Can you build a 100 crore business mining the Indian Railways data?

Ankleshwar Railway stationphoto © 2009 Umang Dutt | more info(via: Wylio)As I write this post, I’m on board 6221 Chennai Express (or Kaveri Express, as it was announced at the station), enroute Chennai from Bangalore. Due to a foreseen inter-city rush between Chennai and Bangalore, just after Diwali, a major Indian festival, I had several wait-listed options for my round trip travel. However, none of them were moving or coming close to a confirmed travel ticket. Finally, in between the festivities I stole some time and managed to book a confirmed Tatkal ticket a mere 48 hours before the journey by paying a premium.

Tripping on Indian Railways is joyous, but predicting the upward movement of your wait-listed ticket towards confirmation is a black-art. I have been told that smart travel agents can predict the movement patterns to a fair degree of accuracy; whether a certain ticket booked 60 days ago shall become a confirmed travel document or not. So much so, they seem to possess a magical insight to predict when an “extra” coach would be added as to move all the wait-listed en-mass to a confirmed status. Hurrah!

Prediction of tickets is just one aspect, I’m higlighting. There are a lot of problems around railway travel that can be solved by using technology at it’s advantage–I’m not talking selling railway tickets on the web, that’s a much easier ‘fish to fry’.

The Real-Time Display at the LRTphoto © 2009 Lamarr Blocker | more info(via: Wylio)Replace the word railway with air and you can gauge how entrepreneurs solved interesting problems using technology and the internet in the last 15 years for air travel industry.

Do you see what I’m seeing? A 100 crore business around the business of travel in the railways. There are a lot of ideas and a lot of problems to be solved. Statisticizing the well known numbers of IRCTC transactions is not one of them but predicting the sales volume maybe one! Are you passionate about travel? Do you love technology? Come talk to us at The Morpheus, we’ll get you started up.

Due to a foreseen inter-city rush between Chennai and Bangalore just after Diwali, a major Indian festival, I had several wait-listed options for travel for my round trip lasting no less than 24 hours. However, none of them were moving or coming close to a confirmed travel ticket. Finally, in between the festivities I stole some time and managed to book a confirmed Tatkal ticket 48 hours before the journey by paying a premium.
Tripping on Indian Railways is a dream, but predicting the upward movement of your wait-listed ticket towards confirmation is a black-art. I have been told that smart travel agent can predict the movement patterns to a fair degree of accuracy whether a certain ticket booked 60 days ago shall become a confirmed travel document or not. So much so, they seem to possess a magical insight to predict when an “extra” coach would be added as to move all the wait-listed en-mass to a confirmed status. Hurrah!
Prediction of tickets is just one aspect, I’m higlighting, there are a lot of problems around railway travel can be solved by using technology at it’s advantage–I’m not talking selling railway tickets on the web, that’s a much easier ‘fish to fry’.
Replace the word railway with airlines and I see how entrepreneurs solved interesting problems using technology and the internet in the last 15 years.
Do you see what I’m seeing? A 100 crore business around the business of travel in the railways. There are a lot of ideas and a lot of problems to be solved. Statisticiazing the number of IRCTC transactions is not one of them but predicting the sales volume maybe one!

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  • rabi gupta

    Very interesting point! In fact I know some small companies who are getting proposals from Indian Railways to solve location based problems for them, but they have no clue about the same. here is a part of problem- “they want some LCDs to be installed on trains which exact location mapping via geo-tagging/mapping. By this way Station masters can also track where the train currently is and it’s also very convenient for passengers.” I know a company which makes Power supplies for railways but have no clue about this technology and want to get this proposal, if anyone has technology to solve this I can try to connect :)!

    • You can send the leads to me/us..let’s see if we can connect them to couple of startups who are working on these ideas.

  • Gautam

    Good one Indus, let us talk over our long due coffee 🙂

    • Yup! Let’s do it next week. Shall drop you an email. Are you coming for the Nasscom Product Conclave?

