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Understanding waitlists better

Note: This is a rather technical article.  If you have just one waitlisted ticket and want to know whether it will get confirmed, this article might be more useful for you. If you want to understand what a waitlist means, go here.  This article is intended for those of you who plan to travel extensively across the railway network and need detailed information on how different waitlists will affect the chances of your ticket getting confirmed.

Just like not all trains are created equal, not all waitlists are the same.  There are several factors that determine whether your ticket will get confirmed, which include:

  • The class of travel,
  • The total quota (number of seats/berths) allocated for your journey leg,
  • The number of "hidden" quotas that are not sold to regular passengers on your train,
  • The type of waitlist you're on,
  • The frequency of your train and the distance covered,
  • Yet more factors.

The class of travel

I'll illustrate why this is important through the example of the Chennai - Bangalore Mail, which offers four different classes of travel (besides unreserved): First AC Sleeper, Second AC Sleeper, Three-tier (third) AC Sleeper, and Sleeper Class Non-AC.  

As is the case with most trains, the higher the class, the lower the number of total berths available to book.  The maximum number of berths available to book in each class is as follows:

Class Class Code Maximum Availability
First AC Sleeper 1A 14
Second AC Sleeper 2A 50
Three-tier (third) AC Sleeper 3A 109 (Approx)
Sleeper Class Non-AC SL 506 (Approx)

It's quite easy to see just how wide the gap is between, say, Second AC Sleeper and Sleeper Class Non-AC; the latter has over ten times the capacity of the former. Why is this important?  Quite simply, when you hold a waitlisted ticket, you're depending - for the most part - on other passengers cancelling their tickets.  The higher the capacity, the more passengers there are that might cancel their tickets.

Assume that in a week, approximately 15% of passengers with confirmed tickets decide to cancel.  If that were the case, you could expect 75 cancellations in Sleeper Class, but just one in First AC!  While there's no such precisely-defined ratio, I hope that you've understood the point - a waitlist position of 50 in Sleeper Class two weeks before departure would, in all probability, get confirmed.  The same waitlist position in Three-tier AC Sleeper is rather iffy - you'd need a bit of luck, but it isn't impossible.  Second AC and a waitlist of 50 would be rather hopeless, and First AC - well, forget about it!

The total quota for your journey leg

Many trains have a specific quota of seats or berths earmarked for passengers travelling from different stations.  Let's use the example of the Tirupati - Rameshwaram Express.  Were I to book tickets by First Class Non-AC (FC) from Tirupati to Rameshwaram on the 3rd of January, the total quota available is 20 berths; if I booked tickets by Three-tier AC Sleeper (3A), there are 9 berths available at the moment:  (If you don't know how to read and interpret these availability figures, click here)

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However, if I want to book tickets on the same train from Katpadi - a station approximately 100 km down the line - there is a drastic change in availability:

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Now there are only two berths for the taking in First Class Non-AC (FC), and Three-tier AC Sleeper has already run into a waitlist - booking now will land me position 2 on the waitlist.  If the total quota for your journey is low, it might be more difficult to get a waitlisted ticket confirmed.

It might be possible to get confirmed tickets by booking from an earlier station or booking upto a later station, and it is worth fiddling around by looking for availability from/to different stations.  

If seats/berths are available from an earlier station (like in the example above), it is possible to make a reservation from the earlier station, specifying that you are boarding at the later station.  Your reservation will thus be from Tirupati to Rameshwaram with boarding at Katpadi.  If you find that seats are available from your station upto a station further than the station you plan to disembark, you can simply make a reservation upto the further station and get down at your stop (you cannot, however, make a reservation upto an earlier station and travel beyond it).  Keep in mind you will have to pay for the extra distance covered when making such reservations, and in some cases it might work out more expensive than booking a ticket through the Tatkal scheme.

