Drones, IT and Satellite Tech on Railways Radar

Indian Railways to turn smarter with Apps, Drone technology

Drones Railways

The 163-year-old Indian Railways in one of the world’s largest train network in the world and transports as many as 23 million people everyday. Its annual budget, presented today in the Indian parliament, is a closely-watched affair.See also: Indian Railways beats Flipkart to emerge as the country’s biggest online marketplace. This year’s railway budget, presented by union railway minister Suresh Prabhu, builds upon the recent steps taken by the government-owned enterprise to give its vast and historic train network a much-needed technological facelift. Moving away from its traditional focus on fares and new trains, this year’s budget focused on improving customer’s travel experiences through a series of passenger-friendly initiatives. Read more…More about India, Trains, Us World, Railway, and Indian Railways.

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. Presenting his second consecutive budget, Rail minister Suresh Prabhu said on Thursday that starting next financial year, the railways will use the latest drone and geo spatial-based satellite technology for remotely reviewing progress across major projects. The Indian Railways is planning to go high-tech with Drones, Wi-Fi and Data Analytics for optimising efficiency. Through the use of technology for project management, the Railways is planning to utilise the latest drone and Geospatial-based satellite technology for reviewing the physical progress of its major projects from a remote location.

IT in Railways

This, Prabhu added, is in line with international best practices. “In the next financial year, this would be operationalised for monitoring the progress on Dedicated Freight Corridor,” the minister said.

The Railways, which collects over 100 terabytes of data every year, also plans to set up a special unit for transportation research and analytics that would help it in making optimised investment decisions. Called Special Unit for Transportation Research and Analytics or SUTRA it will be a dedicated, cross-functional team of professional analysts mandated with carrying out detailed analytics leading to optimised investment decisions and operations.

“Data-backed decision-making is a hallmark of great institutions. Though Indian Railways, as an organisation, collects over 100 terabytes of data every year, yet it is hardly analysed to gain business insights,” the rail minister said.

Monitoring is also going to get operationalised via this mode in 2016-17. Railways is also using system-wide Information Technology similar to an ERP via innovative partnership models.

Although online recruitment had begun in 2015-16, the process is now getting replicated for all positions. Social media is being used as a tool for bringingtransparency through interaction and feedback from social media & dedicated IVRS system.

All procurement, including procurement of works, have been shifted to the e-platform and the railways has completed the trial process leading to award of tender electronically. The project is going to be rolled out on a pan-India basis in 2016-17.

Railways has further introduced 1,780 automatic ticket vending machines, mobile apps & GoIndia smartcard for cashless purchase of UTS and PRS tickets. It has also improved the capacity of e-ticketing system from 2,000 tickets per minute to 7,200 tickets per minute. This will support 1,20,000 concurrent users as opposed to the 40,000 that it was doing earlier.

Railways has also partnered with Google for providing Wi-Fi in 500 stations. The measures are in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India and Startup India programmes, whether it be quadrupling of stations with WiFi services, eyeing ecommerce as a potential platform to expand services, encouraging innovation by investing in startups, satellite monitoring of projects’ progress or smart cards for reserving tickets. The measures include a plan to use the data generated by the railways to improve operations and investment decisions.

“We collect many gigabytes of data every day. To analyse this we will set up a dedicated, cross-functional team called Special Unit for Transportation Research and Analytics to carry out detailed analytics leading to optimised investment decisions and operations,” the minister said in his address in the Lok Sabha.

IT industry body Nasscom said in a statement, “We are glad to note that the government is walking the talk on IT integration and deployment of e-services, to achieve the dream of Digital India. These announcements are testimony to the Centre’s commitment towards the upgradation of services; giving the transportation lifeline of India its due.”

ONLINE SERVICES Prabhu said the railways will allow sale of tickets through handheld terminals and sale of platform tickets through ticket vending machines. He also announced the launch of barcoded tickets, scanners and access control on a pilot basis.

E-ticketing facility will be extended to foreign tourists in the next three months for non-resident Indians with foreign debit or credit cards and journalists with concessional passes.

Mobile Apps in Railways

The minister said ticket cancellation facility will be made available through the 139 helpline using a one-time password. The budget proposes to integrate various facilities into two mobile apps, one of which will deal with ticketing issues and the other with receipt and redressal of complaints.

Prabhu announced that the e-catering services will be extended from 45 stations to all 408 ‘A-1’ and ‘A’ class stations. With the government’s emphasis on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a passenger can request for cleaning of a coach or toilets on demand through SMS under the ‘Clean My Coach’ service.

The Indian Railways plans to cash in on the ecommerce boom, with Prabhu saying, “Door-to-door connectivity is especially important… and we will take all steps necessary to expand our service offerings specially to growing sectors such as ecommerce. We will also initiate a pilot project for online booking of parcels. The IRCTC website also offers opportunities for exploiting ecommerce activities on account of the large number of hits that it receives.”

The government plans to monetise the soft assets of the state-run behemoth like data, software and some of the free services such as PNR enquiry, ecommerce activities on the IRCTC website.

TRAIN AND STATION INFRA In his speech, Prabhu said the railways has partnered American technology firm Google to offer WiFi services at 100 stations this year. Another 400 stations will get WiFi in the next two years, he said. Inside the trains, Prabhu proposed to set up information boards to list on-board services and GPS-based digital displays to provide information regarding halts.

DIGITAL MONITORING AND MAINTENANCE In line with international best practices, Prabhu said that the railways will rely on technological solutions for project management and monitoring. He asked states to partner the Centre in setting up more satellite terminals through public-private partnership mode.

Keeping in mind the Indian Railways’ track maintainers or gang men, who are most vulnerable to getting overrun by speeding trains, there is a proposal to equip them with devices called ‘Rakshak’ which will intimate them about approaching trains.

Among measures aimed at technological upgradation of the railways’ systems, the minister proposed progressive CCTV coverage at tatkal counters and a plan to roll out a process of awarding tenders electronically in 2016-17.

INNOVATION AND STARTUPS In his second railway budget, Prabhu earmarked Rs 50 crore for an innovation fund for grants to employees, startups and growthoriented small businesses, and proposed to set up innovation labs in workshops and production units.  The initiative will be administered by an innovation committee comprising investors, representatives from National Academy of Indian Railways, Railway Board and ‘Kayakalp’ headed by chairman emeritus of Tata Sons, Ratan Tata. A programme management structure will be put in place to manage this initiative.

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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