Emotions run high as first passenger train chugs into Bilaspur after 48 days; passengers brave long queues, elaborate screening protocol

The loud cheer and silent prayers as the train slithered off the platform conveyed what this journey meant to all aboard.

Debobrat Ghose May 15, 2020 11:24:27 IST
Emotions run high as first passenger train chugs into Bilaspur after 48 days; passengers brave long queues, elaborate screening protocol

A tangle of primal emotions — fear, apprehension, hope and joy — overwhelmed commuters as the first passenger train to Bilaspur in the midst of lockdown 3.0 got ready to roll from New Delhi station on Tuesday evening.

As the Rajdhani Special chugged off after 48 days of lockdown to its destination in Chhattisgarh, there were sighs of relief all around. Many of the passengers were stranded when travel across states came to a grinding halt on 25 March and was desperate to go back home. Some wanted to be with their families as the coronavirus created deep uncertainties about life and livelihood.

The loud cheer and silent prayers as the train slithered off the platform conveyed what this journey meant to all aboard.

Kishan Singh (23), a resident of Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh and a civil services aspirant, said it was an experience like no other, after meeting his parents and other family members.

“I came to Delhi last year for civil services examination coaching and I had planned to visit my parents in March end. But, suddenly due to the lockdown, everything from coaching to travelling came to a standstill. We had no option other than eating and sleeping and we got fed up. Money was running out. So, the moment I came to know about this special train, I booked my ticket,” Singh narrated in detail to Firstpost after alighting at Bilaspur station.

Some passengers had a more pressing need to get back to their hometown like 38-year-old businessman Prakash Tiwari, whose wife is a revenue officer in Chhattisgarh government and had been extending her leave as the family got stuck in Delhi due to lockdown.

“We went to Delhi to attend a wedding and were supposed to board the train on 26 March. But, as the lockdown was suddenly announced a day earlier, we had no option but to stay back. My wife was getting desperate as she had to report to her government job. She kept on extending her leave. This train has been a blessing for us,” said Tiwari.

Emotions run high as first passenger train chugs into Bilaspur after 48 days passengers brave long queues elaborate screening protocol

Passengers crowd outside New Delhi railway station premises on Tuesday. Debobrat Ghose/Firstpost

Boarding the train

The journey began with the booking of tickets on IRCTC website, which again required expertise like ‘fastest finger first’ in Kaun Banega Crorepati TV show. Passengers said that the moment they heard of the opening of the special passenger train, they got down to online booking, which again was a tedious task.

“Throughout the day, I had been waiting and at 6 pm, I got a message about the booking. There was only a 10-minute window and within that period, entire booking for two days got over. Despite their urgency, many people I know couldn’t make it,” a Bhopal-bound passenger remarked.

On 12 May, almost a kilometre-long queue of passengers waiting to board the special train was found outside New Delhi railway station at the Paharganj side in the afternoon. Unlike on regular days, passengers on Tuesday arrived at the station at least three to five hours before the train’s departure time due to uncertainties.

Reaching the station was a harrowing experience for a large number of passengers due to the absence of any public transport and existing lockdown.

“I stay at Dwarka and on a regular day, it takes a maximum of one-and-half hours to reach New Delhi station. But due to the absence of public transport, I had to face severe problem reaching the station. Everyone doesn’t have a car of their own. How will the poor reach the station? As special trains have been allowed to roll, the Delhi government should make some arrangements for the passengers’ commute. Even those coming from other states and alighting at New Delhi station will face extreme difficulty in getting home. Here, Chhattisgarh government has made good arrangement for passengers to travel beyond the Bilaspur railway station,” said Singh.

Singh pushed off from home at 9 am to board his train at 4 pm. On his request, a local shopkeeper, who had a special pass, dropped him at the station in a tempo van.

Those coming from Noida or Ghaziabad faced similar difficulty.

Many passengers claimed that outside the railway station, due to a large crowd of passengers, social distancing could hardly be maintained. However, to avoid traffic jam and chaos, Delhi Police stopped all vehicles carrying passengers at the outer circle of Connaught Place and passengers walked the rest of the distance to the station, approximately 1.5 km.

“At many places, there were groups of passengers standing close to each other, as there was no option for them. However, once we entered the station premises, social distancing was properly maintained, followed by sanitisation and thermal screening,” said Tiwari.

However, there are a few passengers who also claimed that they weren’t screened for COVID-19 at the station or before boarding the train.

