Mumbai’s lifeline, the suburban local railway network that has been suspended for the public since March 22 because of the raging coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak, is unlikely to resume before November.
The suspension of train services has led to the passengers getting angry and staging protests outside railway stations.
Around 300 angry commuters staged a protest outside Virar railway station on Monday afternoon, demanding permission to travel by local trains. The incident occurred at around 11 am when office-goers gathered outside the station and demanded the resumption of suburban train services.
Also read: Hi-tech ideas pour in to boost last-mile link for Metro lines
The protest petered out within half an hour after the agitators were pacified by the Railway Protection Police (RPF), Government Railway Police (GRP) and local police personnel.
Earlier on July 22, angry commuters at Nalasopara had demanded that they be allowed to travel by local trains. The protesters had broken barricades and stood on tracks to disrupt train services.
At present, frontline essential service workers, who are battling the Covid-19 pandemic, are only allowed to commute by suburban trains in Mumbai.
Railway officials said train services, which were suspended on March 22 due to Covid-19, are unlikely to resume in their full capacity until Diwali in mid-November.
On June 15, a limited number of local train services resumed for employees working in essential services. Nearly 700 train services are being operated daily on the Central and Western Railway routes.
“There has been no discussion regarding the resumption of suburban train services for the public. A trial-based system of a quick response (QR) code is being tested in a bid to control crowds on the railway stations. Train services in full strength are not likely to resume before Diwali.” said a railway official
The delay in the resumption of train services has angered passengers.
Passenger associations have sought Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s intervention to resolve the crisis.
“We met Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, who assured us that the issue would be taken up. There has been no communication from the state government so far. People are angry because under the unlock guidelines, Mumbai is being gradually reopened, but local train services are still shut. Passengers’ commute is greatly inconvenienced. We have written to CM Thackeray for his immediate intervention. If he doesn’t respond, we will start an agitation on railway tracks,” said Madhu Kotian, president, Mumbai Rail Pravasi Sangh.
A report, prepared by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) on the Covid-19 situation and submitted to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) authorities, has stated that train services in Mumbai can be resumed from November 1.
Dr. Sandeep Juneja, dean, School of Technology and Computer Science, TIFR, said that the civic authorities would have to remain vigilant after the train services resume. He also pointed out that by November 1 a major chunk of the population in Mumbai and its suburbs would have been directly or indirectly infected by SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease.
“By November 1, a significant section of the population in Mumbai and its suburbs will be infected by the virus. Local train services can resume if we take the following measures such as wearing of facial masks, introducing staggered office timings, and maintaining social distancing norms inside compartments. We do not expect that the resumption of train services will lead to a spike in Covid-19 cases. The current occupancy in truncated suburban train services is 30%, which can be increased to 50% over the next two months. We will also have a clearer picture about the contagion before the suburban train services become fully operational,” he said.
Railway experts have stated that the train services in the city should resume immediately because Metro rails have started operating. “Metro rails and aircraft are air-conditioned, where the risk of the spread of virus is much higher. Precautions are being taken and the services have started. Similar precautions, including crowd control, should be undertaken and suburban train services should be thrown open for the public. Operating select train services for a few people will be discriminatory,’’ said Subodh Jain, ex-general manager, Central Railway.
Railway officials pointed out that partial train services were started on the request of the state government. “We had started select suburban services from June 15 for essential staff on the request of the state government. On July 1, we added a few more services for additional categories permitted by the state government . We are taking every possible step to ensure social distancing norms are maintained by way of QR code-enabled contactless checking, etc. This will definitely help us to streamline the system even after more services are added.” said Shivaji Sutar, chief public relation officer (cpro), Central Railway.
State government officials stated that the situation is being monitored and a decision on the resumption of suburban train services would be taken at an appropriate time. “Now, employees working in pharmacy have also been permitted to travel by local trains. The situation is being monitored. A final decision on the resumption of train services will be taken at an appropriate time,” said a state government official, requesting anonymity.