India to ‘gradually’ restart rail operations in lockdown easing

Government plans to run some 300 special trains for migrant workers who have been forced to walk for days to get home.

Migrant workers, who were stranded in the western state of Gujarat due to a lockdown imposed by the government to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), maintain social distance as they
The public was outraged after reports Indian Railways was charging migrants for rail tickets they cannot afford [Amit Dave/Reuters]

One of the world’s largest train networks will “gradually” restart operations from Tuesday as India eases its six-week coronavirus lockdown.

The move comes after the government faced widespread criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, who were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres from cities to reach their home villages as factories and businesses where they earned their livings shut down due to the lockdown.

Despite one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, India has seen coronavirus infections rise towards the 70,000 mark. The world’s second-most populous nation has recorded 4,213 new cases and 97 deaths in the last 24 hours – its biggest single-day jump – according to the health ministry. 

The total number of cases has passed 67,000, with more than 2,200 deaths.

Some 30 train journeys – 15 round trips – will run from the capital New Delhi to other cities, including Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai, Indian Railways said late on Sunday.

“Indian Railways plans to gradually restart passenger train operations from 12th May, 2020 … Thereafter, Indian Railways shall start more special services on new routes,” the Ministry of Railways added in a statement.

“It will be mandatory for the passengers to wear face cover and undergo screening at departure and only asymptomatic passengers will be allowed to board the train.”

India’s vast train network, which carries more than 20 million passengers daily in normal times, was halted in late March as India imposed a strict lockdown to stem the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

Trains for migrants

Since early May, the government said, some 366 special trains carrying up to 1,200 passengers on each service have operated to help return stranded poor, rural migrant workers who lost their jobs in cities due to the lockdown to their villages.

Railways Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted on Sunday that up to 300 special trains catering to migrants can run every day.

“I appeal to all the states to give permission to evacuate and bring back their stranded migrants so that we can get all of them back to their homes in the next 3-4 days,” he added.

There was public outrage after local media reported Indian Railways was charging for tickets, which most of the stranded migrants could not afford.

India’s main opposition Congress party offered to pay the migrants’ fare after Indians took to social media criticising the government’s move in the first week of May.

Some workers have resorted to walking home, some for hundreds of miles, with dozens dying on their journey from exhaustion or accidents, reports said.

The railways ministry added that 20,000 train coaches were being reserved to serve as coronavirus wards.

More than 5,150 railway carriages have already been put in place at 215 stations in main cities to be used as coronavirus isolation wards on wheels.

The first patients could board them as soon as next week.

India has started to ease its lockdown, which is due to lift on May 17, but interstate public transport and domestic and international flights had so far remain grounded.

Authorities on Sunday reported 62,939 COVID-19 cases and 2,109 deaths, with recent days having seen record jumps.

While the number of deaths is low compared with the United States and the worst-hit European nations, health specialists say India’s pandemic curve may only peak in June-July.

Source: AFP