As the railways on Tuesday cautiously resumed its passenger service after over 50 days, three trains chugged out of New Delhi and five others left for the national capital, each carrying around 1,100 passengers who first underwent screening and followed other norms necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, under the strict vigilance of authorities.
Twenty-five passengers were not allowed to board a Delhi-bound train from the Sabarmati railway station in Ahmedabad as they were found to have high temperature during screening at the main gate of the station, officials said.
In an unprecedented measure, the railways, which is called the lifeline of the country, had suspended passenger service from March 22 midnight due to the pandemic, leaving lakhs of people stranded as road and air services were also stopped during the the coronavirus lockdown.
Before this, over 13,000 passenger trains were run daily with more more than 20 million travellers.
The railways had started plying special trains for migrant workers from May 1 but the passenger service had remained suspended.
Passengers at the New Delhi railway station on Tuesday expressed mixed feelings of relief and apprehension, with many arriving hours before the scheduled train departures to Bilaspur (Chhattisgarh), Dibrugarh (Assam) and Bengaluru (Karnataka).
The railways has issued new guidelines for travel on these special trains, asking passengers to carry their own food and linen and arrive at stations at least 90 minutes before departure for health screening in the wake of the pandemic.
The five trains for New Delhi left from Patna, Bengaluru, Howrah, Mumbai and Ahmedabad, with railways regulating passengers even before their entry at the railway stations.
As the Indian railways tries come back on track in a "graded" manner, it has issued a timetable for trains to be run between May 12 and May 20.
These trains will have only AC classes i.e. first, second and third AC.
Over 80,000 passengers have booked tickets worth over Rs 16 crore on these special trains so far since the process began at 6 PM on Monday.
Under normal circumstances, the New Delhi railway station is one of the busiest stations in the country.
A total of 351 trains arrive/depart from this station daily with a footfall of more than 5.20 lakh passengers each day.
But all this has changed.
The Chelmsford Road leading to the New Delhi Railway Station and station entrance were heavily barricaded by police, while passengers walked with their luggage or hired rickshaws.
The policemen queued up the passengers to different destinations and announcements were made to maintain social distancing.
Passengers who boarded the Bilaspur bound train, the first one to depart from Delhi at 4 PM, sanitised their hands at the entry gates, wore masks and carried minimal baggage as advised by the railways.
They were asked if they had downloaded the Aarogya Setu app and most of them answered in the affirmative. As they entered the station, the officials guided them to their designated coaches resulting in minimal crowd at platforms.
Railway Board chairman V K Yadav was also present at the station.
Officials said a similar drill was followed at all stations.
While the railways made it mandatory for passengers to install the Aarogya Setu app, sources said that several passengers who did not have the app downloaded on their phones were allowed to board the trains, across zones since they were asymptomatic.
"During the screening, 25 passengers were found to have high temperature. So we did not allow them to board the train," Divisional Railway Manager Dipak Jha said in Ahmedabad.
"Some of them were accompanied by family members who did not wish to go alone, so around 40 persons with confirmed reservations did not board the train," he said.
Many of the passengers had been stuck in Gujarat due to the lockdown. Among them was Arun Kumar from Delhi who was visiting Ahmedabad to meet his old friend when lockdown was announced.
"I had planned to stay here for only two days but got stranded. I felt I had become a burden on my friend and his family. My parents back home could not sleep well all these days. Today I am so much relieved," he said.
Ronak Pancholi, a trader from Rajasthan, had come to place a order." I never thought I will have to spend so many days in a small hotel room. I even ran out of money and there was no one in this city whom I could call for help," he said.
At the Mumbai Central station, railway personnel made special arrangements for the passengers, including marking squares in and out of the station so that passengers could move forward in an orderly manner.
Government Railway Police and Railway Protection Force personnel kept a tight vigil at all railway stations and the passengers were allowed to board the train maintaining social distance.
The national transporter is taking all safety precautions like following social distancing and providing hand sanitisers to passengers to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.
Shivani Chaube, a civil services aspirant staying in Mukherjee Nagar in Delhi, said she was apprehensive about her train journey to Bilaspur due to coronavirus.
"I was finding it difficult to study in Delhi and am going back home. I am concerned about the safety precautions during the train journey with the epidemic raging in Delhi," she said.
Railways officials said all precautions have been taken to ensure that passengers had a safe journey.
"The air conditioning units in the coaches have been modified to maximise fresh air. Screening of all passengers is being done and floor markings for social distancing at the platforms and entire passenger area have been done," said a senior railway official.
Syed Yasir, a private retail sector executive, said he will finally be able to go to Nagpur to be with his family on Eid.
Walking with his luggage on Chelmsford Road towards the New Delhi railway station, he said he preferred to reach earlier than the railways-advised 90 minutes period before train departure to make sure he did not miss the train.
"Due to lockdown, it is difficult to commute. Also, one cannot afford to miss the train at such times," he said as he fastened his steps.
Railway officials said a total of 3,461 passengers had reservations in the three trains scheduled to leave Delhi on Tuesday.
The fare structure for these trains will be as applicable for the Rajdhani trains (excluding catering charges).
On May 13, eight trains will depart from the national capital for Howrah, Rajendra Nagar, Jammu Tawi, Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai, Ranchi, Mumbai Central and Ahmedabad. Another train will leave Bhubaneswar for New Delhi.
The officials said, as per the guidelines, e-tickets issued by the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) will work as an e-pass for the movement of drivers to and from the station to pick or drop passengers.
Bookings will be available only on the IRCTC's website (www.irctc.co.in) for general quota passengers, while bare minimum reservation counters will be open on the routes of these special trains for parliamentarians, freedom fighters and others who can book their tickets there.
Concessions can only be availed by patients, students and people with disabilities while no concessions for senior citizens are applicable.
The railways has also earmarked reservation quota of two berths in 3AC for Divyangjans and two berths in 1AC and four berths in 2AC for sitting and former parliamentarians.
On arrival at the destination, passengers will have to adhere to health protocols prescribed by the destination state/union territory, they said.