When a gamla helped book a rail ticket: Reminiscences of Sanjoy Mookerjee, Retd.FC

KOLKATA: November 7 marks the 30th year of the digitisation of railway ticket reservation in the Calcutta area by the Indian Railways. The decision to digitise the ticketing process, the most important step taken by the railways in recent history, led to the development of one of the largest commercial networks of computer hardware, software and databases the modern world has ever seen.

SANJOY MOOKERJEE, retired Financial Commissioner, Railway Board, who was part of the project, remembers.

On July 17, 1986, I joined the Passenger Reservation System (PRS) project in Calcutta as system manager (operation). I was given a hero’s welcome and realised that my joining the project had enabled the Eastern Railway to convince the Railway Board that this pet project of then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and the minister of state for railways, independent charge, Madhavrao Scindia, had finally taken off at Calcutta.

Only one other officer had been posted to the project. We began to take the first faltering steps towards developing one of the largest commercial networks of computer hardware, software and databases the modern world has ever seen. Very soon, other senior officials and staff members joined this elite project.

Today, after three decades, when the Passenger Reservation System has evolved into the Unified Ticketing Network, the Indian Railways handles 2.2 crore passengers every day — the population of Australia! The network is accessible through the web from all corners of the globe.

The first challenge

The first challenge was to draw up the cost estimate and the technical specifications for a global tender. We needed a system to handle a minimum of 200 networked terminals with an assured response time of 3 to 5 seconds for every hit. The minimum clock speed of the CPU needed to be stipulated in the tender papers.

It was 1986. The team was hardly equipped with technical knowledge. We didn’t have the benefit of the Internet; nor the versatility of MS-Office. We toiled through literature from various software houses such as IBM, HP and ICL, and from CSI (Computer Society of India), to compute that magic figure.

Working late into the night, sometimes by candlelight (those were the days of “load-shedding” in Calcutta), we finally “cracked the code” — the minimum clock speed of the CPU would be of 4 million instructions per second.

The global tender of Rs 20 crore was floated and awarded to M/S CMC Ltd, a PSU, in a record two months.

Metamorphosis

The infrastructure of the computer centre, the six main reservation offices and six satellite offices were built at breakneck speed. Over 7,000 programs in FORTRAN 77 were to be written and the database of hundreds of thousands of commercial data, rules and regulations were to be populated. A tall order!

It was at that juncture that we first heard the word PNR (Passenger Name Record) Number, the unique identity for each reservation transaction. Today, this is a household word.

A team of motivated officers and officials from Eastern and South Eastern railways worked day and night to ensure the live run of the system on June 30, 1987.

‘Firing’ by night

Every evening, as soon as the reservation offices in Calcutta shut, began the nocturnal uploading of reservation data into the computer system. Our target would be to “fire” (the jargon used for uploading into the database) at least one new train a day (rather night), till 6am, irrespective of duty hours. This went on for over nine months, by which time all the originating trains of Eastern and South Eastern Railway were loaded onto the PRS and manual reservation was fully eliminated.

Launch & a gamla

Naturally, we were hoping for a grand inauguration. But alas, due to the busy schedule of the minister of state for railways, computerised reservation started at Calcutta without any formal programme. Everyone was disappointed.

Later, however, Madhavrao Scindia was to formally inaugurate the Calcutta project on November 7, 1987. Elaborate arrangements were made at the newly renovated reservation office at the New Koilaghat Building.

But at the last moment the minister, because of paucity of time, decided to inaugurate the system at Howrah station and proceed to New Delhi by the Rajdhani Express.

The project team was struck by lightning. There was no facility for data connectivity to Howrah then. The venue was the site of the new Howrah station building, under construction and with no roof.

Temporary reservation counters got built at breakneck speed, but our greatest hurdle was to provide data communication across the river Hooghly between Calcutta and Howrah. The imported antennae for digital communication in PRS were yet to arrive; there were no spare antennae with Eastern Railway.

It was time to innovate. One of the signal and telecommunication engineers procured a gamla (a dish-shaped aluminium bowl) and reengineered it to form an antenna. This dish was fixed on the roof of the Howrah divisional office and, after strenuous efforts, effective line-of-site data transmission was made possible.

The minister would never know that he purchased his ticket for the Rajdhani Express with the help of an aluminium gamla that cost less than Rs 10.

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