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How the Indian Railways is reinventing itself in the time of COVID-19

A Southern Railway train gets converted into a COVID-19 isolation coach at Chennai’s Integral Coach Factory.   | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

It was April 7, two weeks into the nationwide lockdown announced to combat COVID-19, and all roads were closed. Riku Singh was stuck in Guwahati, while his mother, who has stage four cancer, was in Udharbond in Cachar district, more than 300 km away. Singh was distraught because he could not find a way to get medicines to her urgently. In desperation, he tweeted at the Assam Health Minister and the Assam Police asking for help.

Meanwhile, post-lockdown, the Northeast Frontier Railway or NFR had set up a Swift and Efficient Transport of Utilities (SETU) team, whose members were scanning Twitter. They read Singh’s tweet and contacted S. Umesh, the Area Manager at Badarpur railway junction in Assam. Umesh called NFR’s Divisional Operations Manager, Kapinjal Kishore Sharma, in Guwahati, who picked up the medicines from Singh. The package was then put in a goods train and sent to Silchar, from where Singh’s uncle picked it up and delivered it to the patient. “The railway people arrived like angels. I have no words to express my gratitude,” says Singh.

When Sukhdev Mandar in Ludhiana urgently needed a particular drug from Nagpur for his immunity-related ailment, the Central Railway (CR) chief parcel supervisor at Nagpur agreed to trans-ship it via Itarsi in the absence of a direct train. They don’t normally do trans-shipment but, as Krishnath Patil, CR’s senior divisional commercial manager, said, “These are extraordinary circumstances”.

Indian Railways (IR), the world’s fourth largest rail network, seems to be responding snappily to the times. IR might have suspended all passenger trains on March 22, the first time in its history, but the country’s lifeline has been far from idle. Apart from a myriad off-beat interventions like the ones above, it has been busy reinventing itself so that its massive infrastructure — spread across a staggering 64,000 km, over 7,000 stations, and with 12 lakh employees — can be honed into a valuable tool during the pandemic.

Coach to ward

“We were asked to come up with ideas to use our existing facilities in the fight against the novel coronavirus,” says a senior official with the Railways. The Railway Board, the top decision-making body, started daily video conferences with officers across 16 zones.

One of the first ideas that came up was to convert coaches into quarantine or isolation wards, given the acute shortage of these. Soon, the idea became a key initiative for IR. By the end of March, the Railway Board had issued a set of guidelines in consultation with the Armed Forces Medical Services, the medical departments of zonal railways and Ayushman Bharat. Some 5,000 coaches had been repurposed as of April 10.

These isolation coaches have one toilet and one bathing room each, the middle berths have been removed, and windows fitted with mosquito nets. They have oxygen cylinders and fixtures for medical equipment. They have special COVID-19 features like taps with long handles and dustbins with foot pedals.

Railway workers spray disinfectant on train coaches converted to isolation wards for COVID 19 in Howrah, West Bengal

Railway workers spray disinfectant on train coaches converted to isolation wards for COVID 19 in Howrah, West Bengal   | Photo Credit: PTI

However, even if these coaches are pressed into service — as Rajesh Bajpai, Executive Director, Railway Board, says, “Our hope is the country never reaches a stage when these coaches have to be used” — the challenge will be to station them in spots where uninterrupted water and electricity supply is assured. Second, in the absence of airconditioning and specialised equipment, it might make more sense to use these as second-line quarantine rather than treatment facilities.

Hospital back-up

The next major initiative was to put to use IR’s extensive health facilities, consisting of 586 health units, 45 sub-divisional hospitals, 56 divisional hospitals, eight production unit hospitals, and 16 zonal hospitals across the country. This vast network is now being readied for COVID-19 patients, with as many as 5,000 beds earmarked. In Mumbai, Jagjivan Ram Hospital, the zonal hospital of Western Railways, has become the only one to be converted into a COVID-19 hospital. Spokesperson Ravinder Bhakar said it was treating around 80 patients.

In the Northeast, NFR has modified 315 passenger coaches, with 2,500 isolation beds, and has earmarked another 170 beds as isolation beds across its hospitals. “These will be made available whenever required,” says NFR’s chief spokesperson, Subhanan Chanda.

While these measures were under way, the doctors in IR’s hospitals pointed out the need for personal protective equipment (PPE). Producing PPE is no mean feat: a special type of fabric has to be procured, a particular sewing machine is used for seamless stitching, and a special tape attached to prevent contamination. The final design adopted by the Railway Board was prepared by the Jagadhari Workshop, which sent its sample PPE to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for approval.

