Despite hurdles, our railway services have never gone off track
In 1862, the then undivided Bengal witnessed the extraordinary revolution of civilization and industrialization; the start of rail. A 53km rail line was opened between Darshana, Chuadanga and Jogotee, Kushtia.
From that point forward, the legacy of rail and train continued. What once used to be a means of luxurious travel is now the preferred mode of transportation of the mass people of Bangladesh.
Being a 160-year-old organization makes Bangladesh Railway historically rich and, as a by-product, it has seen its fair share of ups and downs. From being damaged by the enemy forces in the Liberation War to being plagued with flawed policies of several successive authorities to service mismanagement, Bangladesh Railways has seen it all.
To bring back the previous glory of the railway sector, Bangladesh Railway digitized its entire ticketing system and, since 1994, has been in a constant process of digitizing the ticketing experience for the convenience of the citizens of Bangladesh. In fact, before anyone else, Bangladesh Railway initiated such national-level work of digitization. However, the recent debacle around Bangladesh Railway’s integral ticketing service has raised many eyebrows.
For the last 15 years, one single company used to manage the integrated ticketing system of Bangladesh Railway and, recently, Shohoz-Synesis-Vincen JV acquired it by the invitation of an open tender. Per tender, the new vendor was supposed to run the current vendor's software for 18 months and build new solutions within that time. The handover to the newly-awarded service provider of the national-level software was scheduled to be within 21 days, as per tender terms.
As a technology person, I must say it is risky to run somebody else’s software. A software has millions of lines of code which, with proper documentation, takes a few months for a new party to take over.
In this case, it was 21 days. As a result, the new vendor deployed their own MVP (minimum viable product) software solution in all 77 stations across the country -- offline on March 25 and online on March 26 -- to cater for the time being till they develop their full Integrated Ticketing System for Bangladesh Railway.
To execute the ticketing system, the new ticket management company collected sealed and signed documents containing data of trains from the BR authorities, and went through a three-level validation process before inputting those into the ticketing system.
Upon online deployment on the morning of March 26, the new ticketing service provider was allegedly down which caused a commotion among train enthusiasts and the general people of Bangladesh. Only a few passengers were able to purchase tickets, and later it was unavailable for many others. A day after that, people were able to purchase tickets at a regular pace from the official ticketing website of the Bangladesh Railway.
Bangladesh Railway ticketing solution is an enterprise application and requires 24 to 96 hours to be stabilized after deployment. In this case, the new ticket management company took 12 hours online and 0 hours offline to stabilize the system, which is way less time than the usual/standard time. By this sketch, it is justified to say that they pulled this unprecedented scenario off quite well.
In the case of online ticketing, there are a few unknown parameters that need to be addressed and considered, such as the number of users, hits, attacks, and so on. As per the new company, on the very first day of the launch, to start with, they were prepared for 70-80K hits a minute. Whereas, the official website of BR received an unforeseeable number of hits per minute.
This one-off incident swarmed the system like locusts, resulting in BR’s official website slowing down. Within 12 hours, on March 27, the new company took the necessary steps using WAF (web application firewall) to prevent further attacks or DOS.
The new enterprise application of Bangladesh Railway ticketing system contains 9-12 servers reportedly, which run 24x7. Shohoz JV has already strengthened its firewall protection with server scaling and throttling, which will prohibit heavy loads from similar IP addresses to prevent attacks. Hereby, the system can now serve 70,000-80,000 people in a minute for registration and ticket purchase.
The new ticketing enterprise solution has been prepared in a short period of time, but it is working well now. As a Bangladeshi company, the fact that they have managed 77 railway stations to go live from day one is appreciable. The people behind the new ticketing enterprise are all Bangladeshi, and this is inspiring for those who dream of a big change in the ICT sector in Bangladesh.
The new company has faced its fair share of obstacles already and managed to succeed as well, and this surely gives hope for the future of rail. When the new company will bring back the prestige of railways is a matter of time now; but the paradigm shift in ticketing solution surely builds an expectation of a robust railway system for the citizens of our country and, at long last, trains finding their tracks.
Dr Md Mamun-Or-Rashid is a professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Technology, University of Dhaka.