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Metro Bots

A colourfully simple solution for crowd control at Kolkata Metro becomes a talking point

The Kolkata Metro is about to a solution that harnesses AI-based web-robots or “bots” to control passenger load in the new-normal. This is perhaps the first such solution being used anywhere in the world that – experts feel – could be ground-breaking in the history of transportation.

As the nation braces for phased unlock stages after an unprecedented stint of lockdown on the face of the pandemic, a host of issues need to be sorted out so that life could be as close to normal as possible – yet all necessary precautions can be ensured to keep the still-rampaging coronavirus at bay. With businesses resuming with restrictions, several service sectors like banking and finance operating at near-normal capacity, and examinations set to happen across states – people are compelled to go out more.And public transport is going to be a huge issue to contend with. Although passenger trains are still not operational, urban metro services are resuming in some cities. The Kolkata Metro, too, gets operational from this week.

However, things are going to be very different when the Metro wheels turn rolling again. Each train would be allowed to carry a maximum of 400 passengers per trip —128 of them seated maintaining the stipulated distance, and up to 272 standing. But the Metro authorities were in a fix to decide upon a way to ensure this cap on passenger numbers. Gate control was an impossibility. That would mean doing a headcount at the entrance of each subway, allowing a certain number to enter, and keep the rest waiting till it was time for the next train to arrive at the platform. Apart from creating clutter and serpentine queues outside every Metro station, that would have made the crowd confused and irate. It was too big a risk to handle each day.

Another problem was coordinating the numbers on board a train as it passed through different stations. If 400 people board on the originating station, no one could be allowed to board from other stations unless people gets off. That will of course happen during the course of a journey, but the ticketing system would need to keep track of how many are on board at any particular moment, how many are disembarking at a station and how many are boarding from that point. And all this keeping the upper limit of 400 in mind. Complex indeed, and only a technological solution was the way out.

Online reservation was the obvious choice, and that was nothing new for the railways. The Metro authorities, too, opted for it. Passengers need to choose online the trip they would like to take and book a place on it – just like long-distance train reservations. Upon booking, the passenger gets a token ID – preferably a QR code – on the registered mobile number, and that would serve as the ticket for the selected trip. Passengers can make such reservations either on the Metro website, or via the Metro and Pathadisha mobile apps.

But the question of crowd control still remained. Scanning each QR code and then allowing entry would have created the same bottleneck as with the manual ticketing process. This was where the bot came to the rescue. Bots are software that runs repetitive automated tasks over the internet – usually harnessing a conversational user interface with the processing capabilities of an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven algorithm.

The solution being used by Kolkata Metro will collect real-time input on the running service from several data sources, including the particular train for any trip, the platforms in the network and the server itself that is engaged in the booking process. The algorithm would also capture the start-point and end-point inputs of every passenger continually. It will process and analyse this entire data set to create booking slots for the user attempting online reservation – all the while maintaining the total count of 400 passengers per trip. The boarding pass with a QR code will reach the passenger’s mobile. It will remain valid for one hour once a passenger enters a Metro station.

And here comes the trick for crowd control. The bot will randomly designate a specific colour for a particular hour. This colour will prominently show on the boarding pass received via smartphone. The passenger can enter the station and board a train within that specific one-hour slot only. If not, he or she will have to leave the station as the next hour will have a different colour code to accommodate the next set of passengers. The security personnel and Metro officials, aware of the prevailing colour code for a particular hour, will be able to instantly identify valid passengers for that hour – and admit only bona fide passengers as per their right time slot, by just having one quick glance at their pass. No need at all to physically check or mechanically scan every pass!

The simplicity of this bot-controlled solution has been a talking point for its effectiveness. Experts are sure it would make its mark in world transportation.

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