A Southern Railway worker repurposes a train coach at a factory workshop in Chennai.

A Southern Railway worker repurposes a train coach at a factory workshop in Chennai.   | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

“Right now, we are aiming for just 1,000 PPEs a day. They will first be used by doctors working in COVID wards at railway hospitals. But as we ramp up production, we can provide it to other hospitals too,” says a senior railway official.

NFR, meanwhile, has so far made 407 PPE coveralls, 2,500 litres of hand sanitiser and 76,000 reusable masks. In Tamil Nadu, the government is in touch with the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai and Goldenrock Workshop in Tiruchi for the bulk supply of healthcare consumables like steel cots and IV stands. The Hubballi Workshop is making contactless cubicles, while the Coach Rehabilitation Workshop in Bhopal has come up with a mobile cubicle that can be transported to remote areas.

The meal wagon

Most importantly, with roads blockaded and trucks abandoned by drivers, IR has had to play a crucial role in ensuring that the supply of foodgrains is not hit.

Not surprisingly, it more than doubled its numbers, moving 4.58 million tonnes of foodgrains from April 1 to April 22, compared to 1.82 million tonnes over the same period last year.

Workers push a cart with food packets and medicines to be transported to Chennai

Workers push a cart with food packets and medicines to be transported to Chennai   | Photo Credit: PTI

In an innovative move, two sets of long-distance, super-heavy, fast freight trains were introduced — Annapoorna Trains by Northern Railways and Jai Kisan Specials by South Central Railway. These services have taken advantage of the freed-up tracks to join two freight trains and run them as one, thus doubling capacity.

Normally, a freight train of 42 wagons carries around 2,600 tonnes of foodgrains. The special trains now carry 5,200 tonnes. As this goes to print, 55 Annapoorna trains and 8 Jai Kisan specials have been run, clocking a creditable average speed of 44 kmph.

Other quick decisions have also helped IR up its role. It has tweaked its regular routes, aggregated small parcels, and picked up unique cargo. It identified 65 parcel routes for essential goods and, until April 14, has run 507 such trains.

In Bhusaval in Maharashtra, for instance, trains transport onions but not bananas, which go by road. Post-lockdown, a parcel van of bananas was sent to Delhi. Now, following requests from fruit traders, Central Railway plans to run several parcel trains for fruit. Similarly, Western Railway has dramatically increased milk loading at Palanpur in Gujarat to transport milk to Haryana and Delhi. From March 23 to April 20, 14 milk specials have run, carrying 9,903.20 tonnes of milk.

In the Northeast, NFR has moved more than 480 rakes of essentials and 25 parcel trains for the seven sister States. Assam’s Barak Valley is one of the remotest corners of the area that NFR services, and Umesh and his team there ensure that supplies keep coming in.

For the first time, a goods terminal near Silchar was used for medicine parcel service — one for Barak Valley and the other for Tripura; then a milk rake came from Gujarat, supplying 50 wagonloads. The SETU helpline allows customers to call and place requests for bulk transport of essentials such as PPE, medicines and foods. Nationwide, IR has transported 1,150 tonnes of medical items.

IR is also providing cooked meals for the needy, tying up with local NGOs and groups for distribution. IRCTC, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, has set up kitchens across the country, starting at Mumbai Central.

At present, the Railways is providing meals to over 50,000 people a day nationwide, and efforts are on to increase this to 2.6 lakh meals per day wherever it is possible.

A train coach is converted into an isolation ward for COVID-19 patients at a workshop in Howrah district

A train coach is converted into an isolation ward for COVID-19 patients at a workshop in Howrah district  

Fast forward

The challenge will be to see if IR can keep up the momentum after the lockdown is lifted. While it’s always played a leading role in the transport of bulk commodities such as coal, iron ore and foodgrains, it could use the opportunity provided by the pandemic to dramatically revamp its freight business.

Its huge, trained workforce and extensive resources and networks could be used to create a new freight model if it has the foresight to do so. It could, for instance, tie up with road transport to offer seamless cargo movement, and incorporate sophisticated facilities to cover a wider range of goods, including perishables, medicines etc. The challenge will be to establish timetabled long-distance trains and assured delivery times even after passenger trains are back on track. And, most important, keep its rates competitive.

In other words, as much as the Railways has upped the ante to deliver during the pandemic, its real victory will be if it can emerge from the pandemic a smarter, sharper, and more efficient brand.

With inputs from Rahul Karmakar in Guwahati.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 7:16:25 AM |

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