Thousands of commuters in the Mumbai metropolitan region have been desperately asking for local train services to resume for the general public as soon as possible. After Delhi metro services resumed two weeks ago, this uproar has increased, with office-goers staging a protest outside Virar station from September 7. The suspension of train services has led to the passengers getting angry and staging protests outside railway stations. 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 the 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. Railway officials pointed out that partial train services were started at the request of the state government. They are taking every possible step to ensure social distancing norms are maintained by way of QR code-enabled contactless checking, etc. but once the local is resumed for all, this control is not possible. Government and authorities are worried about the lives of people and people are worried about their livelihood, if not COVID they will succumb to starvation and unemployment if there is no arrangement for their commuting. Mumbai is a city that never stops, people keep running tirelessly but all of a sudden long pauses have taken many lives on task. The common man is at his worst in the situation. The government needs to find some viable options and resume the city’s lifeline.
Meanwhile, we should not forget, Mumbai – India’s biggest Covid-19 hotspot is not ready to handle the full-fledged re-opening of its local train services. In a metropolitan region with over 3.3 lakh Covid-19 cases and 75 lakh daily train commuters, how and when can train travel resume safely is the biggest question of an hour.
Daily crowds of city travel using local trains in Mumbai and suburban trains are the lifeline of this metropolis when they remain shut for a prolonged period, millions of people lost their livelihood, which is already in a horrible state. It’s been four months now that the local trains have stopped functioning. I hope a better sense prevails over the government and it gives some relaxations in running the local trains with adequate social distancing, although it will still be a high-risk act of resuming local train services, there is a trade-off between lives and livelihood. People will take their own care; they will take precautions whatever is required. Let them decide as to whom to avail of those services and who do not. For a linear city like Mumbai, the suburban train services played a vital role in facilitating the north-south movement of the city’s workforce. The two suburban systems operated by both Western Railways and Central Railways stretch 319 km. It facilitates the inter-district travel of commuters in five districts namely Mumbai, Mumbai Suburban, Thane, Palghar, and Raigarh.
Mumbai is designed for just two modes of working – on or off. The city has the lowest road to total area ratio among the metros. It also has the highest population density. If the government eases the lockdown and asks businesses to start so that it can start collecting its taxes and people get salaries, companies will start nudging people to come to work. Fear of losing pay/ jobs and the frustration from being locked up in a small house for more than four months will drive people to make their way to work. Given the linear design of Mumbai, people will have to come to work from distant suburbs. Even if we assume the normal population decides to commute the roads will not be able to take the strain. BEST bus queues will start getting kilometers long and tempers will rise. This kind of chaos could increase pressure to restart railways. Unlike the metro, the local trains are not designed for restricted access. The government might decide to have RPF at the entry to the railway station to limit the number of people who enter. Given that trains discharge several thousand passengers every hour there will be long queues outside the railway station. This will again put pressure on the roads. The Central Railways used to operate 1,774 services while the Western Railway would operate 1,367 services each day before the pandemic. These services operate on an average frequency of around one every four minutes ferrying around 7.8 million commuters per day. The city has been developed in such a way that the majority of offices are in southern Mumbai and residential places are concentrated towards north Mumbai and beyond (up to Dahanu on the Western line and up to Kalyan-Dombivali on Central). And the shape of Mumbai being vertical puts a heavy load on the Western line. And Central Railways is also crowded due to the unavailability of any alternative. The solution is to have an alternative to the present mode of transportation. Western and eastern highways help, however, the count of commuters is too high.
With each passing day, people are worried that their employers might find new people and they might lose all their jobs. What they will eat, is a big question. Many small offices are shut, thousands of people lost their jobs, many caught in a financial mess, and EMI’s to households there are never-ending challenges. Why can’t the government understand that people need local trains to survive?