Even as the nationwide lockdown was extended by another two weeks, the government allowed six special passenger trains to transport migrants, pilgrims, tourists and others stranded across the country to their home states Friday.
Named Shramik Special, the six trains are from Lingampalli (Telangana) to Hatia (Jharkhand), Aluva (Kerala) to Bhubaneswar, Nashik to Lucknow, Nashik to Bhopal, Jaipur to Patna, and Kota to Hatia. With Railways in talks with other states, more trains are expected to run in the coming days to evacuate those stranded.
The decision to run the six trains — shrouded in secrecy till the first train departed at 5 am on Friday from Limgampalli to Hatia carrying 1,200 migrant workers – came two days after the Centre allowed buses to evacuate stranded people, leading to a clamour from states such as Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Bihar for special trains instead.
Hours after the first train departed early Friday morning, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the nodal ministry for all outbreak containment measures, issued an addendum to its Wednesday order on buses to “include” trains.
“Movement of migrant workers, pilgrims, tourists, students and other persons stranded at different places, is also allowed by special trains to be operated by Ministry of Railways,” the Home Ministry order said.
Trains ahead of extension
WITH major urban centres still under considerable restrictions for an additional fortnight, the government would have found it difficult to contain migrant unrest. This could explain the change in plans to allow trains, the optimal means to transport large numbers.
The decision on the six trains set off requests from other states, including Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh, for trains to bring home their people. The Railways is finalising a protocol for states to request for trains.
For these six trains and for subsequent ones, ticket prices will be paid by the originating or destination states. Besides the sleeper-class ticket fare, Railways has charged Rs 30 as superfast charge and an additional Rs 20 per ticket.
Following a meeting between Railway top brass and Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla Thursday evening, the national transporter was given to understand that the government was going to allow transportation of migrants by trains. As reported by The Indian Express on Thursday, Railways had already communicated a detailed protocol for the same to the government.
Following communication with Telangana Chief Secretary Somesh Kumar, the Limgampalli-Hatia train was approved past 11 pm on Thursday. The 24-coach rake, which was sent for washing, sanitation and routine maintenance at 9 pm, rolled into platform past 2 am on Friday. The Railway ministry kept only a handful of officers in the loop. There was no indication then about the government running any other train.
“There was no word from the government that train operations would be allowed for other areas. We were told it was a one-off affair,” said a source connected to the preparation of the first train.
The state government got the labourers in buses, which were kept waiting till the station authorities sent them a green signal. Once they got the all-clear, passengers were screened and given protective gear. Station staff and state government officials applauded as the train, with 54 passengers in each coach, pulled out of the station. Food and water were provided to the passengers, for which money was included in the ticket price. The train is expected to reach Hatia at 11 pm. Other trains are also likely to have similar numbers, as per the protocol of social distancing maintained in the trains.
Arun Kumar, DG, Railway Protection Force, said, “Our men escorted the train. We ensured social distancing inside and security of the train. It is a non-stop train with some halts only for crew changing.”
By Friday afternoon, the Home Ministry indicated that it was in the process of allowing trains to run from other areas. The Railways ordered its zonal General Managers and Chief Operations Managers to coordinate with state governments to get a sense of the number of people they would want to transport.
While the Maharashtra government informed the Railways that it was willing to send out migrants bound for MP and UP, it said the special train can’t originate from Mumbai or Pune as these are hotspots. With Nasik eventually chosen as the originating station, clearances were obtained from the state governments of MP and UP. As per the protocol finalised, the receiving states need to arrange for the medical screening of passengers upon arrival.
Passengers are screened at the source stations as well and only those not showing any symptoms of COVID-19 are allowed to travel. On how the passengers are selected for travel, Railway sources said the matter was left to the state governments and the transporter had no role in that.
For the Lingampalli-Hatia train, the Jharkhand government has arranged 60 buses to transport the passengers to their respective districts.
On Friday, Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel wrote a letter to the PM requesting trains to bring back its people, saying buses would be difficult for long-distance travels. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat sought special trains to Dehradun and Haldwani from Delhi, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Jaipur, Mumbai, Bhopal, Bangalore and Ahmedabad. The Bihar government has welcomed the Centre’s decision to send migrants by special trains, including one from Jaipur to Patna.
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