IRCTC, the lifeline of train ticket booking looks dead from outside

This post is written in collaboration with my friend Srishti Sethi

Ten days ago, one of our friends tried to access the IRCTC website on the east coast (New Jersey) in the United States to book train tickets. But, the site refused to connect. Surprisingly, the website didn’t work on the west coast (San Francisco) as well. After some quick googling, we learned that this might not be a new problem and is quite likely that the website may not have been working for several weeks as someone reported on Tripadvisor. Through this article on Indian Express, we also learned that the website has recently got a revamp 👏Before the overhaul, the site address used to be http://irctc.co.in, but it now is http://irctc.com. Though the main portal page was working, the e-ticketing; one of the inner pages of the site was redirecting to http://irctc.co.in. Our quick speculation was that it is likely due to new changes, there have been some misconfigurations in the server settings which is causing this problem. We downloaded and tried quite a few mobile apps and web services like Cleartrip, Yatri, and Ixigo, but all failed one way or the other. After we failed all our shortcuts, we decided to reach out to the customer care.

Screenshot of email received from IRCTC customer care

We called the customer care several times but we got different and template answers each time (keep refreshing the page, clear cache, etc.) On top of that, IRCTC kept assuring us that they will resolve the issue in 24-48 hours, but we didn’t see any progress.

We were not frustrated that the website was not working for us, but we wanted to get it fixed. To deepen our understanding of the global site availability, we found on Uptrends that the IRCTC is not working in North America and a few regions in Europe. We sent a screenshot showing the details to the customer care and said that we would be willing to help debug the issue further. We wanted to have a more in-depth conversation with someone in the technical department to whom we could explain our learnings and be a bit helpful. But, there wasn’t a provision for that. For a service like IRCTC which is so big, there aren’t departments for handling separate matters, but all in one.

One of us also got a chance to have a quick chat with someone higher-up in the Indian Railways and mentioned to them this problem. Though we sent follow-up emails on their request, our emails themselves became victims of delivery failure. Another senior executive from IRCTC told us that they don’t have the license from the United States to run the site which didn’t make any sense to us. We understand that this is one of the most significant traffic heavy sites, but the customer care experience and technical issues we encountered didn’t entirely justify the popularity it drew through its revamp.

A website as crucial as IRCTC ideally should be a high priority cog in the Railway’s machinery. In 2016-17, 62% of railway ticket reservations were booked online, and just 32% through railway counters. As internet penetration increases, the gap in these numbers will widen further. The goal is, therefore, to have high availability of the website across the world as tourism in India picks up. This July of 2018, IRCTC got 52.52 million hits with 95% traffic from India and 1.36% traffic from the United States which is more than 7 lakh potential tourists and Indian diaspora. It’s not just the loss of customers but also of revenue.

While the customer care calls were going on, to cross verify our earlier speculations, we investigated the issue a bit further. To get an initial sense of what works from where we went to site24x7.com and tried to access http://irctc.co.in from a wide range of regions – selecting many more US specific regions. While the website does work from multiple locations outside India, with the exception of Phoenix, Arizona in the United States, the site was not accessible from all other major cities in US or Canada.

Summary of website availability from across the world. Only Phoenix, AZ worked (Pho)

Surprisingly, the website is also not accessible from Amsterdam as well. While it seems that the DNS was resolved properly and we got a set of 3 IPs for the remote servers, none of them were reachable from within the US. CRIS manages the nameservers and apparently, its website https://cris.org.in is not accessible as well. A bit overkill, but we used Wireshark and saw that the remote server was closing the connection. This could be an indication of a firewall blocking traffic from the US region, or merely a misconfiguration.

A network capture while connecting to IRCTC servers from west coast of US. Sadly they RST 😦

Managing such a large customer volume on any site is indeed a daunting task but not impossible. But if a problem seems to become a broader outage, then here are some recommendations we have:

  • Make the customers aware of the situation through the social media channels or notifications on the site and provide with alternative solutions to proceed with the booking.
  • Adopt a more streamlined customer care flow. Develop more escalation levels and departments that could handle different technical and non-technical queries collaboratively for faster resolution.
  • Large websites have complex monitoring systems available that track usage, statistics, and overall platform health. The MOST crucial statistics are uptime and performance that could be easily tracked by tools such as  Pingdom and Uptime Robot. For example here is how a publicly available status page for Facebook looks like: https://developers.facebook.com/status/dashboard/ and a well-written service outage reported by Slack: https://status.slack.com/2018-06-27.

Even though accessing and booking a ticket through IRCTC is itself a challenge, while we could brush this issue off as it doesn’t seem to impact anyone in India, there are millions of Indians worldwide that still rely on the lifeline of India as it is the only way out to book tickets online.

While we have faith in IRCTC’s engineers, a lack of interest and a chaotic customer response surprised us. We do say Atithi Devo Bhava! but imagine, thousands of atithis trying to access the site every day as they plan their vacation and don’t know what to do further. Those long train rides across the nation in Indian Railways are one of the most enticing memories we have from our childhood. Lets keep this lifeline running!

Also cross-posted here

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