chhath Puja, there were 1.10 lakh hits per minute on the railway’s site for enquiry.
What is the benefit of putting Radio Frequency Identification Tag (RFID) on wagons and coaches? How much does the railway have to shell out to introduce it?
CRIS is also putting RFID tags on all the rolling stock of Indian Railways, which include three lakh wagons and one lakh coaches. Passenger coaches will soon get these tags, but as of now, no coach has got RFID tags. The project has been kicked off and we target to finish it within two years. RFID tags help the railways to trace the wagons. Readers have also been put along the tracks at different locations to receive signals emitted by these tags put on the wagons. It involves three things – putting RFID tags, installing readers at junction stations and the need to have writing devices having software to capture details and provide it to the railways.
A decade back, RFID tags used to cost a lot but now with the growth of technology, the rates have come down tremendously. Today, it is possible to have RFID for all wagons at economical rates. RFID gives limited information but it enables us to track wagons and assess whether it requires maintenance. It has got a commercial angle as far as customers are concerned. People who book goods in freight trains now get updates of wagons carrying their materials. Earlier, tracking a particular wagon in a freight rake, consisting of 80-90 wagons, was very difficult. The wagon may contain expensive stuff and its monitoring was highly needed when the project was not initiated. The technology was used during the trials of Spanish Talgo coaches in India. RFID tagging work is being done by COFMOW (set up by the government for modernising railway workshops). All the wagons coming out of wagon manufacturing units from April 2017 onwards were RFID tags-equipped.
Do you plan to increase ticket booking capacity of the IRCTC website which is currently 20,000 tickets per minute?
CRIS manages the ticketing reservation system of IRCTC while flight booking is managed by third parties. CRIS aims to ensure the booking of 20,000 tickets must go to the genuine buyers and prevent misuse of sale of internet tickets. CRIS is extremely vigilant and we had been a soft target of cyber-attacks because the kind of service we provide to people.
CRIS’s role as provider of software services to the railways is crucial. Can you tell us how well trained CRIS employees are?
We have a pool of 600 IT software professionals and their average age is 32 years. They are immensely talented. For instance, the national train enquiry system gets 44 crore hits every day, which is humongous. Our passenger reservation system is one the best in the world. We work on a war mode. To be here in the CRIS, one needs to have knowledge of the railways as well of the software. Indian Railways is a 167-year-old organisation and the methods of working in the railways are deeply entrenched. CRIS has been a fantastic example where the domain experts meet with software professionals, who develop applications. Railway officials having at least 20-22 years of experience are deputed to CRIS as domain experts.
Can you throw some light on the financial performance of CRIS?
We are a society and CRIS provides services to the railways on cost basis. CRIS does 10 crore transactions of different kinds per day. CRIS services are absolutely dirt cheap for the railways. There is no profit element associated with CRIS.
(This interview appears in the April 30, 2019 edition)