Metro Railway general manager Manoj Joshi indicated yesterday (Sunday, 30th August 2020) that officials will wait for the ministry of housing and urban affairs (MOHUA) to formulate an SOP over the next few days before discussing the matter of resumption of services with the state.
“We have certain plans and will wait for the MOHUA SOP before we declare a final set of regulations for resumption of services. We shall incorporate any recommendations by MOHUA that are useful. Though we don’t come under MOHUA directly, we shall abide by the guidelines issued by the ministry of home affairs, which is the final decision maker,” Joshi said.
All Metro networks across the country, save for Metro Railway in Kolkata, have MOHUA as a stakeholder, apart from the respective state governments. The MHA has entrusted MOHUA to create an SOP for Metro operations across the country due to this. However, Metro Railway is unique in certain ways and may have to amend the recommendations of MOHUA according to its own requirements.
“We are not concerned about our preparedness. Over the last five months, we have maintained our assets and carried out trials. Necessary repairs and replacements have also been undertaken across the network. Our greatest concern managing crowds once we resume commercial operations. A decision has already been taken not to issue tokens. We will solicit support from our commuters to maintain social distancing and discipline,” said Metro Railway CPRO Indrani Banerjee.
The concerns of officials are not unfounded since there has been resistance every time an attempt has been made to bring about some discipline. A PTI report from New Delhi indicated that the SOPs for running the Metro trains have already been circulated and will be discussed through video conference by the MOHUA with all Metro companies on September 1 before being finalized.
When commercial operations resume, it is likely to be only be for existing smart-card holders as handling of tokens may compromise on hygiene. To enable hands-free operations, Metro has also launched online recharging facilities for smart cards.
The West Bengal government will be happy with this decision by the MHA as Metro Railway is considered the ‘lifeline’ of Kolkata. With offices and businesses opening, people are finding it difficult to commute safely as buses are crowded. Issues such as social distancing will certainly be discussed when Metro and state government officials meet.
This meeting is crucial as health experts have indicated that large gatherings (even 50-100 people) at close proximity in confined spaces can have disastrous consequences. The issue of crowd management will have to be sorted out during the meeting with the state government as manpower will be an issue.
Guards inside coaches are likely to be Metro Railway’s best bet on maintaining social distancing protocols once commercial service resumes, said officials. Suspension of tokens, access open to only smartcard-users and thermal scanning of passengers entering stations are other steps to be taken for resumption of commercial service.
The absence of a mechanism to keep real-time track of passengers entering stations and trains has limited the options of the authorities. A shortfall in the number of Railway Protection Force personnel has increased the carrier’s dependency on the state government machinery to enforce the protocols.
Metro sources said the trains and the stations were ready for resumption of commercial service but enforcing social distancing norms would be a real challenge.
“There is no mechanism to ensure social distancing without physical intervention. It will be premature to say anything on our preparedness before the guidelines come. But we might have to depute security personnel inside coaches,” said a Metro official.
Only a set of trains in the Metro fleet has CCTV cameras inside coaches. Live feed can only be accessed by the motormen. There are cameras at stations but not enough to track the number of passengers entering the concourse and the platform. Since the control room cannot access the live footage, there cannot be any instant direction to seal the gates of a train or platform, said officials.
“Let us say the central guidelines allow 50 passengers per coach and 40 passengers board one on a New Garia-bound train from Dum Dum. How do we restrict the number in the subsequent stations?” said a Metro official.
Keeping track of the number of passengers will be challenging because of the multiple origin and destination points. There are 24 stations on the route.
Metro’s security is the responsibility of the Railway Protection Force. But the RPF’s Metro contingent is working with a curtailed workforce. “The sanctioned strength is 900. We have a shortfall of around 130,” said an RPF official.
RPF sources said the crunch was more acute because over 50 from the existing team have been sent to East-West Metro, which, once fully operational, will link Salt Lake Sector V with Howrah.
On the table are options of closing the shutters at stations the moment the volume of passengers goes up, said officials. “We are used to doing it during the Puja rush. The permissible limit will be more at the terminal stations than the intermediate ones,” said an official.
To counter the threat of transmission of the Covid-19 virus in an enclosed air-conditioning system, the quantum of fresh air will be increased on trains, said an official.
“We will raise the supply of fresh air to the maximum level so that the existing air is not recirculated,” the official said.
The frequent touch points like railings and handlebars will also be sanitised frequently once the services start, said the official.
Sanitiser dispensing machines were installed at some Metro stations on Sunday. “All stations will be covered within a couple of days,” the official said.