How Indian Railways has stood up to a global crisis

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For the first time in its history, Indian Railways did not run passenger trains on its birthday and train services across the country have come to a grinding halt since March 22. However, the railway workshops are manufacturing medical equipment and churning out few other innovations in the battle against Covid-19 pandemic, says Rajendra B. Aklekar.

In 2020, as Indian Railways completed 167 years after its first run on April 16, 1853, it was for the first time that no passenger trains ran on it due to the lockdown following the Corona pandemic.

Every year, April 16 is marked as a special day across Indian Railways. In fact, the Ministry of Railways commemorates the entire week as Railway Week, with a host of programmes at national and zonal levels. Though experiments with railways in India had begun since late 1830s, officially the first passenger train in India (and in Asia) was flagged off on April 16, 1853, a Saturday, at 3:35 pm between Boree Bunder (Mumbai) and Thane, a distance of 34 kms. The importance of the day can be gauged from the fact the Bombay government declared the day as a public holiday. Since that day, the day has been a special one for Indian Railways.

1974 Railway Strike

Things, however, have been different this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. India is in the middle of a never-before lockdown and since March 22, passenger movement of trains across the country has been halted. Only essential freight and parcel trains have been running to maintain the supply chains. So far over 20,400 tonnes of consignments have been loaded since the lockdown began, transporting over 1,150 tonnes medical items in various parts of the country till April 18.

“Never ever in its history, there has been such a long interruption of services. Not during the World Wars, not during the 1974 railway strike or any other national calamity or natural disaster. Even in Mumbai, services have never been halted for such a long period during the terror strike, bomb blasts or the monsoon. This is a complete shut down of passenger services and is unprecedented in history,” a railway spokesperson said.

“We can say that the 1974 railway strike was a bit of exception since no manpower was available to run trains and employees were angry and trade unions were negotiating, but then too during the end days, essential freights ended up running. It was from May 8 to 27, 1974,” he added.

The 20-day railway strike led by veteran leader and later Railway Minister George Fernandes was held to demand an eight-hour working day for locomotive staff by All India Railwaymens’ Federation (AIRF) and a raise in pay scale, which had remained stagnant over many years, in spite of the fact that pay scales of other government owned entities had risen over the years.

RPF personnel making masks

Mumbai and its Lifeline

This has been unprecedented and rare even for Mumbai, the city where it all started and where trains are its lifeline. There have been wars, bomb blasts, terror attacks, strikes, bandhs and even the monsoon that have punctuated rail service occasionally for a few hours, but never ever such a long and complete shut-down.

The terror attack on Mumbai CSMT in 2008 was another such incident which led to panic and suspension of services for a few hours. “Around 50 people were killed and over 100 injured at the station premises in one of the deadliest attacks on the city, but services were restored early in the morning,” a CR official recalled.

“But with the extended complete lockdown now, passenger railway trains in India will now remain closed for over a month and that will remain a milestone in the 167-year-old history of the monolith.

In war and pandemic

But Indian Railways has not given up its spirit and always lived up during such occasions. During the First and Second World Wars ammunition was produced in railway workshops, particularly hand grenades. Workshop administrative office itself was used as an armoury. The Railway workshops produced 4.5-inch howitzer and 25-pounder shell forgings. War-time activities at rail workshops did not just mean churning more rail coaches for troops. It also meant building of other vehicular bodies, and hundreds of ambulances, water-cars, tanks and rugged lorries. Other minor jobs of major wartime importance were heavy orders for tent pegs and accessories of all kinds. Wagons had to be modified to carry guns, machines and ammunition to withstand war fury. During the Indo-Pak war, Indian Railways had worked 24×7 to keep the supply chains running. The cycle has turned over again and now during the times of Covid 2019 pandemic, Indian Railway workshops are churning out medical equipment, isolation coaches, masks, sanitisers, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at the same pace and its buildings turning into quarantine centres, standing up to the crisis. For the numbers, Indian Railways production units, workshops and field units are producing over 30,000 PPE coveralls in April 2020 and plan to manufacture 1,00,000 in May 2020. These will be of the highest grade as prescribed by the authorised Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) laboratory at Gwalior so that front-line medical staff can use them. Utilities like face-shields, intubation boxes, diagnosis cubicles and remote-controlled medicine trolleys for operation inside Covid-wards are a few innovations from railway workshops. Indian Railways, with its catering arm, the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) has offered to supply 2.6 lakh meals daily from various railway kitchens wherever the district administration is willing and able to pick up cooked meals and distribute among the needy. So, it is just the passenger trains that are locked down during these days of pandemic and crisis and not the spirit of battle that Indian Railways has historically and forever shown at such times of national crisis and may it win, as always!


Rajendra B. Aklekar

Rajendra B. Aklekar is a journalist and author of best-selling books on India’s railway history, heritage and trains, including one short-listed as Best Non-Fiction at Bengaluru Literary Festival, 2015. He is also the biographer of India’s legendary railway engineer Dr E Sreedharan. Complete bio here: https://rajendrabaklekar.com/)

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