Since 23rd May, social media has been abuzz with reports of a Shramik Special train (or 40, according to a few very credible news outlets) having ‘lost its way’.
A train that was supposed to go from Mumbai via Madhya Pradesh to Uttar Pradesh, and instead decided to go to Rourkela in Odisha!
What was the driver up to?
What was the driver thinking? Did he want to go meet his in-laws in Odisha? Was the driver trying to escape the COVID-19 situation in Mumbai and thought Rourkela was the safest place to be? Did he forget to pick up the route map for the Mumbai-Gorakhpur train? Or did he think that these particular Shramiks want to go to Rourkela instead?
It is possible the whole thing may have started with this tweet:
The tweet was quickly picked up by several media outlets and the commentariat. People were outraged, as is considered necessary on social media.
To be fair, the tweet does admit that the passenger was clueless. But that was not enough of a disclaimer. Social media users, including those who should have known better, went on to demonstrate that they were acting in solidarity with the passenger and being just as clueless. Including news outlets.
The urge to take a swipe became irresistible.
Why would party spokespersons miss the fun?
Sons of retired railway employees also chimed in with second-hand outrage on their fathers’ behalf. Things were so much better in the Good Old Days.
What Really Happened
The truth is rather disappointing. The previous night, on 22nd May, RailPost broke a story about how serious congestion caused by hundreds of trains heading into UP and Bihar was holding up trains for hours in a traffic jam.
Before we filed the story, Minister of State for Railways Suresh Angadi told RailPost that he was already working on the solution with the Railway Board. NCR officials also told us that they were swamped with trains. COVID-19 guidelines meant it took much longer to get passengers to disembark safely. Besides, some 80% of all Shramik Special trains were terminating in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.
On 23rd May, having finished their lunch, Western Railway decided it was time to clarify:
This clarification was quickly ignored. Because it still goes on, even today.
Why Did Trains Get Rerouted?
Because the shortest route was jammed, one solution was to allow trains to be diverted via alternate routes. This way, trains keep moving and passengers receive attention, food and water regularly on the route.
Rerouting was considered a better option than forcing trains to be stranded in the middle of nowhere for hours. Small stations have no facility to feed entire trainloads of passengers.
Can Trains Get Misrouted?
Yes, but this is exceptionally rare. Checks in the system ensure misrouting is quickly detected and rectified. Trains do not travel a thousand kilometres on the wrong route before someone finds out. If 40 trains went were expected and missing, someone would definitely notice.
See if you can find any news of a train that was to go to Mumbai but ended up in Kolkata. Unless you believe Govt has sanitized Google. In which case, go to the end of this post.
It also is not possible for a driver to ‘lose his (or her) way’. For one, the same driver does not handle the train from Mumbai to Gorakhpur. Crews change every few hours at designated crew change points. Secondly, these are trained individuals who work under tough conditions and shoulder serious responsibilities. They would notice if they took over the wrong train.
In the case of the Mumbai-Gorakhpur Shramik Special, fresh crews will have taken over at Igatpuri, Bhusawal, Itarsi / Bhopal and several other points on the route ahead.
The driver does not decide which route the train will take. Nor can he or she switch to the wrong route if they wanted to meet their in-laws (who really wants that?) in Odisha. They cannot even switch to the adjacent track if they want to.
Routes are set and monitored by mysterious people in big comfy airconditioned control rooms. Those twisty tracks that connect one railway line with another guide the train to the route set for them. No independent thinking allowed. Things were better in the Good Old Days.
To summarize; No, a train, or 40 trains, did not get misrouted, were not taken elsewhere by the driver. Indian Railways officials decided that the better option was to simply send them via a longer route and ensure passengers do not starve or get frustrated.
If you were one of the outragers and would like to learn more about trains, maybe join the discussion group here. Annoy the knowledgeable with your noob questions?
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And if you still believe in conspiracy theories, did you know NASA faked the moon landing in a studio? Also, wear a tinfoil hat.