In mid-June, Savitri Gomte heard from her neighbour that Mumbai’s suburban local trains were about to re-open. As a domestic worker who had been out of work since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown in March, she felt a surge of relief and joy at the news.

Gomte’s income depends entirely on being able to commute from her house in Dombivali – a suburb 50 km north of Mumbai – to the homes of middle-class families in south Mumbai. A Central Railway local train, with a Rs 300 monthly pass, is her only affordable transport option.

“I thought if they re-start the trains, I would finally be able to earn for my family again,” said Gomte, 35, who has two daughters in secondary school.

But Gomte’s joy lasted just for a day: it turned out that the news she had heard was only partially true.

Mumbai’s local trains did resume services on June 15, but only for limited categories of essential workers, such as staff of various municipal, government and public sector offices. Members of the general public – including unorganised sector workers like Gomte – are still not allowed to commute on the trains, six months since the lockdown began and three months since the city gradually began to unlock.

“My employers are calling me to ask when I will return to work, but how am I supposed to go without trains?” said Gomte, who has been unable to find any alternate work in Dombivali so far. Travelling by bus, she says, is not an option. “It is more expensive, I will have to change a few buses, and it will take me five or six hours to travel every day.”

Before the lockdown, Gomte earned Rs 15,000 a month by cooking and cleaning for four families. Her husband, who sells plastic household goods on a cart, brought home Rs 7,000 a month. “After the lockdown only one of my madams keeps sending my salary in my bank account, and my husband’s dhandha [business] is down,” she said.

With each passing day, Gomte now worries that her employers might find new maids and she might lose all her jobs. “What will we eat, then?” she said. “Why can’t the government understand that we need the trains to survive?”

Gomte is among thousands of commuters in the Mumbai metropolitan region who have been desperately asking for local train services to resume for the general public in the past few weeks. After Delhi metro services resumed two weeks ago, this clamour has increased, with office-goers staging a protest outside Virar station on September 7.

But is Mumbai – India’s biggest Covid-19 hotspot – ready to handle the full-fledged re-opening of its local train services? In a metropolitan region with over 3.3 lakh Covid-19 cases and 75 lakh daily train commuters, how and when can train travel resume safely?

While transport experts have no easy answers to offer, many commuters and railways staff have strong differences in the way they perceive the situation.

File photo of commuters struggling to board a local train in Mumbai. HT Photo

Only in a phased manner

From a public health perspective, not resuming full-fledged train services is a pragmatic decision: Mumbai’s overcrowded railway platforms and tightly packed trains would be a petri dish for the spread of the virus.

But from an economic perspective, the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown has been devastating. Even though businesses and many workplaces have been allowed to re-open gradually since June, the only mass public transport options available to Mumbai residents have been public buses, which were inadequate even before the pandemic.

This has inevitably led to growing pressure on the railways to open up.

“There is no doubt a lot of demand from the public for trains to restart, and we are getting letters from passenger associations about it,” said Shivaji Sutar, the chief public relations officer of the Central Railway network in Mumbai. “But we cannot do anything until we receive instructions from the state government.”

According to Western Railway officials, the decision to resume train services for all will be taken jointly by the union home ministry and the state and central health ministries, and so far, only 11 categories of essential workers have been authorised to travel by local trains. “New categories of essential workers are being added every few weeks,” said Sumit Thakur, the chief public relations officer of Western Railway. “But we can only reopen in a phased manner.”

‘Only after a vaccine is found’

For now, the Central and Western Railway lines are together running just 700 train services a day for essential workers, compared to the 2,300 services they ran each day before the lockdown. Passengers have to either display their identity cards or scan state government-issued QR codes to enter the stations, and railway staff try to ensure that only 600-700 people enter each train. The average capacity of a Mumbai local train is 1,200 people.

For several employees of the railways, however, this has been intimidating in itself.

“In the three months since the trains for essential workers started running, I have seen that security has already become lax,” said a Western Railway staff member, speaking to on the condition of anonymity. “Checking of IDs has become less strict. Many people also enter platforms by taking shortcuts through the slums around the stations and climbing over fences.”

As a result, he claimed, stations and trains are already more crowded than they are currently meant to be. “This affects railway guards and motormen the most. So many of our staff members have got Covid in the past three months,” he said. “If you think about how many people touch the doors and bars of a train every day, it is scary to think of what could happen if trains are opened up to the public.”

A frontline staff member of the Central Railway line also echoed the same fears. “In all these months, the Railways has only given us two masks, two pairs of gloves, one soap and one sanitiser bottle, and across India, Railways staff who have died of Covid have not received any insurance or compensation,” said the staff member, who also requested anonymity. “Our lives are at risk, so it is best if trains re-open for the public only after a vaccine is found.”

While many commuters are also afraid of the virus, they believe their health and financial stability are at stake if the trains do not re-open for all.

“I am spending five hours a day on my scooter just to travel to work, and my entire salary of Rs 20,000 is going towards petrol,” said 28-year-old Prakash Jore, a shop assistant who lives in Diva and has been travelling to work in Andheri four days a week for the past two months. “I tried taking buses a few times, but they are also quite crowded, so what is the point? Why not give us the trains again?”

The biggest challenge

According to traffic analyst and transport expert Ashok Datar, there are ways in which bus services could be improved and optimised for the public in the absence of local trains.

“The city has around 6,000 school buses, with drivers, that are currently lying idle. If they are mobilised, especially during peak hours, it would help ease the load on the public buses,” said Datar. “We could also control parking so that private cars do not take up space on the roads.”

Given Mumbai’s population and its unique north-south axis, however, Datar and other transport experts believe no road transport solution can truly match the magnitude of services offered by the local trains.

Amit Bhatt, the executive director of transport at World Resources Institute-India, believes that if Mumbai’s trains were to resume their services for all, it would not lead to extreme overcrowding right away.

“When the Metro re-opened in Delhi, the ridership on the trains was much lower than before the lockdown, because many people still fear contamination and use private transport if they can afford it,” said Bhatt. “The same is likely to be true in Mumbai – not everyone will use the trains as before, so there will be a drop in passenger load.”

Bhatt identifies three areas that governments and commuters need to focus on if they want public transport systems to re-open: frequency of services, staggered office timings and personal hygiene.

In Mumbai, where local trains have been running at three-minute intervals for decades, increasing the frequency of services further may not be an option. Staggering office timings to ease rush-hour crowds, however, has been a policy that Mumbai civic and railway officials have discussed for years. Plans for staggered office timings are still under discussion, but no rules or schedules have been announced so far.

The third measure – personal hygiene – is perhaps the most important one for a city as dense as Mumbai. “If you look at other dense cities, like Hong Kong, there are hardly any documented cases of virus transmission because of trains, because people there had a general cultural habit of wearing masks in such spaces even before Covid,” said Bhatt, who believes Indians have still not understood the role that personal hygiene plays in mitigating the spread of the virus. “Many people in Delhi have started taking off their masks once they are inside the metro. So our biggest challenge is, how do we get people to follow these habits?”