Reopening Mumbai local trains tougher than resuming public transport elsewhere, says state disaster management secy
In an interview with Firstpost, Kishor Raje Nimbalkar talks about how the Maharashtra government is planning to allow the general public to board Mumbai locals while preventing COVID-19 transmission
Staggered office timings, along with proper crowd management and sanitation measures, will be key to safely opening Mumbai’s suburban trains for the general public, IAS officer Kishor Raje Nimbalkar told Firstpost.
Nimbalkar, who holds the post of Secretary, Disaster Management in the Government of Maharashtra, said that while saving lives is the administration’s priority, many people now need to go out of their homes in order to earn their livelihoods.
On Wednesday (28 October), Nimbalkar wrote to the general managers of the Central Railway and Western Railway proposing to reopen Mumbai local trains for people at large. However, according to the state government’s proposal, local trains will continue to be reserved for people working on essential services during peak hours. These time slots are 8 am to 10.30 am, and 5 pm to 7.30 pm.
Notwithstanding official guidelines on social distancing, familiar scenes of overcrowding in Mumbai local trains have returned in recent weeks, albeit with a new fear of COVID-19 transmission. In this backdrop, throwing open local trains for the general public while preventing the spread of coronavirus is expected to be a massive challenge for authorities. In an interview with Firstpost, Nimbalkar said that reopening public transport in Mumbai is more difficult than in other cities.
Edited excerpts follow:
It has been two days since you wrote to the heads of the Central and Western Railways. Has there been any response from their end?
Yes, the Railways have responded to the letter. They have asked us to hold a meeting on the issue of how to ensure proper crowd management in local trains.
In the recent past, there have been reports and videos of large crowds in local trains, even though the trains are not yet open for the general public. If trains are made open for everyone, do you believe that social distancing will be possible?
As per our proposal, only people who are engaged in essential services are to be allowed in trains during the morning and evening peak hours. For the rest of the day, we are working out measures to ensure that there is minimum crowding. For this purpose, staggering of office timings will help. If the public at large travels during the early morning, afternoon, and late evening hours, then the crowds will automatically be spread out and social distancing will be ensured.
We have to be very mindful of the risks involved. At present, we are witnessing a second wave of the novel coronavirus in many western countries. Some countries such as Italy and France are having to impose a second round of lockdown. Therefore, people’s lives have to be a priority for us. At the same time, people need to go out in order to earn their livelihoods.
There needs to be an assessment of how many local train services will be needed per day. As of now, even if the Railways run fewer services than in pre-COVID-19 times, many sections of the populace are not taking trains — such as school and college students. The administration will take all these aspects into account in its calculations and then arrive at a conclusion. We are also thinking about whether any technological solution, such as an app, can be implemented.
What are the challenges that are unique to the city of Mumbai?
Mumbai is huge as compared to other cities, and so, in some ways, reopening local trains here is more difficult as compared to public transport elsewhere. During peak hours (in normal times), as many as 4,500 people travel in a single train, as compared to the ideal figure of up to 750 persons. Thus, if crowds in Mumbai local trains return to the levels that were seen before the coronavirus, then there could be problems. The chief minister will issue appropriate directions keeping all these factors in mind.
In the recent past, there have been reports of people having to spend an inordinately large amount of time travelling as they are not allowed to board local trains. Do you believe the government could have made the request for allowing the general public in local trains earlier?
Earlier, many offices were either closed or were working with 30 percent capacity. Now, as per Mission Begin Again, many economic activities are returning to normal. This is the right time.
What sanitation measures will be in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
The local trains are thoroughly sanitised every evening. Of course, sanitising local trains after every trip is not possible considering the magnitude of the task. But complete sanitation work will be done on a daily basis.
You have been quoted in a report as saying that the state government has consulted a firm that prepared software for the Kolkata Metro. Can you shed any light on the measures suggested by the firm?
We are working with the firm, and have shared the relevant data with it. Whenever more concrete information can be shared with the media, we will do so.
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