Coronavirus impact: Railways, Maharashtra ensure chaos hours after train bookings begin

Updated: May 22, 2020, 07:08 IST | Rajendra B Aklekar | Mumbai

Late on Thursday, the Indian Railways announced the opening of ticket counters today onwards

Passengers have argued why can't they alight when trains still have scheduled halts. Pic/ Ashish Raje
Passengers have argued why can't they alight when trains still have scheduled halts. Pic/ Ashish Raje

Ticket bookings for long-distance trains began on Thursday morning amid much chaos, jams and collapses. Lack of coordination between the Indian Railways and Maharashtra government and flip-flops were on full display as people tried to get their bookings.

What people learnt three hours after bookings opening was that they can travel only if they are going out of Maharashtra not within the state. Ironically, the Maharashtra government from May 23 has allowed ST (state transport) buses for intrastate transport and commuters are wondering if buses are fine, why not trains.

"Initially, bookings were allowed for all stations. By 1 pm, I got an IRCTC alert saying travel within the state is not permitted. I wanted to travel from Thane to Khed but could not book a ticket. I got an error message every time," said Akshay Mahapadi, a software engineer and an RTI activist.

"These rules and regulations should have been published by the railways and state government in advance. They came up with this rule three hours after the bookings opened. Is this because of miscommunication or lack of coordination? Are political differences a show-stopper here? In the end, it is the public who has to suffer as they will now have to pay cancellation charges," another commuter said.

A late circular from the Indian Railways Director, Passenger Marketing, on Thursday afternoon stated the Maharashtra government had informed the Railways of the ban on inter-district travel and that until further orders, intra-state booking in Maharashtra should not be permitted. The circular also told the railways to cancel the tickets already issued without penalties, issue a full refund and send the following SMS: "Due to restrictions imposed by Maharashtra Government for travel within the state of Maharashtra by train, your ticket has been cancelled and full refund shall be given"

"But the Railways' policy is to levy cancellation charges, so passengers are being penalised for no fault of theirs. Earlier, it was with state transport buses and now it is with trains. Tamil Nadu had made it clear right in the beginning. Maharashtra is a clear case of state government failure and miscommunication," he added.

On Thursday evening, the IRCTC clarified that it will cancel tickets and give full refund.

Passenger Rudresh Kumar said that this will not deter people from getting down at their destinations as the train still has scheduled halts. "People will book a ticket for Goa and get down somewhere in Maharashtra. How will the authorities control that? All this is a clear failure," Kumar said.

The error message the IRCTC displayed after a passenger tried to book a trip within MaharashtraThe error message the IRCTC displayed after a passenger tried to book a trip within Maharashtra

While no railway official was ready to speak on record about the chaos, senior officials said that passengers would not be permitted to alight at stations mid-way and there would be strict vigil. In addition to this, the rules clearly state that on arrival at their destination, travelling passengers will have to adhere to health protocols as are prescribed by the destination state/Union Territory. As passengers complained about the delayed opening and collapse, officials said almost 1.50 lakh tickets were booked nationally within two hours for the 100 pairs of passenger trains that will start operating on June 1.

Ticket counters to open at select stations

The railways issued a circular announcing the opening of ticket counters from Friday. Zonal railways will choose stations as per requirements. Booking counters will need to have arrangements for social distancing. The biggest challenge will be controlling crowds. The move has been encouraged to keep software hacks and online agents at bay.

30-day Advance Reservation Period

It was a mid-day article, quoting Ratnagiri MP Vinayak Raut, that first highlighted a 30-Day Advance Reservation Period (ARP) which has now been implemented by the Railway Ministry. A 30-day ARP would help curb agents and black-marketeers.

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