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Monday, May 11, 2020

Corona lockdown opening - Indian Railways to resume operations !

What is the most prominent  landmark of Chennai ? – the State Assembly housed in Fort St George and the flagmast, LIC Building in Mount Road, Omanthurar Complex now housing the speciality hospital, Chepauk stadium, Marina beach, Kapaleeswarar temple, Banyan tree at Adyar, Napier bridge, Airport, Port trust .. .. .. to me it is the Chennai Central Station.  If in doubt, see old movies, heroine coming to the city would walk around the landmark with fear of strangers in the eyes !

Indian Railways is mammoth – millions use it daily.  The first train in India (commercial) ran in 1953 from Boribunder to Thane and developed rapidly.  When the Nation attained Independence, Railways experienced a strange phenomenon. Mandra-Bhaun line went to Pakistan.  In 2009 there were reports that the 75-kilometre-long railway track starting from Mandra and culminating at Bahun in Chakwal, laid during the British era was ordered to be demolished.  Dawn reported that the locals of the area used this rail link till 1989 when a passenger train used to shuttle from Chakwal to Rawalpindi in the morning and came back in the evening.  Two big systems, Bengal Assam Railway and North Western Railway were no longer in India.  Some 2955 route-km of NWR became the East Punjab Railway in India, leaving 8070km in the then West Pakistan. Part of the Jodhpur Railway also went to West Pakistan.

          Chennai Central (now Puratchi Thalaivar Dr. MG Ramachandran Central Railway Station) (station code: MAS), is the main railway terminus,  busiest railway station in South India and one of the most important hubs in the country with the distinction of having the longest name among all stations on the Indian Railways replacing Venkatanarasimharajuvaripeta in 2019, when it was renamed. It is connected to Moore Market Complex railway station, Chennai Central metro station, Chennai Park railway station, Park Town railway station and is 2 km from Chennai Egmore railway station. This station connects to Northern India, including Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi, as well as to Bengaluru, Vijayawada, Visakhapatnam, Hyderabad, Coimbatore and parts of Kerala.

          The century-old building of the railway station was  designed by architect George Harding.      The station was renamed twice, from Madras Central to Chennai Central in 1996, to reflect the name change of the city of Madras to Chennai, and then in 2019 named after the popular  Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu MGR.

The ever busy station has remained silent after lockdown. Passenger trains have remained suspended since more than a month, a first in the national transporter’s 167-year-old history. The national carrier on average used to ferry nearly 23 million passengers across 13,000 trains per day.  By Passenger the reference here is not to the speed but the carriage of passengers – otherwise there are Passenger trains, Express, Superfast, Rajdhani and the like.

There has been considerable activity in moving migrant labourers by way of Shramik special trains.  Around 1,200 people from Manipur left by a special train from MGR Central railway station to Jiribam, Manipur, via Guwahati at 8pm on Sunday. This is the second train from Chennai to leave carrying stranded people. The passengers were picked up by MTC’s special buses from different points across the city such as Anna Nagar, Velachery and Choolaimedu to the station.

Co-ordinator, Manipur Association in Chennai, said, “all of them had registered with both the Manipur and Tamil Nadu governments. The train was arranged based on the request of Manipur. Some were confused about the pick-up point. Nevertheless, all of them were later taken to the station. A few are still on the waiting list and could not board, however, they will hopefully be able to travel in the next train.” He also stated that none of the passengers who were to board Sunday’s train were left behind. Southern Railway stated they are ready with rakes to operate special trains to move stranded people.

Now comes another positive step.  In the first cautious step towards restoring mass transport, limited passenger train services will resume from 12.5.2020, connecting Delhi with 15 major cities, including Mumbai, Chennai,  Howrah, Patna, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Dibrugarh, even before the third phase of the lockdown ends. The resumption of train operations would be gradual, the railway ministry said on Sunday.

Bookings can be done only through IRCTC website and will start from 4 pm on Monday. No one will be able to purchase tickets from counters or buy platform tickets. Only asymptomatic passengers with confirmed and valid tickets will be allowed to enter the station and they will need to wear face masks. They will be allowed to travel after medical screening. People who had earlier booked tickets to travel during this period won’t be allowed to board these trains.

Sources said all trains to be operated initially will have only AC coaches with limited stops between origin and destination stations. “These trains will run like Rajdhanis and hence the fare will be equivalent to what is charged for travel in Rajdhani trains,” said a source. The frequency of services between Delhi and select cities will be almost like that of normal Rajdhani services before lockdown. “It may take a few more days to put everything in place and mobilisation of rakes to have regular service of these trains on the identified routes,” the source said.

The move may signal efforts to restore mass transport like buses, metros and airlines in the coming weeks. However, the task will be challenging given the need for social distancing and ensuring hygiene and health parameters on long distance travel involving hundreds of passengers. In an official statement, the ministry said after starting special passenger train services, railways will start more services on new routes, based on available coaches after reserving 20,000 coaches for Covid-19 care centres and adequate number of coaches for up to 300 daily Shramik Special trains for stranded migrants. There is a possibility of early resumption of other premium trains such as Vande Bharat and Duronto.

Meanwhile, sources said railways was working on options of food and other catering services on the trains and one of the option was to provide packed food. Ministry officials said more details about the number of people to be allowed in a coach and other related information would be made available on Monday.

It is really a positive step ahead – we expect that planning is done to ensure that coaches are not crowded allowing practice of ‘social distancing’; the common places like pantry / toilets are properly sanitized; people travel with masks and sanitizers, the passengers  are in a position to reach the Railway station and the Nation limps back to normalcy sooner. Hoping all is well that ends well ! – people avoid unnecessary travel and is used only by those who are in genuine dire need to move between places

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

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