Less than two weeks after starting special services for migrant workers stranded in different parts of the country to go back home, the Indian Railways has announced that it will resume passenger trains between Delhi and 15 other cities. The trains will have only AC coaches, the fare will be equivalent to what is charged for a Rajdhani Express journey, bookings will be made online. By focusing on premium services, the Railways seem to be targeting a small fraction of the about 20 million passengers who rely on rail transport every day under normal circumstances. At the same time, the national transporter has indicated that it is open to starting more “special trains”. For an economy that has come to a grinding halt after the seven-week lock lockdown, these are much-awaited signals. Getting passenger trains back on track is an apt follow-up to the graded easing of the lockdown announced on May 1.
The Railways have clarified that passengers will need to wear masks and undergo screening at the station. But given that asymptomatic people constitute a large part of the COVID-19 transmission chain, the Railways and state governments will have to remain alert, exercise utmost caution. They will have to be vigilant about passengers observing social distancing protocols at the railway stations and during the journey. The importance of these measures cannot be overstated because the trains will ply between some of the COVID-19 hotspots — Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Kolkata.
Increasingly, scientists, epidemiologists and policymakers in several parts of the world are coming around to a consensus that the coronavirus is here to stay, and nations will have to find ways to live with the pathogen. There is also a growing realisation that societies cannot be in perpetual lockdown — experts have consistently stressed that stringent lockdowns do not frame the endgame against the pandemic. This means that the stay-at-home approach, emphasised during the past seven weeks in the country, must now give way to policies that provide room for people’s mobility — albeit cautiously, and taking care to obviate any escalation of the outbreak. It is welcome, therefore, that the resumption of transport appears to be on the agenda of other ministries as well. Last week, the Union Minister for Road Transport, Highways and MSMEs, Nitin Gadkari, indicated that the government is formulating guidelines for social distancing with a view to resuming public transport. The civil aviation ministry must also find ways to resume airline services. The challenges of ensuring social distancing at airports and inside aircraft are, of course, very different from those of enforcing such measures in metros, buses, and trains. Yet the primary goal of the ministries that deal with transport should now be to ensure that society moves to a semblance of normalcy, while ensuring people’s safety.