COVID-19 and the Indian Railways
As of October 2020, India has among the highest confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world. This has impacted several services otherwise taken for granted in the country, including the Indian Railways. This article discusses some of the main changes in passenger train operations across the country, and also helps you plan your trip (or not!) in the age of the Coronavirus.
Are passenger trains running?
As per the Indian Railways, all regular passenger train operations (including suburban trains) have been suspended indefinitely. However, several 'COVID special' trains on high-demand or otherwise essential passenger routes are being operated. As of October 21, over 500 pairs of COVID special trains are in operation across the country. The full list of special trains can be accessed at indiarailinfo.com.
What is the difference between these COVID special trains and the earlier regular trains?
Not too many. For the most part, COVID special trains run to very similar timings as the earlier regular trains. For example, the 06527 Bengaluru - New Delhi COVID special has the exact departure time from Bengaluru and arrival time at New Delhi as the 12627 Karnataka Express that used to run on this route. Fares of these COVID special trains are the same as the trains they have replaced with the exception of recent 'Festival Special' trains that have been introduced from 20th October - the fares of these trains have a surcharge equivalent to the 'tatkal' fare surcharge (INR 10 - 400 per passenger depending on the class of travel).
However, with two exceptions, none of these special trains include catering charges in their fares, so if they have replaced a full-service train such as a Rajdhani or Shatabdi Express, you will find the fares of such COVID specials slightly cheaper. Senior citizen concessions have been withdrawn for these trains to discourage the elderly from non-essential travel during this period.
COVID special trains tend to have fewer halts than their earlier counterparts, either due to lower demand or on the request of the concerned state government. These trains are also fully reserved - no unreserved coaches are attached. Finally, there are some changes to catering and the bedding provided on these trains, which are discussed a little later in this article.
What is the process to book tickets on a COVID special train? Do I need any special documents?
Tickets on these trains can be booked exactly the same way you would normally book a train ticket:
Online (via the IRCTC website or OTA such as Cleartrip),
At a railway reservation office (keep in mind that many reservation offices have not reopened, please check before going),
From a physical travel agency authorised to sell train tickets.
You are not required to present or upload any other documents while booking your tickets; however, you are required to mention your destination address while booking your ticket. Please make sure to check the regulations of the state you are travelling to. Some states might require you to obtain an e-pass or acknowledgement from their website or app - make sure you carry any such necessary documents while travelling.
Are social distancing norms followed on these trains? Are certain seats blocked/not sold to ensure sufficient social distancing?
The two IRCTC-operated 'private' Tejas Express specials (#82501/2 between Delhi and Lucknow and #82901/2 between Mumbai and Ahmedabad) have alternate seats blocked to ensure some amount of social distancing. For all other trains, no seats/berths are blocked and they can be booked to capacity if there is enough demand. The responsibilities of social distancing and other safety measures (such as wearing a mask) lie on the passengers.
If no seats are being blocked, what safety measures are being taken to protect passengers from COVID on these trains?
Trains are sanitised at the depots between runs. In any AC class of travel, three additional measures have been taken:
Non-essential fittings (such as curtains) that can potentially serve as a source of COVID transmission have been removed,
Bedding provided to AC class passengers (a pillow, two bedsheets, a blanket, and a face-towel) has been discontinued. While some stations might have vendors or shops selling disposable travel bedsheets and air pillows, I highly recommend purchasing your own prior to the journey - Amazon and Flipkart have several options. In order to compensate for the lack of a blanket, the temperature inside AC coaches has been increased to ensure passengers don't feel too cold during the journey,
ACs have been reprogrammed to change the air inside the coach (by bringing in fresh air) every 4-5 minutes rather than continuously recirculating the air inside the coach. The frequency of air changes is comparable to an operation theatre.
Are there any changes at the station?
This depends on the station. Some stations might screen passengers for fever or other visible symptoms of COVID (so please show up early to account for any potential delays!). Some stations may restrict entry/exit of passengers to specific entrances. The sale of platform tickets has been restricted at certain stations, and the price kept high at other stations to discourage non-passengers from entering the station. You can expect to see fewer platform vending stalls open, and most restaurants are likely to be closed.
What do I do for food during my journey?
If you are travelling on the two aforementioned Tejas Expresses (Delhi - Lucknow and Mumbai - Ahmedabad), food will be provided. If you are travelling on any other train, however:
If you can, carry your own food. The following changes are in place:
For trains with a pantry car, no cooked meals will be provided - only pre-packaged meals can be purchased along with water bottles and tea/coffee,
There is no food service at all on trains without a pantry car,
Online food ordering/delivery to the train has been suspended,
Food options at stations are significantly reduced (Note - as of October 4, the Indian Railways has allowed cooked food to be served at stalls/restaurants at stations, but whether any decent food will be available at your boarding station or en-route stations is a different question).
Ideally, I would recommend carrying your own food if possible. If you would like to know whether your train has a pantry car, follow these steps:
Log on to indiarailinfo.com and enter your train number in the 'train' search box at the top left corner of the page,
Select the train from the dropdown list and click 'go',
Once the new page loads, scroll down until you see a yellow 'Pantry/Catering' box on the left side of the page. If the box says ✓ Pantry Car then the train has one.
How can I keep myself safe?
Unless essential, it is best to avoid train travel at this point. But if you must, here are some suggestions:
Aim to travel on a relatively less crowded day (Friday/Sunday nights are generally the most crowded for overnight services),
If you are booking at the last minute (<4 hours before departure), check the reservation status of your train on IRCTC here before buying your ticket. If the train's reservation chart has been prepared, this page displays a coach-wise breakup of available/booked seats. In some cases you will find an entire coach empty or with very few seats occupied. After figuring out which coaches are empty, you can ask for your ticket to be booked in one of those coaches. If you are booking on IRCTC, there is a field called 'preferred coach ID' on the page where you enter the names and ages of passengers. Enter the coach number of the relatively empty coach here. If you are booking at a reservation counter, please make sure to tell the clerk you want your ticket to be booked in the empty coach (tell him/her the specific coach number you want, they will not have the time and patience to check which coaches are empty for you),
The higher the class, the lower the density of passengers travelling - so book the highest class of travel permitted by your budget. If you are travelling in a group of 2 or 4 and can afford First AC, booking a cabin for yourself will provide significant peace of mind and protection from interaction with other passengers,
Carry a sanitising spray and sanitise the main touch points in your cabin,
Make sure to wash/sanitise your hands frequently,
Wear a mask on the train. If you are boarding/deboarding at a crowded station, wear a mask and face shield if possible.
Is there any silver lining to all this?
Since there are significantly fewer trains running on the network, the few trains that are operating are running far more punctually!
Pleasant travels, and stay safe.
Last updated on October 21, 2020.