It was an exciting journey for Mohammad Shakir Raza, a freight train driver based out of New Delhi. He was set to drive his train to his home town, Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, where he would pass the baton on to his co-driver, who would then operate the train on the next leg of its journey, to Malda in West Bengal. Carrying a load of essential goods, Raza says he feels proud to drive his train from state to state, providing an essential service at a time when the nation is in lockdown.
He knows that his job is especially dangerous in these times. “Our families are also worried,” he says, “especially when they listen to the news about COVID-19 infections spreading to various places. They want us to stay home and protect ourselves.” Nonetheless, he knows how important his job is. “The spirit of serving the nation keeps us going,” he adds. To protect its employees, the Indian Railways has made it mandatory for all active staff to wear masks and gloves, and has provided supplies of sanitisers as well. Once Raza’s kit has been used up, he can get another at the next station.
From day one of the national lockdown, the Indian Railways had suspended all rail services except for essential-goods transport, with even freight services operating with a skeletal staff. As one of the few employees still on duty, Raza says he enjoys the feeling of being an important worker. On a daily basis, the Railways operates over 7,000 freight trains, with roughly 14,000 drivers, a similar number of guards, a few porters and minimal ground staff at stations. These few employees keep the behemoth public carrier moving, with trains crisscrossing the country. “The freight we carry is essential,” says Raza. “It makes me feel proud that I am part of this effort.”
Banking on the skills of its drivers, the Railways has also been using this time to experiment with new processes. For one, it has been testing how fast it can run its freight services, even doubling train speeds. Railway data makes this clear, for example, before the lockdown, the average speed of freight trains in the east central zone was about 22.2 kmph. Currently, they are travelling at an average speed of 53.3 kmph. Similarly, all zones are reporting a doubling of the average speed. (Before the lockdown, the national average speed was 22 kmph).
The Railways has also ramped up its parcel-train operations, as well as running long-distance, super-heavy fast freight trains, the Annapoorna service in north India and the Jai Kisan service in the south. What makes these services more efficient is that they carry double the cargo, clubbing two trains into a single service at junction points near their points of departure, splitting them again at junctions near their arrival stations. “Such a plan is possible because of track availability owing to non-running of passenger trains,” an official explains. Experiments like these will come in handy when the national dedicated freight corridors are commissioned. What has also helped is that with the suspension of passenger services, freight trains no longer have to make way for higher-priority trains.
Through the lockdown, freight trains have transported essential commodities like grain, salt, sugar, milk, edible oils, fruits and vegetables, petroleum products, coal and fertilisers. The Railways has also been running parcel trains on 82 routes, carrying medical supplies and equipment and food. From the beginning of the lockdown until May 5, more than 2,000 parcel train services have transported 55,292 tonnes of goods, earning roughly Rs 20 crore in the process. However, the transport of food remains the largest chunk of the Railway’s freight work. Officials tell India today that 3.2 million tonnes of grain were transported between April 1 and April 16. On April 22, 112 rakes of food grains, weighing a combined 313,000 tonnes were transported in a single day. And all of this rests on the efforts of drivers like Raza. “If the whole organisation is putting in an extra effort,” he says, “so should we.”