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Corporate May 30, 2012

How Google Maps and Android phones can help Indian Railways

By Prithwis Mukerjee

I have been a laggard with smartphones but last month I finally bought an Android phone and, within days, I got a tidy return on my small investment- two extra hours on the upper berth of an overnight train! How ?

If you are travelling alone at night, in an AC compartment you have no way of knowing where you are at any point in time and the need to climb down every now and then to check the station that you are passing through is painful. Instead, what I did was to lie on the bunk and switch on Google Maps on my GPS-enabled Android phone and watched the blue arrow that showed me (and the train) as it snaked across the countryside. Only after passing the last station before my destination, did I finally get down from the bunk feeling rather smug about this new technology.

This simple technology can be used to track the movement of all trains across the entire country. How ?

Every Android phone is associated with a specific Gmail ID and using this Gmail ID one can "check-in" into "places" defined in Google Latitude. Usually these "places" are hotels, restaurants and other businesses defined by their respective owners and once someone "checks-in" into a place, this information is available to "friends" on the Google network.

We first create a special Gmail ID to represent a specific train- say IR12302@gmail.com for the Howrah Delhi Rajdhani - and use this ID to register an Android phone. Next, we define each of the 219 stations on the Howrah-Delhi route as a "place" in Google Latitude. For this specific gmail ID, IR12302@gmail.com, we define these 219 stations as places where check-in is automatic. Finally, we give this phone to the guard of the the Howrah Delhi Rajdhani or tether it securely in the guard's cabin.

Now as the train travels across the country, the Android phone will automatically check into every station that the train is passing through and anybody who defines this specific Gmail ID as a friend will know the last station where this train has checked-in and when.

The immediate benefit is that once the stations are defined as places - and a place once defined can be used for all trains passing through - and the Gmail ID for each train is set up, then the train running information becomes automatically available in the public domain with no further effort. Not only is the entire process automatic but it is totally free of cost except for the initial investment on the Android phones.

Not only is the entire process automatic but it is totally free of cost except for the initial investment on the Android phones.

This automatically updated train running information will not only be a boon for passengers but also for the Indian Railways themselves, as they would be able to track the position of all trains with a good deal of precision from anywhere in the country. Moreover, if this facility is extended to goods trains, then corporate shippers will be able to track their consignments if they know which train their goods are booked on.

However, there are few loose end that need to be tied up. First, one can only track a friend and to be friend, as in any social media, one's friend request must be accepted by the target. This means that for each train id, e.g. IR12302@gmail.com, someone must accept friend requests from anyone who wants to know where the train is - but this can be automated as well. Second, Google Maps already identifies railway stations but does not allows people to "check-in" into them. If this is allowed then the task of defining all train stations again as business places can be done away with.

Finally, and perhaps the most important, is how to handle the return trip. The down train would have a different train number but since the Gmail ID with which an Android device is registered cannot be changed easily we need to have two Android phones per rake and only one, corresponding to the train number that is actually running, must be active while the other should be switched off. So a pair of rakes that support an UP and DOWN train service would need four Android phones, two of which, located in different rakes, will have the same GMail ID.

The SIMRAN project of the Indian Railways has a similar goal but it needs its own dedicated hardware and software. Reportedly, the pilot project needs an investment of Rs 100 crore plus annual maintenance costs. In contrast, at Rs 7,500 per phone and four phones per pair of trains, this approach can use the free Google Maps service to track the top 100 trains in the country for an investment of Rs 30 lakhs or at 0.3 percent of the cost!

Google Russia has collaborated with the Russian Railways to create an unique application that allows anyone to take a virtual ride from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans Siberian Railway. I am sure that if the Indian Railways were to embark on this project, Google India would be glad to help in this regard.

Many years ago, before the era of the ubiquitous cellphone, I had come across an FMCG company that tried to track the position of its trucks by giving food coupons to the drivers that could be redeemed at selected dhabas across the country. The idea was that as a driver "checks-in" into a dhaba and uses the free coupon to pay for food, the dhaba owner would not only get the money from the company but in return would report the position of the consignment - as evident from a code number on the coupon that was being redeemed - back to the company.

That elegant idea was perhaps ahead of its time. But today, with Android phones and Google Maps, this idea can be easily implemented not only in the Railways but for any other transporter as well.

by Prithwis Mukerjee

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