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IRCTC sees high ticket volumes, but lower convenience fees per ticket thanks to BHIM & UPI payments

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Around 7.5-8 lakh tickets were booked on IRCTC per day between in Q3FY21, a trend which has carried on in January, the company’s chairman and managing director Mahendra Pratap Mall disclosed on an earnings call on Friday. Between October-December alone, 55 million tickets were booked.

The railways was heavily impacted in 2020 by the suspensions in movement due to the coronavirus pandemic. Trains were suspended from March until May, and then only resumed at staggered capacity.

However, per day ticket volumes are nearly 90% of pre-COVID volumes. Mall said that 30% of the per day bookings are coming from bookings on previously unreserved seats; each mail express train used to have 3-4 unreserved coaches, which the Indian Railways has converted into ‘sitting’ reserved coaches post-COVID, the Railways also used to handle the bookings for these coaches directly. Now, these bookings have been handed over to IRCTC, explaining the high ticket volumes despite only a proportion of trains plying.

Internet ticketing driven by high ticket volumes

We had reported earlier that IRCTC’s profitability in 2020 so far has been driven by the internet ticketing segment, which in turn is driven by convenience fee. While internet ticketing revenue was ₹143 crore for Q3, convenience fee income was ₹95 crore, Mall disclosed on the investor call. A balance income of around ₹48 crore came from non-convenience fee related charges this quarter. This is higher than the last two quarters, one investor pointed out. 

Mall explained that the number of tickets booked has increased, leading to rise in financial transactions, and thus website traffic, and eventually increasing in advertisement potential. Income from non-convenience fee charges comes primarily from the footfall on the IRCTC website, he said. 

Convenience fee earned per ticket falls given higher BHIM & UPI payments

IRCTC charges ₹15 per ticket for sleeper tickets and ₹30 per ticket for AC seats. Convenience fee earned per ticket in Q3 stood at ₹18 in the quarter, which has reduced from ₹20-20.5 in pre-COVID period. Credit for this goes to higher usage of BHIM and UPI payments, on which IRCTC discounts the convenience fees to ₹10 and ₹20 for non-AC and AC tickets respectively. The share of BHIM and UPI bookings has increased to 22-23% of all bookings from 15%. 

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Moreover, more and more BHIM and UPI users are coming from tickets bookings for the previously-unreserved seats, which are all non-AC coaches, Mall said. There is no “definite period” for how long the discounts for BHIM & UPI payments will continue, “but we can always change it”, Mall said. The decision on this will be “taken later”, he simply said. 

Currently, the split between AC and non-AC tickets is one-third and two-third, excluding the previously-unreserved category. So for instance, if 10 lakh tickets are sold per day, 3 lakh tickets would be from the previously unreserved segment. Out of the remaining 7 lakh, a third would be AC tickets and rest would be non-AC tickets. More and more AC coaches will be serviced instead of sleeper coaches, Mall said. This could mean higher earnings from convenience fees in the long-term since revenue realisation for every AC-seat is double that that from sleeper seats. 

Over 90% of railway tickets now booked online via IRCTC

Pre-COVID-10, 75% of all railway tickets were booked via IRCTC, and the remaining 25% on physical ticketing windows. Online ticketing now captured 91-92% of all tickets booked.

Mall said the company is hoping that this level sustains as booking tickets from home is “comfortable” and removes the hassles of queueing up and waiting. Anyone who has seen the convenience of online ticketing will likely not go back to the physical windows, he feels. 

However, a certain percentage will always be there on the physical windows. This is because a passenger is treated as a authorised passenger if he/she travels on a waitlisted window-purchased ticket, and not treated as a ticketless passenger. But someone with an waitlisted e-ticket is treated as a ticketless traveler and is charged penalty accordingly. So a small percentage of passengers, who need to travel no matter travel, will buy tickets from physical windows and board while on the waiting list. — Mahendra Pratap Mall, chairman and managing director, IRCTC Ltd. 

One investor questioned Mall on any whether the company has any plans to monetise its customer database given the massive traffic the IRCTC website pulls.

Out of ₹45 crore non-convenience fee income in Internet ticketing, about ₹7-8 crore, or maybe even ₹10 crore comes from advertisements. The rest comes from “from the kinds of effort you are talking about”, Mall said without being specific. “We are executing more and more projects for monetising the footfall,” Mall added. 

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Hundreds of people have approached me saying that I’m sitting on a gold mine. Someone tells me that its potential is ₹500 crore or ₹5000 crore, but nobody comes with a concrete plan of how to extract the gold from the mine. It’s a unknown potential, frankly speaking.” — Mahendra Pratap Mall, chairman and managing director, IRCTC Ltd. 

If anybody approaches him with a concrete plan for monetisation, he would be open to it, Mall said.

Trains capacity and operational levels

About 400 trains are running currently (for which IRCTC is booking the tickets), representing 60% operational capacity of mail express trains, and 35-40% capacity of all trains. This number also keeps on changing, Mall said. If waiting lists become full beyond capacity in certain segments, another train is immediately run after that. In November there were also a lot of festival special trains running.

Tejas trains did not get viable occupancy rates when they were restarted, given that COVID-19 cases were at a peak. Cases have come down dramatically ever since to 15-16,000 per day, and the positivity rate has gone down as well, barring two states Kerala and Maharashtra. Tejas trains are now scheduled to re-commence from February 14.

Recovery expected in tourism, Rail Neer strategy

EBITDA margin improvement was driven by quarter-on-quarter increase in profitability of internet ticketing segment and lower loss in the catering segment. 

Tourism: In tourism, IRCTC’s unique proposition is mass tourism by way of Bharat Darshan trains and special trains which carry 700-800 tourists to places of religious importance. The company takes care of everything and primarily caters to senior citizens. Two Bharat Darshan trains ran in December at 90% capacity, three in January, and 14 tours are expected to be completed by end of March. The response is good, as the last such train was completely booked in four days. This implies that the fear of COVID is gradually going away, given that social distancing and other protocols are difficult to implement in these trains. “People are moving and things should improve drastically by March,” Mall said. 

Rail Neer strategy: The capacity is expected to touch up to 18 lakh bottles per day by March end. Any Rail Neer plant runs at about 50-60% capacity in the first year. Once it stabilises in the second year, this increases to 75-80%. Then from the third year, it touches 90-100% or even more in cases. Most plants were commissioned in the last 3-4 years.

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Some stations and trains are declared as exclusive Rail Neer stations. As and when Rail Neer’s production and capacity stablises, IRCTC requests the Railway Board to declare more and more stations as RailNeer exclusive stations. In other stations or trains, where Rail Neer has logistics or production constraints, the Railways approve various (other) brands to sell.

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