A report from Television channel IBN7 alleges that a daily 4-5 minute down-time 8am for the website for the Indian Railways and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), through with travelers book railway tickets, ensures that touts have exclusivity over emergency tickets. A sting operation conducted by the channel quotes an agent as saying that the they invest Rs 1 lakh a day on bookings, and that touts would use the downtime to book Tatkal tickets. Tatkal tickets are available as an emergency quota, for passengers needing to travel urgently, and are available only two days prior to departure. Typically these tickets get sold out quickly.

This follows another report a couple of days ago, on India Today Online, which said that a gang was “hacking” into IRCTC servers and was generating 10-15 PNR numbers before 8am every morning.

IRCTC facilitates the purchase of highest number of tickets online in India each month – in April 2012, it reported 12.95 million transactions, easily amounting to over $100 million. However, the website is known to have significant technical issues, and down time: we’ve even seen sarcastic tweets from people, celebrating having successfully booked a ticket. News reports have pointed out that Tatkal tickets have “vanished” after the site goes down.

Our Take

– The agents appear to be suggesting to IBN7 that the downtime is intentional, though not explicitly saying that. It’s not clear whether the IRCTC downtime is orchestrated internally, or whether a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack is executed every day at the same time on the website, to deny customers the ability to buy tatkal tickets online, or whether there is a loophole in the site’s setup which allows agents hack and book before time (as the India Today report alleges). Remember that IRCTC had said to the Economic Times that they’ve seen a maximum peak of up to 8 lakh concurrent connection during the first 10-15 minutes from 8 o’clock.

If the India Today report is correct, and a gang has been booking tickets tatkal for a couple of years, before the scheduled time, then it’s either case of incompetence or connivance that IRCTC officials haven’t noticed this.

– It’s not that IRCTC hasn’t tried to address “illegal and unethical” practices. In 2010, they had restricted web service agents from booking tickets between 8am and 9am. Last year, ITZ cash had issued notices to travel agents directing them not to set up personal id’s to book tickets, in line with IRCTC norms.

Earlier this year, IRCTC mandated that customers who book tickets via external vendors have to create IRCTC logins, perhaps, we assume, trying to address the issue of agents booking tickets via third party sites.

In the end, it’s a demand-supply issue. The fact that people have to book tickets month in advance, and that there is a mad rush to book tatkal tickets means that the Indian Railways isn’t adequately meeting consumer demand.