Book Review: Heads You Win

The tatkal experience - the manual way

I had managed to get tatkal tickets - from Bangalore to Coimbatore and Coimbatore to Cochin - both during peak travel dates, but my luck ran out when it came to getting a return ticket from Cochin to Bangalore.  But, then there were some learnings from the experience.

I wanted tickets for the trains on the night of Sun, 29 Dec.  This meant, I needed to try tatkal tickets at 10 AM on Sat, 28 Dec.

The Reservation Center in Ernakulam is a 5 minute walk from my home.  I thought I could try booking in person, as logging into the irctc website at 10 AM is next to impossible, especially for Fridays and Sundays.

I reached the reservation center at 8.05 AM. There was a separate Tatkal queue - not to buy the ticket, but to get a token which determined the position at 10 AM in various tatkal queues.  The Reservation Center had earmarked 5 counters for tatkal reservation from 10 AM to 11 AM each day and the tokens were issued for each of the counters.  When my turn came, it was the 21st token in the credit card queue (one of the 5 queues).  This meant, I would potentially be the 101st person (give or take a few) to give my reservation form for the ticket.

In order to make it to this queue, one needs to have  a photostat of the identity proof that one is going to use while making the booking, along with the filled up application form.  I saw people queuing up with multiple application forms, one for each train that they were trying tickets for.

I thought I would have a better chance of getting a ticket online than be in the queue at the 21st position.  In retrospect, it was probably the wrong thing to do, As it turned out, 10 AM turned to 10.15, which turned to 10.30 AM.  Other than the rotating circle indicating "progress" or 503 Service Unable error, I could not get anywhere in the online reservation website.  By the time, I could get to the availability screen, all the three trains to Bangalore were having only waitlisted tatkal tickets.

What was my learning?  I needed to go earlier than 8 AM so that I got a token which put me earlier in the queue.  The question was how early.

So, on Sunday, 29 Dec, rather than watch the Kochi Half Marathon, I ended up rushing to the Reservation Center at 7 AM, an hour earlier than the previous day.  The Reservation Center was not yet open. Imagine my shock when I saw about 70 people ahead of me.  Fortunately, they were all in a queue (rather than pushing and jostling to be the first in, when the shutters opened).  I presumed that not all of them would have come for tatkal - some would have come to be the first to book at 8 AM when the normal counters opened.

I was partially right, for, when the tokens were issued, I now had a choice between getting the 10th number in credit card or the 13th number in a normal tatkal queue.  The person issuing the token recommended that I should take the normal queue since the credit card processing would take time.  I didn't realize the significance of this until later.

Anyway, trip one ended at 8.15 AM and I was back home, even as the Half Marathon runners were "returning" back to the starting point.  (My home is off M.G.Road, which is the marathon route)

I was back at 9.45 AM in the Reservation Center - this time deciding to take a chance with the "Number 13" (fully aware that 60 others will have their turns ahead of me).  I thought that even if it took 20 minutes, I would still get a shot unlike the internet which would not even log me in at that time.

The person who issued the token earlier in the day was manning the queue that I stood.  Even before 10 AM, the data for the first person in the queue had been entered in the system.  I was amazed to see the rapidity with which the tatkal queue was getting processed.  The Railway personnel were entering data in rapid pace, swiftly issuing tickets after collecting money.  When my turn came, it was only 10.10 AM.  I was not surprised when I got my ticket - it took less than a minute!

I realized that even in this internet age, the manual ticket issual was still every efficient and even better, more guaranteed to succeed!  I was impressed at the way the Reservation Center handled tatkal booking - making the process easy and streamlined to benefit maximum number of people.  Earmarking separate queues, issuing tokens, speedy processing of the forms - each of them helped, in no small measure.

Of course, it helps to have the reservation center close to your home.  I wouldn't be surprised if people stayed back after getting the token till they got their tickets.  Also, 7 AM was not too early - perhaps 6 AM is!  Maybe, no time is too early.  It brought me back to the good old days, before internet and e-tickets.  We used to go to the Reservation Center at 6 or 7 AM, exactly 60 days before the journey date, so that we could take a shot at the 6 seats that were "reserved" from our station in the Mumbai train.  We have come a long way from there.