Thursday, June 21, 2012

Booking Indian Railways tickets on third party sites

Whenever I have to make train reservations on IRCTC, I say my prayers and summon up all my reserves of patience. I love trains and not just because they are a reasonable alternative to overpriced flights. Trains offer charging points for laptops, and many routes have almost non-stop 3G/ EVDO internet connectivity, so I am a happy camper on any train these days. But I dread the ordeal of booking on India's busiest and most frustratingly slow e-ticketing site. Once it took me half a day to book a ticket and I wept in frustration after my card got  charged 3 times without the booking going through.

I was initially thrilled when travel sites like Cleartrip and Yatra got the green signal to issue train tickets, thinking that the ordeal of IRCTC would be behind me forever. It was not, and a new kind of ordeal has started.

Suketu Mehta observed in his novel "Maximum City" that flyovers in Mumbai did not really solve the purpose of reducing the traffic - instead they brought you faster to your traffic jam. That's exactly how train bookings function on third party sites. The  gateway is still IRCTC and the gateway still cannot cope with the flood of traffic. On Cleartrip, where I recently tried a train booking I can see the availability and even select the station and train (which is way  further progress that I make on IRCTC) but when I make the payment, I have more than once gotten the message that my card was charged, but the booking could not be confirmed. Cleartrip, irritatingly wanted me to contact them. IRCTC thankfully has no desire to be contacted and refunds are automatic. Of course, they are on Cleartrip as well, but if your  card has been charged and the site invites you to contact them, you feel obliged to do it. And that is more work than I have to do on IRCTC.

Also with IRCTC when the booking fails, it fails completely and without doubt. You have no choice but to start again. With Cleartrip, the doubt remains until they resolve it. Once, after a failed booking attempt on Cleartrip, I received an SMS 8 hours later from IRCTC confirming my booking - I checked the PNR status and it was valid. Cleartrip however was completely silent on the whole affair and the booking did not show up in my account. In fact, I was confused for a moment whether the booking had been done through Cleartrip or through IRCTC as I had been alternately trying on both sites that morning. Again, my work has multiplied. Instead of wasting time trying to book on one site, I waste my time on two sites and yes, that means almost double time wasted.

It's not the fault of Cleartrip or the other travel sites, it's still the fault of IRCTC and it's dog in the manger attitude. In fact, as of February, it is mandatory to have an IRCTC ID even when booking through the travel sites. Another layer of registration, which really defeats the purpose of booking through another site.

Why, why is it so hard for IRCTC to set up a better gateway? Facebook is home to nearly 800 million people and has no down time. And Facebook is not an ecommerce site which makes money with every transaction. I wish they would pull up their socks and get serious about business.