As Tamil Nadu moves into exit mode with the more than two months long lockdown set to end on May 31, Southern Railway is preparing to start express trains at short notice. But, enforcing social distancing norms needs to be worked out for suburban trains and stations as these trains run packed and crowd control is difficult.
Around 10 lakh people use suburban services and MRTS trains every day in the city. A senior official said resuming services would not take much time as special trains are already being run to move guest workers almost every other day and one suburban service each on the three routes is run twice daily for railway employees and health workers.
“The system is functioning. It needs to be scaled up,” he added. Most sleeper class coaches are being used for special trains carrying guest workers, while routine maintenance work like switching on batteries and other equipment in AC coaches is being done daily as more workers have started to report for duty over the past few days at railway yards after shutdown restrictions were relaxed.
Safety inspectors have begun to check if the coaches are ready to be used. “Trains will not be started from Chennai for some time because it’s a hot zone and the number of cases is high. But, we are ready if permission comes to start limited number of services. It is highly unlikely that there will be social distancing inside the trains,” he added.
However, implementing social distancing rules will be a challenge at suburban stations. “There will be a big crowd as many of the industrial units, small businesses, shops have started to function. People cannot be allowed to be packed in a coach. There is a move to restrict the number of people in a coach. But railways is expected to issue guidelines,” said an official.
Introducing more suburban services during peak hours to reduce the rush and using Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel to regulate the crowds can make commute safer, said officials. Spots will be marked before ticket counters. Southern Railway is initially looking at starting long distance trains in limited numbers. Sources say that suburban trains may be the last to open as they are considered as a risk for people for the time being.