Months ago, before the world was turned upside down, Indian Railways was chugging along fairly happily. Transformational projects were about to get underway. Every department was racing to meet tough financial-year-end targets.
Those were normal times.
In hindsight, those challenges must look pretty simple today.
Fast Forward to April 2020. Much had changed. Indian Railways celebrated its 167th birthday with deserted stations and empty trains cooling their wheels on sidings nationwide. The lockdown had plunged a dagger into the heart of IR’s passenger operations.
And yet, Indian Railways was not sitting still.
Many employees were at work, braving the risk of COVID-19 infection. Trains were transporting coal so power plants could supply electricity to homes and hospitals. Just one coal train takes 200 trucks off the road. More trains were transporting fuel to ensure pumps didn’t run dry. If India didn’t have electricity blackouts after the lockdown, thank IR.
IR moved with uncharacteristic speed to shift huge quantities of food grain and other essential supplies across the country. Zones reported twice the normal grain loading. If there were no grain shortages at such a critical time, the railway network was a big reason.
RPF and GRP continued to work, securing railway facilities throughout the lockdown, handling crowds when special trains started, helping distribute food aid.
This was not enough; Indian Railways went above and beyond.
IRCTC may not have sold many tickets during the lockdown. But they fired up their base kitchens instead. They since have provided tens of lakhs of meals to the stranded and needy free of cost. Daily.
Meanwhile, employees at workshops were racing against time to modify 5,000 railway coaches. IR planned to help state governments with converted coaches as isolation units in case local medical facilities ran short. Railway hospitals also quickly geared up to help handle a possible deluge of COVID-19 patients all over the country.
Others at Indian Railways’ facilities were busy too. They repurposed available supplies to make sanitizers, masks, PPEs, hospital beds, remote controlled trolleys and more. Retired employees also pitched in.
Some bright spark also decided to run lockdown special parcel and milk trains on key routes. These services helped private parties and milk co-operatives move products to consumption centres in the absence of road transport.
The mammoth task of running Shramik Special trains
If anything, they should pat themselves on the back for the systematic execution of the boarding process. Remember, this is despite reduced manpower and lakhs of stranded migrants desperate to get back home to their families. Try finding such orderly behaviour at stations in normal times.
IR didn’t have to go through all this trouble. Trains could simply have been restarted and people left to their fate. Desperate to get home, passengers would’ve piled in without screening or social distancing., Home states would have been left to deal with the resulting mess. States are still against the resumption of regular train services. Karnataka barred entry into the state to prevent a rise in COVID-19 infections.
Railway Minister Piyush Goyal didn’t have promise double the number of Shramik Special trains either. Status quo was working well for him. Low risk, no network congestion or overworked crews or stress on the system. Again, the stranded would have been a host or home state problem, and not that of Indian Railways.
But Indian Railways did double the number of trains at short notice. Congestion ensued. But solutions were found and implemented well before the outrage began. Trains were rerouted (not misrouted, as some would have you believe) to keep them running. IRCTC sprang into action. They arranged food for thousands of passengers in dozens of unscheduled trains along the new routes.
Temporary glitches as the network adjusted to double the load
Passengers of the Shramik Specials were justified in complaining of the lack of food and water. But this was not true for all 3,600 trains. Only a handful.
Reports of deaths due to starvation have been denied by Indian Railways. Only time and some diligent investigation will reveal the truth, not blatant falsehoods on twitter.
Safely distributing food and water to every one of 1,200 passengers in each train also takes time and caused delays. Supplying a few thousand meals at a few hours notice on the diverted routes was no joke either. At the same time, other issues were also holding up trains. Doctors attended to pregnant women in trains who were about to give birth and ensured safe deliveries.
Could things have been managed better? Sure, there is always room for improvement. Was there confusion? Definitely. The problem of slow, ineffective and bureaucratese laden communication also continues to haunt IR, especially in an era where fake news travels faster than a shinkansen on LSD. Should they face heat for missteps in the course of normal operations? Absolutely!
But these are not normal times.
And they did get the job done. 50 lakh people got back home by train to their families and many more will. Safely.
So, outrage as much as your ideological proclivities demand. But Indian Railways has done a job they should be proud of.
See RailPost’s Coverage of Indian Railways’ COVID-19 Activities
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