Its tracks empty, stations shuttered, parking lots deserted — as the Delhi Metro shut down on March 23 amid the pandemic, a small team of engineers quietly slogged behind the scenes. Their mandate – operationalising a back-up central command centre for train operations which could ensure seamless services with limited human resources even if the existing centres had to shut down in the event of any Covid-induced emergency.
By June end, the back-up centre was ready. On September 7, the first lot of trains were back on tracks and by September 12, full scale services resumed, albeit under social distancing and face mask stipulations.
The work to set in motion the new command centre, also known as the Operation Control Centre (OCC), was not an exception though. “A new back-up centre for Magenta and Pink Lines were due since trains started running on these corridors. However, due to Covid, its significance went up and it had to be commissioned urgently,” said a DMRC official.
As the trains remained halted for 171 days, teams of workers fanned out across the DMRC network to not just make the system Covid-ready, but also carry out other long-pending repairs and upgrades like fencing the elevated lines to prevent theft of copper wire, disposing 60 metric tons of scrap, cleaning cooling coils of 2,076 old train coaches for better air-conditioning among others.
On September 7, the first day of service resumption, a little over 1.5 lakh took the Metro, which earned Rs 10.6 lakh from token sales and smart card swipes. By December 29, passenger journeys rose to 18.74 lakh from which DMRC earned Rs 3.47 crore.
Yet, challenges remain. For a system that used to earn around Rs 10 crore daily only from ticket sales, the pandemic has dealt a crippling blow to its finances – weighed down particularly by debt taken over the years from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for its extensive construction works across the region.
On December 21, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation Director (Operations) A K Garg wrote in a note to senior officials of the corporation that “in the last eight months, DMRC has earned only Rs 247.65 crore whereas expenditure was of Rs 2,208.24 crore (approx) including JICA loan and interest repayment due during this period”.
He said to meet the shortfall between earnings and expenditure, the corporation has sanctioned Rs 1,910 crore to be transferred from the project division to the operations and maintenance (O&M) division, which looks after the daily operations of the network that spans 390-km across Delhi-NCR.
Under the current arrangements, alternate seats are left empty in trains and standing passengers are advised to maintain a gap of one metre between them. While an eight-coach train can carry up to 2,400 commuters, trains are currently carrying half that number on an average.
Even after reopening, due to several restrictions and fear in the public, ridership is very low and consequently the property business and parking revenues are also very low, Garg wrote. To increase public confidence, the public transporter, considered the national capital’s lifeline, has been allowing people to enter its system after thermal scanning and spraying hand sanitisers.
To be sure, Metro remained under a complete lockdown only between March 23 and April 19. From April 20, it recalled 33% staff to work, which rose to 100% from May 20. But with many employees contracting the virus, human resource management emerged as a major challenge.
“At that point, offices had to be shut for 48 hours after emergence of Covid cases for sanitisation. Many employees had to put in 12 hours of work daily as only two trains operated every day to ferry them, at 8 am and 8 pm. Many stuck outside Delhi had to work from home while those in Delhi were called, alternatively, every three to four days. Those contracting Covid had to quarantine along with their immediate work contacts in the office. But amid all this, the system had to be prepared for resumption of services,” a DMRC official said.
Meanwhile, the lockdown was also utilised for testing and commissioning driverless services on the Magenta Line, which was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 28. The technological leap came after months of trials, including during the lockdown.
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