The number of hidden quotas that are not sold to regular passengers on the train

Every train that has reserved accommodation will have a set of quotas that are not released to the general public.  These quotas can only be booked by specific individuals. Some examples are:

  • The Headquarters (High Official) Quota: for important railway officials, civil servants, politicians, bureaucrats, or passengers travelling on a genuine emergency,
  • The Foreign Tourist Quota: for foreigners and NRIs travelling on a tourist visa,
  • The Lower Berth Quota: for women above 45 and men above 60 travelling alone,
  • The Defence Quota: for army personnel travelling on work,
  • The Ladies Quota: for ladies and male children under the age of 12,
  • The Duty Pass Quota: for railway workers travelling on railway duty,
  • The Physically Handicapped Quota: for passengers with physical disabilities, and
  • The Parliament House Quota: for parliamentarians (seen primarily on trains heading out of Delhi)

The Headquarters Quota is seen in almost every reserved class of every train.  The Lower Berth Quota is usually two berths in every coach that has sleeping accommodation.  The Ladies Quota is only seen in the lowest reservable class of a train, and some premier trains like the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis don't have a ladies quota as well.  The other quotas are less common, and there are many trains that lack these quotas at all.

Why am I harping on these quotas?  Well, in some trains, these quotas can form a fairly large block of seats.  Let's use the example of the Uttar Sampark Kranti Express which runs from Delhi to Udhampur in the north.  This is a slightly extreme example, but shows you just how many seats are not sold to the general public in the beginning (though the Ladies Quota and Lower Berth Quota can be reserved online by anybody who fulfills the criteria for a berth under those quotas)  

The "total capacity" column tells you the total number of seats available (for example, this train has one First AC coach which seats 18, so the total capacity is 18; this train also has eleven Sleeper Class Non-AC coaches each seating 72, so the total capacity for that class is 792).  The other columns tell you the number of berths kept aside under these "hidden" quotas, and the last column tells you the proportion of seats kept aside under these quotas to total capacity.  This quota distribution is specific to this train, and your train will definitely have a different amount of seats allocated to each quota.

Class Total Capacity Headquarters Foreign Tourist Lower Berth Defence Ladies Duty Pass Handicapped Parliament Number of "Hidden" Seats
First AC Sleeper 18 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 6/18 (33%)
Second AC Sleeper 48 16 2 2 2 0 0 0 0 22/48 (45.83%)
Third AC Sleeper 320 40 0 8 16 0 0 0 0 64/320 (20%)
Sleeper Class 792 42 2 14 72 6 0 2 0 138/792 (17.42%)

Second AC in this case is particularly extreme; almost half the berths in the coach are kept aside under various quotas.

What needs to be remembered here is that most of these quotas do not usually get totally filled, which means that when the train's chart is prepared, these empty seats are given away to passengers on the waitlist (if there is one).  This means that when the train's chart is prepared, your ticket - which was on the waitlist - could suddenly jump several places and even get confirmed, as many unutilised berths under these quotas are released.

You can check the number of seats kept away under various quotas on Erail or Indiarailinfo.  See my article on finding trains between cities and checking availability to find out how to use Erail.  For a detailed account of Indiarailinfo, see this thread on the travel forum Indiamike.

In essence, if your train/class combination has a large number of hidden quota seats, your ticket is likely to see a large improvement in its status, but only when the train's chart is prepared, approximately four hours before the train departs; admittedly a rather nerve-racking wait!

The type of waitlist you're on

As I've said - repeatedly - across the website, there are several different types of waitlists, and not all waitlists have the same priority in getting confirmed.  The most frequently-seen waitlists are:

  • General Waitlist (GNWL)
  • Tatkal Waitlist (CKWL)
  • Remote Location Waitlist (RLGN or RLWL)
  • Pooled Quota Waitlist (PQWL)
  • Roadside Waitlist (RSWL or RQWL)

However, not every train has every type of waitlist.  All trains have a General Waitlist and most trains also have a Tatkal Waitlist.  After that, in decreasing order of frequency, trains have Pooled Quota Waitlists, Remote Location Waitlists, and Roadside Waitlists.  (If you wondering what on earth all these waitlists are, I will explain them later in this article)

As you've seen in the previous section, there are several "hidden" quotas that, if not used, are used to clear the waitlist when the train's chart is prepared.  How are these seats distributed among the many waitlists?

