20% fall in January bookings due to COVID-19 forces railways to cancel several train services

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Indian Railways has begun to cancel several train operations due to low occupancy, with a 20 percent fall in passenger bookings in January and rising cases of COVID-19 among locomotive drivers and station staff.

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Services may be pruned significantly across the country if the number of cases continues to rise at the current pace and more restrictions on mobility are placed, multiple senior officials with the national transporter said. The Railway Board had earlier said that there were no plans to cancel train services across the country.

“If the COVID situation does not change till February and more states impose lockdowns and curfews, the different divisions (of Indian Railways) will be taking calls on cancelling routes,” a senior official in the ministry of railways told Moneycontrol.

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Indian Railways cancelled around 350 long-distance trains in January due to low occupancy, shortage in personnel due to rising COVID infections and safety protocols not being followed on some routes, officials said.

“There have been cases of some locomotive drivers and station staff also testing positive for COVID-19 and this is also a growing concern for railway operations,” another government official said.

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Sources added that several states have also written to the railways to discontinue the unreserved category of seats, and also closely monitor that all COVID safety protocols are followed on suburban train operations.

Last week, Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) had announced a reduction in the frequency of Tejas Express due to the coronavirus crisis.

IRCTC has reduced the frequency of the Ahmedabad-Mumbai Central Tejas Express from five days in a week to three days in a week from January 12.

The average railway ticket bookings recorded by IRCTC has fallen to around 900,000 per day in January compared to around 1,100,000 bookings seen in December and around 1,300,000 in November, a senior government official said.

While Indian Railways will look to reduce operations of trains, there are no plans to cancel any operations, especially those of long-distance train. In the case of routes on which services have been suspended, officials said there are alternative trains that travellers can avail of.

A similar situation was seen in April-May 2021 when Indian Railways was forced to cut operations to as low as 40 percent of its total operational capacity due to the rise in new COVID infections.

Indian Railways is also in talks with the governments of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu to operate special trains for migrant workers who find themselves without work due to localised lockdown-like restrictions to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The railways is planning to operate four special trains every week from states imposing restrictions on mobility to the states of origin of the migrant workers to prevent a 2020-like situation when hundreds of thousands were left with little alternative but to  walk all the way back to their villages.

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