A HEALTH worker sprays disinfectants in a compartment of the train that is ready to leave for its upcountry journey on Wednesday.—Fahim Siddiqi  / White Star
A HEALTH worker sprays disinfectants in a compartment of the train that is ready to leave for its upcountry journey on Wednesday.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: The main gates to the Cantonment Railway Station remained closed on Wednesday as Pakistan Railways, which had stopped running their trains due to the countrywide coronavirus pandemic lockdown, resumed its passenger service after a gap of 56 days.

The Railways police gestured for the private and hired vehicles to drop off their passengers at the station gates because no vehicle was allowed inside. The people with their luggage formed a queue outside, though keeping a four to five feet distance from one another before being allowed inside, one by one.

Inside there were more queues and lines, before the sanitising walk-through gates, before getting one’s temperature checked, before getting sprayed with disinfectants in case one came through the side entrance to the platform with big squares marked out with yellow masking tape for them to stand in.

As was feared earlier that all standard operating procedures would be violated by a rush of travellers, nothing of the sort happened. In fact there were not that many people at the station to begin with.

Trains remained suspended for 56 days in an effort to slow down progress of the coronavirus pandemic

“That’s because we only allowed booking for 60 per cent of the train,” a spokesperson of the Pakistan Railways explained to Dawn. “The first train leaving the station, the Awam Express, had 1,068 tickets but we only allowed booking for 640 passengers,” he added.

Asked if resuming passenger train service like this would result in a huge loss for Railways, he nodded. “Yes, it would but we are doing this to facilitate the public.”

A sense of relief

Meanwhile, the passengers expressed a sense of peace and relief on the trains running again. “My sister-in-law in Mehrabpur lost her husband in a motorcycle accident two months ago and we have been aching to see her and the children all this while. At least we will be able to be with them for Eid now,” said Munira Khatoon from her compartment window.

“Of course, we will not be celebrating Eid but seeing one’s family around one in times of pain gives strength to bear the loss. He was a young man and they have five little children. We spoke many times over the phone and also on video chat but it is not the same as being there in person,” she said. “Thank God, the train service resumed when it did. Otherwise it would have been a very sad and lonely time for my sister-in-law and her orphaned children.”

Awam Express, which left the station at 10am sharp, had Peshawar as its last stop. But not everyone on board was heading to Peshawar like Munira Khatoon. There was Mahmood who was eager to get back to Rawalpindi.

“I came to Karachi in January to find work, which I couldn’t find. But suddenly I found myself in the middle of a lockdown. And then unable to go back to Rawalpindi I became a burden for my relatives here. They seemed more happy than me when we heard that the passenger train service was resuming,” said Mahmood.

Arshad Salam Khattak, divisional superintendent of Pakistan Railways Karachi division, with all the divisional officers and the superintendent of the Railways police were present to not just see off the train but also to supervise everything as per the SOPs devised by Pakistan Railways at their headquarters some days ago.

“All the SOPs devised by the Railways headquarters have been strictly implemented. At present, 11 up and 11 down trains would operate daily from Karachi to important provincial capitals and cities. The cumulative capacity of the 11 Karachi-bound trains is around 11,000 passengers, whereas the reservation would be done on 6,600 maximum as per the principal SOP of 60 per cent occupancy during the coronavirus pandemic period,” said the divisional superintendent.

“While resuming the train operation, no compromise will be shown to violators of SOPs,” said Mr Khattak. He added that Eid times were revenue-earning seasons for Pakistan Railways, but this time around the government, keeping in mind the difficulties faced by the public, had helped the railway passengers by commencing the passenger train operation.

He also lauded the role played by the Railways’ workers and officials and their untiring efforts to carry out the required maintenance work for safe train operations during the eight-week long suspension period. “It’s the railways workers and officers who have made possible the resumption of train operation today,” he added.

Other passenger trains

The other passenger trains which also resumed operation on the same day from the same station included Pakistan Express at 1pm, Allama Iqbal Express at 2pm, Karakorum Express at 3pm, Pak Business at 4pm, Millat Express at 5pm, Tezgam at 6pm, Shah Hussain Express at 7pm, Green Line at 9pm and Khyber Mail at 11pm.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2020