IndianRail.gov.in is one of the more popular websites in India (though very ill-designed and un-userfriendly). According to Alexa it is ranked no. 30 in India and has a worldwide traffic rank of 721. Given the place that the Indian Railways has in the country's transportation system railway-related sites would continue getting the visitors. And this is what makes the Indian Railways' websites (indianrail.gov.in and trainenquiry.com) a very lucrative target for parasitic websites.
I believe that the Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS), that owns and maintains the official Railways websites also realises that and therefore has put up this warning on the indianrail.gov.in site:
Warning: No one is authorised to make any type of commercial usage like putting web advertisements or SMS service and Reproducing/Transmitting/Storing in its database, any content of www.indianrail.gov.in website, without prior written permission from Indian Railways. Violators will be severely prosecuted.
But violators don't seem to care much. There are quite a number of Indian Railways related websites out there, but most of them just provide basic information, but there are quite a number who offer services similar to that of the official sites.
Now a question might arise - What's wrong with that? The problem here is that the information related to train timings, seat availability, PNR status, train arrivals and departures is exclusively generated by the Indian Railways and others can have access to it only via the official websites (or with agencies that the organisation might have an agreement with).
What these sites do is that they provide the user an interface that looks their own (with some ads plastered around, though not in all cases) and when the user requests any information, the data is pulled from the Indian Railways servers. A practice also termed as leeching.
Someone might ask - Maybe they actually have a tie up with the Railways? I don't think so. Let us sample a few:
eRail.in: The site explicitly states that it "does not have any official connection or affiliation whatsoever to Indian Railways and related organisations." When you submit a query it displays the results within an iframe enclosing the official website.
The site doesn't have any contact info and a whois search reveals the domain registrant as the System Administrator of 5Force, Dublin, Ohio, USA. Nothing very precise. But the man behind the site has been discussed about on the WWW.
IndianTrains.org: Follows a similar method as that of eRail.in. The domain name has been registered via DomainsByProxy.com, who are in the business of hiding the real identities of website owners. Obviously no contact info.
IndiaRailInfo.com: Similar. Registered via myprivateregistration.com - another whois anonymising service.
BharatRail.net: Atleast the registrant seemingly used a genuine address.
Now let us also look at a few bigger sites offering railway enquiry services:
Rediff Trains FareSearch: It seems quite unlikely that a reputed website like Rediff would indulge in exploitative practices. But I tried searching online for information related to Indian Railways-Rediff tie up, but didn't seem to find any. Even the story on Rediff.com on the launch of the service doesn't mention any official agreement.
Other sites that also offer rail-related services (I didn't look into the details):
From a user's perspective, this is a welcome trend. With the bad usability of the official sites such alternatives make lives a little easier. The interface is so much better. Many of them also provide additional services like maps and weather forecasts that the official sites obviously don't have.
Now what should the Indian Railways or rather Times Internet Limited - that has won the tender for web advertisement rights on indianrail.gov.in and trainenquiry.com for two years - do?
Alexa shows a dip of 16% in indianrail.gov.in's reach over the last three months, while eRail.in registers an increase of 28% for the same period.
At a time when rising airfares is compelling people to opt for trains, this dip in the traffic for the official railway sites point toward the alternative service providers.
Unlike airlines, railways is a monopoly and the railways wouldn't like to loose it grip on that even online. But instead of expending resources over the 'violators,' CRIS should rather focus on improving the websites so that people would prefer the original source over the borrowed and bettered websites. And as payback they could borrow some ideas.
* Greasy Tracks: The Truth behind the Indian Railways Success Story
* Railway Regulations
* Chugging Along
* TOI Story on e-Ticketing: A Distorted Perspective
* Tracks to Nowhere
* Crossing the Brahmaputra