ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: Pakistan Railways (PR) has suspended the operation of all its passenger trains throughout the country with immediate effect for one week (till March 31) in view of the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak.
The operation of goods trains will, however, remain functional to ensure supplies in the ongoing crisis-like situation.
Official sources claim the PR took the decision to suspend its entire operation after the Sindh government pressed the authorities concerned in writing twice to stop the rail operations from Karachi or any part of Sindh to Punjab and other provinces. “Though there was no plan to immediately bring the entire operations to a halt, the PR was constrained to do so after the Sindh government asked the authorities concerned for the second time on Monday,” the sources told Dawn.
“It is stated that the Home Department has imposed complete ban on intercity / provincial travel / any kind of gathering in whole province in order to prevent spread of coronavirus under Sindh epidemic disease act-2014. It has been observed that in the premises of railway stations, there are large crowds of passengers / staff as the trains commute frequently, thereby putting lives of people in danger,” reads a letter written by the additional deputy commissioner (District South, Karachi) to the PR Karachi-based divisional superintendent.
Railways minister says resumption of service will depend on evolving situation
The Ministry of Railways in a notification issued on Tuesday says that passengers who have advance bookings on suspended trains will be accommodated in other trains of their choice on priority once the train service is resumed.
In case they will no more require tickets, they will get full refund after resumption of the train operations.
A press release of the ministry says that the notification, approved by Railways Board Chairman Habibur Rehman Gillani, has been sent to the PR chief executive officer in Lahore.
In a video message, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed says that the decision has been taken on an emergency basis with the permission of the prime minister. Since a large number of passengers were travelling by trains, there was a risk of the spread of coronavirus and the government cannot afford that, he says.
He said for one week during which all train services would remain suspended, railway stations and train coaches would be disinfected so that they could be made ready for resumption of train service from April 1. However, he added, the resumption would depend on the situation and a decision at the highest level, otherwise the service would remain suspended.
He asked all divisional superintendents to ensure no passengers board roofs of trains, and in this regard the railways police had been alerted.
It may be recalled that Sheikh Rashid had been against the complete lockdown of the country and he was reluctant to suspend all trains despite suggestions from public and social circles to shut down train service to help control the spread of coronavirus.
However, in two phases, he announced suspension of 34 trains’ services, and wanted to keep 100 passenger trains operational all over the country.
On Tuesday, Sheikh Rashid regretted that provinces did not take Pakistan Railways on board while deciding for a complete lockdown.
Informed sources said that the complete lockdown in Sindh and Balochistan forced the PR authorities to seek approval of the prime minister to completely shut down train operation all over the country.
Rush of passengers
Following the suspension of 34 trains, huge rush of passengers was witnessed at railway stations. Despite lockdowns, railway platforms were crowded with passengers without observing safety precautions for coronavirus.
Meanwhile, major railway stations, especially in Lahore, Karachi, Khanewal, Peshawar, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Sukkar and Quetta, witnessed an unprecedented rush of passengers who thronged there on Tuesday either to travel for various destinations (ahead of the closure of the operation) or for getting refunds of their tickets.
“Since the public transport (buses, wagons etc) is already closed, the journey by train was the only option left with the passengers. That is why the major stations witnessed an unprecedented rush of people,” a PR official told Dawn.
Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2020