In theory, unutilised berths are first used to clear the General Waitlist and Tatkal in alternating order (i.e. if there are two vacant berths, one will be given to a GNWL passenger, and the other to a CKWL passenger).  If untilised berths remain after clearing both these waitlists, they are used to clear - usually, in this order - the Remote Location Waitlist, the Pooled Quota Waitlist and the Roadside Waitlist.  However, Roadside Waitlists generally tend to do better than Pooled Quota Waitlists - I won't elaborate on this for fear of making an already complicated article even more difficult.

This is why you should never just look at the waitlist position and assume the ticket will get confirmed.  If I were to book a ticket on a train leaving tomorrow, a General Waitlist of 10 in Sleeper Class Non-AC is probably better than a Pooled Quota Waitlist of 1 in First AC Sleeper; I have seen many cases where the latter hasn't confirmed!

After all this, you must be wondering whether you can avoid the "bad" waitlists - do you choose which type of waitlist your ticket gets booked on?  The answer to the latter question is no.  With the exception of the tatkal waitlist, all the waitlists listed above depend on how much of the train's route you're travelling; where you embark and disembark.

  • The General Quota (and waitlist) is for passengers boarding at the train's origin (or a station close to its origin) and travelling to the end (or fairly close to the end) of the train's route.  As the railways generally prioritise end-to-end passengers, this quota usually has the highest allocation of seats/berths to it, and its waitlist is given the highest priority in clearance.
  • The Pooled Quota (and waitlist) covers one or more intermediate stations on a train's route.  You will be booked against this quota if you (a) book from the train's origin to an intermediate station which falls under this quota (b) book from an intermediate station which falls under this quota to the train's destination (c) book from an intermediate station to another intermediate station, both of which fall under this quota.  As the reservation system grants short-distance passengers lower priority than long-distance passengers, this quota is usually fairly small, and waitlists under this quota are particularly difficult to get cleared.
  • If there is a particularly important intermediate station on the route of a train, it is provided a separate quota of seats or berths and is called a Remote Location.  If you book from a station that is classified a Remote Location (or from any station further down the route till the next Remote Location, if any), you will be placed under the quota or waitlist of that station.
  • The Tatkal Waitlist is for passengers who've booked under the tatkal quota after all confirmed seats or berths under that quota were already sold.  
  • The Roadside Waitlist is for passengers travelling a short portion of the train's route from its origin, though I've seen this waitlist for some fairly long journeys on some Rajdhani Expresses.  It is a relatively rarer waitlist than the four previously mentioned waitlists.

If you're travelling a very short portion of a train's route, you might sometimes get impossibly high waitlist tickets confirmed due to quota dynamics, but this is not something to bank on.

The frequency of your train and the distance covered

Trains that don't run too frequently - such as weekly trains - often see less cancellations than trains that run daily.  This is probably because there are fewer alternatives to the train, and passengers don't have the luxury of postponing (or advancing) their journey by a day or two.  Trains that cater primarily to long-distance passengers also see fewer cancellations than trains that cater to short-distance intercity passengers.

Other factors

These apart, other factors can affect or improve the chances of your ticket.  Occasionally, the railways attach extra coaches to trains to cater to excess demand.  If this happens, a much higher proportion of waitlisted passengers will see their tickets get confirmed than usual.  Travelling around popular festivals and vacations can also affect your ticket's chances, as a large amount of passengers travelling around these periods are families that have planned their vacations well in advance and are less likely to cancel than the average passenger.

Last updated on 14 November 2013.