Technology in Public Transport: Moving Passengers to Centre-stage

PCQ Bureau
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In any mass transit system, more often than not there are two big factors in making decisions about IT systems to be deployed: Scalability and Security. It is because of the challenges of dealing with such a volume of real-time data, which can be potentially misused to cause damage to life and property, that public transport authorities are gradually realizing that they need to ramp up their IT systems and keep passengers better informed through automated means. This also presents many challenging opportunities for developers. And this isn't limited to booking tickets such as with IRCTC or tracking freight trains through FOIS.


Railways are slowly coping up with the scale

One such tool, which was recently released by Indian railways, is RailRadar, meant exclusively for passenger trains, available at Anil Chopra, Editor, PCQuest used the same a few weeks ago and here is his feedback:

“It has some merit, but leaves a lot to be desired. The train search is very good. Simply type even partial name of the train and it will automatically search and show you a list of all trains with matching characters. Click on the relevant train from the list, and it immediately shows you its current location on the map. A little arrow indicates the direction of the train. You can zoom into the map, which is standard Google Maps functionality, but the utility of the service ends after that. It doesn't show the tracks to indicate which station is the train coming from and which one is it heading to. I entered Gomti Express, and got four options. I clicked on one and it immediately showed me the train's current location. But after some time, when I clicked on another Gomti Express, it said the train is currently not running. In fact, after this, I kept on clicking on all the Gomti Express trains in the list and got the same response. So reliability of the service is questionable.


I saw one really compelling use of Google Maps when I was in LA. It showed live traffic situation on all the roads. If there were traffic jams or snarls, then those portions of the road were colored red, while free roads were colored green. It helps commuters change their route on the fly.”

From a security perspective, determining the near-real-time location of trains might be a risk to ensure safety, which is why RailRadar states that the information provided is delayed by atleast 5 minutes. One such website ( ), which was started some time ago in collaboration with IITK with the objective of providing near-real-time tracking for a few select trains in the pilot phase, was closed w. e. f. 1 October 2012, alongwith it's accompanying SMS service. However, the original Train Enquiry website (and it's SMS service) continues to provide tracking information that is regularly updated for most trains. Indian Railways have even released a mobile app for that relies on jQueryMobile for device/browser support.

The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation was learnt to have taken up the task earlier this year to modify signaling and telecom software so that passengers can know whether the next arriving train will have four coaches or six and accordingly position themselves on the platform.


End-to-end connectivity present

a different set of challenges for road transport

Similar activities are happening in road transport too. In Mumbai, BEST undertaking, in collaboration with Verve Compusoft, has developed for tracking each individual BEST bus on Mumbai's roads. While earlier this included all buses as well as was plotted on a map which was refreshed every few seconds, now it is limited to AC buses only and is listed in a table of the routes instead of using a map (as of the time of writing this).

In Bengaluru, road transport has been combined with traffic regulation and law enforcement information to result in , which offers a wealth of features (including bus routes) to help travellers find their way. Shown here is a screenshot of the live traffic situation in Bengaluru as of the time of writing this.

In Pune and Delhi, it has taken the form of and respectively.

Attractive opportunities lie in store for developers

Developers have lots of opportunities to assist in projects with such undertakings, not necessarily limited to tracking of vehicles/ finding suitable routes for a given trip. There are many free transport simulators available today (such as Simutrans and OpenTTD) which can assist developers in modeling routes and finding out potential bottlenecks by simulating both freight and passenger movement. For instance, shown in the image is a schematic representation (ignoring the surrounding elevation of the map) that shows the current layout of the Borivali railway station (with one of the many model trains available having reached platform 1 in the simulated environment) in Mumbai to a reasonable degree of accuracy. This was designed in Simutrans.

Since such tools are open-source and cover multiple modes of transport (road, rail, elevated rail, skybus, monorail, metro, maglev, trams, ships, aircrafts, are all supported), developers may find it beneficial to tweak the algorithms used for distance calculation, path-finding, mapping and scheduling themselves to realize not only how they can make the flow smoother by changing a few parameters and then running the simulation but also to maximize revenue by ensuring optimal load utilization. Both OpenTTD and Simutrans are very powerful at this, although they are generally used as games for enthusiasts. OpenTTD even supports simulating accidents, while Simutrans offers a more pleasing set of graphics for visualization.

Regulatory initiatives have stepped up

Aside from e-ticketing and tracking methods used by the public at large, the railways are also learnt to be working on developing a train collision avoidance system (TCAS) for which six indigenous firms have been shortlisted so far after floating the EoI. The earlier anti-collision device (ACD), over which TCAS will be an improvement, made use of GPS and has seen moderately successful trials in Northeast Frontier Railway and Southern Railway. MoUs for upgradation and modernization of the infrastructure have been signed with various countries such as Spain, Austria and Belgium in the last few months by the Ministry of Railways. Referring to the existing Belgium involvement in Indian Railway sector, the Belgium Deputy Prime Minister & Minister for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and European Affairs of Belgium, Didier Reynders said that several Belgium or Belgium-based companies are already firmly present in India and their activities range from the fastening and coating of rails to the delivery of parts for the train construction and software for safety and network management.