Will the coronavirus be put on fast track when the special passenger trains start running?

If taking a rail journey was this simple even in the times of Covid-19, why are the state border sealed, public commute banned, and migrant workers still walking home?

Train services to resume

The curve marking Coronavirus spread in India is far from flat but the Indian Railways has deemed it safe enough to run passenger trains from May 12. The online bookings are now open. According to the Indian Railways press release the initial reopening of the rail tracks will start with 15 trains, making 30 return journeys. The railways have marked these as ‘special trains’. The move is unusual to say the least as Delhi has 11 ‘red zones’ and cases have continued to rise. The trains depart Delhi to reach various places across the country, as far as Thiruvananthapuram in the south, Howrah in the East, and Ahmedabad in the west. Some of the destination cities for these trains are still classified as Coronavirus red zones too. The trains will also bring back a fresh set of passengers from these red zone cities, and other places, back to Delhi on the return journey.  

The Union Ministry of Home Affairs, has already endorsed these special trains, as they did the special trains earmarked for migrant workers. On Monday, the ministry proudly announced that 101 ‘special trains’ have already run till May 11  to take migrant workers home to their native places. Add to that the 15 trains.

The new ‘special trains’ are open to general passengers, who can now travel no questions asked as long as they have a valid e-ticket for the journey and are wearing masks. Both the Ministry of Railways, and the MHA have announced and reconfirmed the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for passengers who want to travel on these trains. 

However, the question is that if it was so simple to take a train journey after following basic hand hygiene and wearing masks why did it take so long to restart rail services? An even bigger question is why the migrant workers were not allowed access to trains to go  home when they first started walking more than a month ago? Painful visuals of migrant workers still walking hundreds of miles home continue to merge on social media each day. The horrific eport of migrants being killed on railway tracks shook those with a conscience. What if there are still people walking along, and on the unmanned tracks? They may not know the special  trains are running again. A horror story, one hopes, never unfolds. 

Now access to these special trains, and the station,  is available to those who hold an e ticket in their hands. Passengers with valid confirmed tickets will have to wear a face cover,  and will have to undergo “screening at departure and only asymptomatic passengers will be allowed to board the train,” the Railways has announced. 



However, those dropping them off at the station are also allowed to drive with a copy of the e-ticket, and do not need a movement pass, curfew pass, said the MHA. Hopefully the same ticket will help them drive back from the station after they have dropped the passengers off. It is not known yet how the railways will sanitise the luggage of the passengers traveling. 

Booking for reservation in these trains has started from May 11 and is to be done only on the IRCTC website (https://www.irctc.co.in/). All ticket booking counters at railway stations remain closed and no tickets, including platform tickets, will be sold there.




According to a doctor from Ahmedabad, starting trains now is not a good idea, “It is still high risk and most people are asymptomatic. A mere temperature, and symptom screening at railway stations is not enough to ensure they are no asymptomatic carriers travelling.” 

In the past, before rail services had shut down train passengers in North India had been found Covid19 positive and all those travelling in that bogey had to be traced and home quarantined. “Even in the images of the international flights that came back we saw people sitting close to each other, they were wearing face shields and masks, and the crew was in PPE. Will that be possible in a train,” asked a doctor.

Another doctor hoped that the trains had been thoroughly sanitized before departure but was not sure how the sanitization would remain effective till it reached the destination.  “How will they ensure distance on the platforms, and then in the trains?” he asked.

It is also not clear how the passengers are expected to make their way home from the station at the destination. Public transport remains banned across the country. The MHA has said people will make their own arrangements. While it is assumed that everyone travelling will have smartphones and good internet connections, as well as the Arogya Setu app downloaded for good measure, it is not clarified if the train itself will have a continuous supply of sanitizer, disinfectant for common surfaces, including toilets, tap covers, handles, windows, berths, etc. It is also not known yet if the long haul trains will have on-board catering, how the catering will be done on a sanitized supply chain etc. 

“Will there be a sanitization team on board to keep cleaning all surfaces? There is a common toilet in a bogey, the taps and handles are touched by multiple people, multiple times, how will they be kept sanitized?” asked a traveler from Kerala. Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram is a long journey by train. “Will the bedding be certified sanitized,” asked another.

Too many questions for the Ministry of Railways to answer right now. Instead they have shared that “all the trains, will operate from New Delhi Station connecting Dibrugarh, Agartala, Howrah, Patna, Bilaspur, Ranchi, Bhubaneswar, Secunderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, Madgaon, Mumbai Central, Ahmedabad and Jammu Tawi.” 

Most of these journeys include one, and some have two nights of travel, with multiple scheduled stops at stations en route. It is not known if passengers will be allowed to alight at the stations as usual.  Twitter user Vivek Avasthi, a journalist shared the list of trains.




The Indian Railways has also announced that they shall start “more special services on new routes, based on the available coaches after reserving 20,000 coaches for COVID-19 care centres and adequate number of coaches being reserved to enable operation of up to 300 trains everyday as “Shramik Special” for stranded migrants.”

According to ANI the Indian Railways is running Shramik special trains keeping berths empty in each coach to maintain social distancing. The trains are returning empty from destinations under lock & key. Free food and bottled water is being given to migrants by railways.



The passenger trains, however, will not run empty on the return journey. It is not clear why these rules are different based on the kind of passengers on the trains.

However, as a doctor working in a major city hospital explained, the onus will be finally on the passengers themselves. “We have to learn to live with the Coronavirus. We need to be careful for a long time.” That is what the government seems to want as well. Watch your own backs, and  travel at your own risk.

(Names withheld on request to protect identities)



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