“Neither I nor a couple of fellow passengers were screened before boarding the train,” Singh claimed.

The journey

All the 841 passengers travelling by the Rajdhani Special wore masks and gloves and carried sanitisers with them. According to the passengers of 3AC coaches, the middle berths were vacant till the train reached Bhopal at midnight.

“We thought middle berths were left vacant to maintain social distancing, but once the train reached Bhopal, these berths were occupied too,” said Tiwari.

Passengers shared that senior citizens were more apprehensive and asked fellow passengers to maintain distancing.

As per the revised regulations, IRCTC didn’t serve any meal, and no bedroll and blankets were provided. Bottled water and packed snacks were available on payment.

Bilaspur-based Aayushi Rastogi, who visited Noida during Holi festival and eventually got stuck due to lockdown, termed the journey as ‘historical’.

“The railway administration ensured thorough cleanliness and sanitisation of coaches. As I was aware of the new regulation, I carried food, water and linen along with me. The temperature of the coach was maintained at an optimum level, so that blanket wasn’t required. Everyone in the coach was cautious and took precaution so as not to sit on the other’s seat. Initially, I had apprehensions, but it was a safe journey,” said Rastogi.

“It’s not the responsibility of railways alone to keep the train clean. We as passengers ought to maintain it because, on Wednesday morning, I found the train’s toilets were dirty and empty bottles dumped into the basin. This is not acceptable, especially after this pandemic,” he said.

Emotions run high as first passenger train chugs into Bilaspur after 48 days passengers brave long queues elaborate screening protocol

Passengers from New Delhi alighting from Rajdhani Special train at Bilaspur station on Wednesday. Image procured by Debobrat Ghose

Reaching the destination

Had it not been the journey in this time of lockdown, this visit would just be another routine affair for the passengers who alighted from the special train on Wednesday afternoon at Bilaspur railway station, with joy and a sense of relief on their faces.

Bilaspur district administration along with South East Central (SEC) Railway officials, a battery of doctors and medical staff, and police were eagerly waiting at the Bilaspur station. It’s the same station, where Rabindranath Tagore had penned a poem while waiting on the platform along with his ailing wife to board another train to Pendra Road, which used to be a sanatorium during the British Raj.

The Chhattisgarh government made elaborate arrangement to receive passengers (and also migrant workers), with district-wise desks and attendants to help them in their forward journey.

As passengers alighted, each of them had to undergo sanitisation, followed by thermal screening, collection of samples and check-up.

“Bilaspur district collector Dr Sanjay Alang has issued strict directives to all departments concerned to provide foolproof safety to passengers after they alight from trains whether they are migrant labourers or general passengers. The district administration ensured quarantining of asymptomatic passengers and last-mile connectivity to all who reached Bilaspur station. A complete data bank was prepared of the passengers,” Bilaspur district PRO, Neelima Agarwal told Firstpost.

Emotions run high as first passenger train chugs into Bilaspur after 48 days passengers brave long queues elaborate screening protocol

Bilaspur administration set up district wise desks to facilitate passengers for last-mile connectivity. Image procured by Debobrat Ghose

Aayushi Rastogi’s husband, Vipul Bansal, an executive at Coal India Limited in Bilaspur, who originally belongs to Noida said, “When I went to receive my wife at the station, I found the Bilaspur collector along with senior officials from the state government and SEC Railway, and a team of senior doctors and paramedics in full gear waiting to receive passengers. I was overwhelmed by the attention and medical care they paid to each and every passenger. After we reached home, we received a call from the local police station that they would visit us with a medical team for checking up on my wife and advised her to remain in isolation for 14 days.”

The district administration also arranged vehicles for onward journey of passengers and once the person reaches his destination, he would have to undergo quarantine for 14 days.

“I had to borrow money in Delhi from people I know to buy my ticket, as whatever money I had got exhausted during lockdown. After reaching Bilaspur, government officials helped me to reach my village at Lormi block in Mungeli district,” another passenger said.

The staff members of SEC Railway were visibly upbeat on Wednesday, as this special train arrived. Prior to this, they had received migrant workers from other states through Shramik special trains.

“It’s a proud moment for us at SEC Railway in Bilaspur as our zone got the opportunity to receive the first passenger train after the 48-day lockdown. This zone has donned many feathers in its cap right from the days when it used to be under Bengal-Nagpur Railways (BNR),” said Gajanan Phadke, an SEC Railway official.

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