  • Adi

    A really nice application that I’d use would be given two cities, find the optimum air, train as well as mixed mode travel options, that can be sorted by price and travel time, and a single click “buy” for that route.

    P.S. – Maybe even throw bus in the mix, for let’s say 10 hours or shorter trips.

  • Theres a startup called Flightcaster which helps people predict when a flight will get delayed. Pretty accurate 70-80% …

    • Yeah. We need at least that at minimum, there is too much uncertainty.

  • I bumped on this idea sometimes back… basically our idea was to design a predicting system as to what is the probability of your waitlisted ticket getting confirmed. Our idea was to run some simple machine learning algos on past IRCTC reservation data and predict the chances of it getting confirmed. We figured out that CRISIL is the body which has hold of all such data. But trying to reach CRISIL was impossible. We mailed the people listed on their sites, but to no avail. Could you help us getting those data? Is there any structure to retrieve such data? Please help, if you have any fundaes.

    • You have to sign up for the API access and all that, there are rules around that, but doable. You mean CRIS? right?

    • Yeah, I meant CRIS. I would like to know how to get access to those APIs. Can I mail to you for more details?

    • Advik Tiwari

      When it comes to Govt related things, mails don’t work. You have to drop by at their office. And yes it is CRIS, IRCTC is just a ticketing agent.

  • AK

    Having known Railways from inside, may be I can add my two cents – in case any one is interested. Let me know, You could reach me at : akDOTenq10ATyahoo.com

    (of course replace DOT with . and AT with @)

  • Advik Tiwari

    Unlike the airways, there are a lot of problems with railways as it’s a Govt thing. For instance if u have an IRCTC API, u can’t build any intelligence to show connecting trains. Say u gotta go from chennai to delhi, u can’t show a chennai to mumbai and mumbai to delhi.

    There are a lot of issues and one should really consider all this before putting any significant effort here.

    • Well, my startup mustseeindia.com does exactly that. We give out connecting trains, along with availability. Give it a try sometime – http://book.mustseeindia.com/trains

      On the larger question of building useful utilities for trains, I see two issues (personal faced them as part of my venture) :

      1. Monetization – It takes significant effort to build out such tools, and while you can build a very successful website, making it a viable business is tough. Not impossible, but tough. OTAs themselves charge very low amounts as part of train ticket reservations. It has to be scale hugely to sustain.

      2. Bureaucracy – As others pointed out by others, it’s next to impossible working with government. There are just too many roadblocks. Case in point is Railways Trains API. It’s almost impossible for a startup to get access to it with the terms attached to it.

      Nobody would disagree that there’s a huge opportunity here. MSI gets ton of traffic on its train pages. I know at least one startup (apart from mine) which intended to work on exactly this but found working with Railways department too much (in fact Railways deterred them to use their data).

      Best thing for Railways would be have an affiliate program similar to OTAs, giving out the API for (almost) free, and let the creative folks build tools around it. I do understand that the ticketing parts are complex and you can’t let anybody and everybody book it, but at least the information part should be accessible to startups. Startups can partner with Railways (or bigger OTAs) for ticket booking.

    • Agreed. What approach should we collectively take to bring the change in the railways mindset?

    • Well, I doubt if we can really ‘change’ railways mindset.

      One can build a really useful trains site despite that. Resources are gonna be an issue. As I said, it’s difficult, not impossible. There are already so many useful train sites despite not-so-easy access to train data.

      One has to figure out a monetization strategy. I hardly see a market for paid account in India for trains, irrespective of the usefulness of the site (but then who knows – there could be a market for paid account for travel agents. Somebody need to explore that).

      Another strategy could be to play a volume game. Cleartrip etc pay Rs ~3 per booking as referral commission. One has build a large customer base to sustain on that revenue.

      Or hope to get acquired by one of the biggies (MMT/Yatra/Cleartrip). This anyway work best when combined with other services (flights, buses) which has huge potential even for a big player.

      We at mustseeindia.com are working at some of the similar ideas (not specifically trains), but of course, there’s just too huge an opportunity (and quite many) to be addressed by one startup alone.

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