Indian Railways: Tech is the New Normal

From jazzy coaches with ergonomic seating to data analytics based decision making, the tech initiatives seem to be backed by an integrated ICT vision

If Indian Railways is indeed the lifeline of the nation, IT is turning out to be its new Oxygen. The Railways Budget for 2016-17, presented by Suresh Prabhu is so heavy on technology that it has been described as a tech budget. Times of India carried the Budget report on front page with a headline, Tech That.
 
But beyond the more highlighted customer facing tech initiatives such as Wi-Fi in stations, LED-based display in coaches, new apps based ticketing, online services and the like, what needs to be really appreciated that there has been a serious effort by the minister to transform railways by bringing in the change where it matters—network and other infrastructure, operations, project management, and revenue generation. Conspicuous, as they say, by its absence from the main speech for the last two years is the list of new trains, change in periodicity and extension of existing trains—that added pressure to the network—as well as a host of new concessions. Most of them were thrown as electorate and one thinks they will probably return in the Budget of 2018, but that is another discussion.
 
While there’s sleuth of customer facing applications of technology, to be fair, Prabhu cannot be given the sole credit for that. UPA, before its infamous policy paralysis in the last two years, brought in a lot of that, though true to its style, the Modi government is doing a much better job of marketing that through slogans.
 
Don’t be in doubt. They are extremely important, considering Indian Railways is the largest service provider in India and is a publicly-owned unit. But they can only achieve so much and not more. Without changing the core—infrastructure, rail operations, revenue as well as backend of those very customer facing services—it is difficult to sustain those outer changes and have a sustainable profitable growth (Yes, Ram Charan’s profound observation applies to Indian Railways too) for a few years, at least. It is clear from Prabhu’s two budgets that he has taken on the transformation task head on.
 
What needs to be actually hailed is that he has clearly chosen technology as the enabler of that transformation. Business transformation may be a hot phrase in the corporate world that CXOs never fail to throw in when they talk, but here is Indian Railways trying the biggest business transformation of all. And that is technology-based, as it should logically be, in 2016.
 
While the speech targeted at the votes, investors, Railways staff and so many other stakeholders actually highlights selected facts, it is not difficult to see that it technology has touched all aspects of the transformation. The approach is holistic and integrated with the transformation. Unless that happens, sustaining business gains such as efficiency and scalability will not be achieved.
 
Prabhu was quite unequivocal about that.
 
“Our policies have led to a piece-meal approach in IT. We have initiated system wide integration, both horizontal and vertical, akin to an Enterprise Resource System through innovative partnership models for which a preliminary report has been obtained,” he said in his speech.
 
It is not accidental or an after thought. After last year’s Budget, the government had appointed an advisory council to draft  an IIT vision document for Indian Railways, which, going by the minister’s speech yesterday, has already submitted its report. The formation of the committee—headed by ex NASSCOM chief and veteran industry person Som Mittal, with members such as supercomputing guru Narendra Karmakar, MDI Dean and noted IS academician Prof MP Jaiswal and a host of others from Indian Railways, DeitY and other government agencies—were given a clear task of formulating an ICT vision for Indian Railways to help it transform.
 
Apart from creating an ICT vision derived from overall vision for Indian Railways, the terms of reference of this committee were very specific, including technology for operational efficiency, implementation strategy, capacity building, change management, IT governance and to suggest a roadmap to set up a portal for seeking tech solutions. What, however, differentiated its ToR from most other such committees is that it was clearly asked to integrate all current implementations into the new vision.
 
“We will shortly unveil an IT vision for the Railways. An IT Vision prepared by a committee headed by Shri Som Mittal has been received,” said the minister.
 
It is clear that at least some of the major thoughts and ideas, if not specific plans, for the current budget have come from the thinking of this committee.
 
The application of tech is seen in almost all aspects of Railway’s operations.
 
Of course, image building measures are in plenty. As it gears to compete with both luxury buses and airlines, these changes really do matter. Examples include announcements of new SMART (acronym for  Specially Modified Aesthetic Refreshing Travel) coaches that would have automatic doors, bar-code readers, bio-vacuum toilets, water-level indicators, accessible dustbins, ergonomic seating, improved aesthetics, vending machines, entertainment screens, LED lit boards for advertising, PA system and more.
 
Of course, there are a lot of new initiatives to enhance customer convenience. Selling of tickets through handheld terminal, consolidation of mobile apps, online ticket cancellation and refund, bar code scanners, GPS based digital displays inside coaches, unified customer portal, proactive SMS alert on arrival/departure times and online booking of retiring rooms for passengers are some of those services which will use technology to better customer experience.
 
In addition, WiFi in stations and trains will also add a lot of convenience.
 
Then, of course, is monetizing. Two interesting initiatives are eye-catching. The bigger—and more importantly, easier to implement—initiative is what is called Rail Display Network, a high-tech centralized network of 20,000 screens across 2000 stations. Proof of concept at 10 stations, is already under implementation, expected to be commissioned by end of March. While in the speech, it was also marketed as a customer convenience facility, such facilities are already there in many stations, and yes, with some local advertising, which has not really been looking at a major money making venture. A centrally controlled, tech-based system will make it one of the biggest media platforms in India. The technology is ready, Railways has already announced.
 
The other is the effort to monetize data. Though, unlike the above project, it requires some plan—as the model is still not clear—it is time Indian Railways seriously looked at this. Prabhu said, “We are exploring the possibility of monetizing our data, software and some of the free services provided by Indian Railways.”
 
Of course, there are some new zing things like drone-based project monitoring etc.
 
But what really takes the cake is Prabhu’s next generation stance—something that corporate are still trying to figure out--data backed decision making. “Data backed decision making is a hallmark of great institutions. Though IR, as an organisation, collects over 100 Terabytes of data every year, yet it is hardly analyzed to gain business insights. A dedicated, cross functional team called Special Unit for Transportation Research and Analytics (SUTRA) would be set up for carrying out detailed analytics leading to optimized investment decisions and operations. This team would comprise professional analysts and best in class decision support systems and optimization engines.”
 
There’s a long distance to travel. But a good beginning seems to have been made. 


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