Why trains on Indian Railways never lost their way?

Updated: May 29, 2020, 20:02 IST | Rajendra B Aklekar | Mumbai

Western Railway Chief Public Relations Officer Ravinder Bhakar speaks to Rajendra B. Aklekar to clear the air on why trains never lost their way

Ravinder Bhakar. Picture/Rajendra B Aklekar
Ravinder Bhakar. Picture/Rajendra B Aklekar

Q: Recently various media and more so social media reported that trains have lost their way. They are taking days rather than hours to reach their destinations.

A: The passengers on Shramik Specials, primarily migrant labourers, not having much knowledge of train operations posted the videos claiming that the trains have lost their way and then these became viral. Practically, the trains never lose their way. The driver or loco pilot cannot divert a train or take it to the course of his liking. For a layman, a train doesn’t have steering. The controller at junction station sets the further course of a train after getting clearance from divisional control which in turn takes instructions from zonal control. Train operations are synchronized between various divisions and zones and are run smoothly in close coordination. Before lockdown, Indian Railways was daily running more than 13000 Passenger trains and more than 9000 good trains with the punctuality of around 90 per cent in passenger train operations. A system with the capability to undertake such mammoth operations doesn’t just lose its trains.

Q:  During normal times, many more trains from these routes. How could a handful of trains lead to the collapse of the system? Was advance planning not done at all?

A: Indian Railways is running shramik special trains on point to point basis during these unprecedented times. Railways don’t have the liberty of advance planning about the source and destination of trains, neither there is advance timetabling. The demand for trains is received from state govt after receiving acceptance from the destination state. This normally happens at a very short notice leaving very little margin for railways to plan rake availability and other modalities such as crew, engine, route, coordination with other railways to allot path etc.  The train is, however, immediately approved, the route is decided, a schedule is prepared and state govt is asked to bring the passengers to the station. Two to three hours’ advance placement of rake is done at the station to allow state authorities to manage the boarding, following social distancing norms. The waiting period between train demand and placement at the platform is kept minimum to reduce inconvenience to migrants.

The railways otherwise have fixed pattern trains with fixed schedule, route and halts. These are prepared, keeping in mind the demand, the section capacity etc. However, the shramik specials are chartered trains, ie from a specific source to a specific destination with no or very few halts. The trains are being run from any station demanded by state govt and to any station required. Though there are capacity constraints at smaller stations, the railways are doing a commendable job by making rake available even at remotest and small stations such as Morvi, Dhola, Vyara etc.

Q: What sort of planning is then involved in running these trains?
The railways are undergoing through a historical phase where on one hand regular trains have stopped while on other the manpower and minds are burning the candles at both ends to manage the unprecedented crisis of migrants’ movement, forced upon by the Covid-19 situation in the country. The Shramik Specials will be permanently marked in the history of Indian Railways, where the passengers were not planning their journeys according to trains but the trains were being planned according to the passengers and every railwayman worked beyond the call of duty to reach the migrants to their home states.

Q: So what actually happened on May 20 and May 21?

 On May 20 & 21st due to heavy demand from several states, many Shramik specials were run mainly towards UP & Bihar taking the common final route of Itarsi-Jabalpur-Pt Deen Dayal Upadhyaya jn, leading to congestion on this route. Moreover, as the de-boarding of passengers was taking time, the bunching of trains occurred leading to a cascading effect on all incoming trains. The migrants are also not in the best of their health and several cases of them falling ill en route add to the detention of trains. Recently, Western Railway staff assisted two pregnant female passengers with delivery. Around 35 deliveries have taken place where the females were travelling by Shramik specials and railway staff assisted the delivery and the train was detained.

Various trains of Western Railway for UP & Bihar & beyond were also being run through Jalgaon-Itarsi-Jabalpur as this being the shortest route. 29, Western Railway trains were pushed through this route on May 21. At the same time other zones especially Central Railway received requests to operate trains to eastern UP & Bihar thus adding to the congestion. But sensing the situation, the WR planning heads, immediately drew alternate plans and few trains which had already departed were diverted via Nagpur. One such train Vasai- Gorakhpur Special which departed on 21 May, was to run via Kalyan-Khandwa-Itarsi- Jabalpur-Pt Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Jn route but was diverted via Bilaspur-Jharsuguda-Rouekela-Asansol route. This increased the running time by a few hours. However, this gave some breathing space to the congested sections.

The railway board immediately swung into action and re-planned the routes and started running new demanded trains from these new routes. Western Railway identified three alternate routes and trains on subsequent days were run via these alternate routes. Though these routes were a little longer but allowed avoidance of congested section of Jalgaon-Itarsi-Jabalpur. This, along with a reduction in demand for more trains eased the congestion on the Itarsi-Jabalpur section. Western Railway is now running Odisha bound trains via Surat-Jalgaon, while the UP & Bihar bound trains are being run via Ratlam-Bhopal and Kota-Agra route. More than 200 WR trains have been run via these routes in a week after 21st May.

Q: Why was food not provided onboard immediately?

A: The Shramik specials do not have halts at the station on en route states, hence diversion didn’t cause any inconvenience of boarding/de-boarding at intermediate stations. In fact, it posed as a great challenge for railways to provide food packets at the stations on diverted routes. There is no provision of the Public Address System in trains, hence informing passengers about diversion was not possible. The announcements though were made at operational halts but could not reduce the anxiety levels of passengers who are used to a particular route by regular trains. A station like Itarsi, which is dealing around 70-80 trains per day with 1600 passengers per train, needs to arrange food packets for around 1.25 lakh passengers daily. All this being arranged despite there being lockdown and shortage of labour. Even bringing the train crew back from the relieving stations was a big challenge. Amidst this, there were reports that several passengers have died because of starvation and thirst during the hot weather. However, in none of the cases, death could be attributed to starvation or thirst. In the majority of cases, the passenger had a previous medical history of ailment and was travelling by train, in spite of Railways making an appeal to the passengers to avoid travelling if they are not well or suffering for any pre-existing ailments.   Indian Railways has arranged more than 84 lakh food packets and 1.25 crore water bottles since the Shramik Specials have started. In some instances, it has been observed that the food packets are looted by passengers thereby depriving the old and disabled of food and water.

Q: What exactly is the fare break-up of these migrant trains?

A: The shramik specials are run empty in the return direction. In fact, railways are bearing 85 per cent of the cost of operating these trains which includes haulage to the originating station which can be a remote station, empty return, etc while 15 per cent is being borne by the State. Even the crew management is quite challenging and loco pilots, guards, RPF, etc get stranded at intermediate stations after off duty and are brought back in goods trains, or any other train whenever available.

Indian Railways have run over 3700 Shramik Specials till May 28 carrying more than 53 lakh migrants to their home states. 80 per cent of these heading towards eastern UP & Bihar from all over India. This can be considered as one of the biggest evacuation operations.

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