Visualising arrivals and departures in the Indian Railways network

From dawn to dusk and through the night, trains in India gather speed. Halts and flits in and out of stations, boards and alights passengers. It is the most frequently featured element in the lives of people. The clockwork functioning of the railway department has ensured almost smooth running of trains over the years but the glitches have been unavoidable. Railway data is massive and the need to streamline it for efficient functioning is a perennial process.

With 12,000 trains carrying 23 million passengers across 8000 stations per day the Indian Railway is one of the largest and most dense networks of travel in the world. Till recently, this transport lifeline of the country even had its own budget. In both the upper and the lower houses of the Parliament, the Railways ministry is one of the ministries that receives the most questions from the members. In the Lok Sabha, Railways receives more questions than even the Finance ministry! For a department that holds such an emotive appeal for the country, surprisingly little analyses have been done on its vast network of stations, and the trains plying between them. The importance of the vast system cannot be overstated and this series of visualisations is an effort to understand the beloved pachyderm.

The first visualization shows simultaneous departures across India at a particular minute across the map in red dots. One can pause and select the day and time (top right) of the visualization. One can note that every five minutes (e.g: 13:05; 17:10; 21:00) the number of red dots increases significantly across the map indicating simultaneous departures. Considering that trains travel different distances between stations, the departures increasing every five minutes is mystifying.

We hypothesize two possible causes for this “5-minute peak in departures” phenomenon. (1) The time of trains which depart at not-rounded-off times (like 13:03) are rounded off to the nearest 5-minute whole (13:05). Such a negligent data collection process would severely compromise the efficiency of the railway network. In certain cases, this could increase the possibility of accidents. (2) The trains irrespective of their arrival times at a station are made to leave at rounded off times. Though this possibly is a less dangerous cause than the previous one, it still could lead to an enormous waste of time. Even a very conservative estimate shows that this method of data maintenance by the Indian Railways could cost the nation about 15000 human hours per day!

Next, we visualised train arrivals. As one could immediately observe, the distinct “5- minute” peaks is not significant in the arrivals visualisation. This suggests that the data collection process is not afflicted by a “rounding-off” problem in the train arrivals. We then analysed, if there were peaks in arrival 2-3 minutes earlier than the departure peaks, but found none. In the arrivals case, the peaks were still at the round numbers (like 15:05,16:10), but the difference between the peaks and the non-peaks numbers (like 17:02,16:21) were much less than the departures case. Thus, it is difficult to say which of the hypotheses is more plausible. In any case, our data visualisation tool has helped identify a significant problem from the vast data source. Further analysis with a much wider data source is needed to conclusively find out the reason for the “5-minute departure peak” phenomenon.

Even simple data visualisation tools such as the one above that are appropriately done could provide great insights into the functioning of a complex and vast system. With time and patience, one could use our tool to visually discover other interesting patterns. The problem that we identified above is just one of the patterns. What are the patterns that you can find? Please let us know at contact@ongil.io.


STEPS TO USE THE VISUALIZATION:

Use the PAUSE button to stop the simulation to select the DAY and TIME from the Scroll Bars. In the Track Train Data box, choose between DEPARTURE and ARRIVAL data and then click the START button. Red dots appear at the stations across India in which trains depart or arrive at that particular time and day. CLICK on the dots, when the visualization is stopped to get more details of the station. The visualization is updated every half-a-second and this simulates one minute of train activity in the Indian Railway network.


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Track Train Data for
Departures Arrivals