Suspension of the local passenger trains is still continuing in Assam even though all restrictions on mass transport have been eased in the state. This has caused inconvenience to thousands of railway passengers who used to travel by these trains prior to the suspension of their services due to COVID-19 pandemic. On an average about 25,000 passengers commute daily in one-way trip by the local and suburban trains. A large section of these passengers belongs to economically weaker section and are dependent on these local train services to commute to their workplaces and for livelihood. The Northeast Frontier Railway authorities say they are awaiting clearance from the State Government to resume the services of these local trains. Currently only two pairs of local trains –one between Kamakhya and Murkongkselek and the other between Guwahati and Silchar—out of regular services of 22 pairs are running. On an average about 1000 to 1500 passengers travel on a one-way trip by one local passenger train.
The Assam Railway Passengers' Association has been demanding gradual resumption of local train services in the state. The State government is yet to respond to the demand leaving the railway passengers perplexed. They are unable to fathom why the restriction on resumption of local train services is continuing when buses and other mass transport vehicles are being allowed to ply overcrowded with passengers. Travelling in overcrowded buses put the passengers to maximum risk of COVID-19 infection. The risk would have been less if they could travel by train following the physical distance norms and other COVID-19 norms ensured by the NFR authorities in the long-distance trains and the two pairs of local trains running in the state. High occupancy in all the trains currently running in the NFR jurisdiction is an indicator of rise in confidence level among the passengers of journey by train during prevailing pandemic situation being safe. Higher bus fare compared to the much cheaper train fare is also burning holes in the pockets of railway passengers who normally travel by the local and suburban trains to Guwahati and other urban centres. The State government allowed passenger vehicles including buses to ply with 100 per cent seating capacity after the All Assam Motor Transport Association went on a strike demanding doubling of the fares on the ground the plying the passenger vehicles with 50 per cent seating capacity is not sustainable.
With an eye on the election, the State government avoided increasing the fare and instead allowed the passenger vehicles to ply with full capacity. Though the State government said that no standing passenger will be allowed the norm has not been strictly enforced. Lack of uniformity in the State government's approach towards mass transport by trains and passenger vehicles will be seen as the government yielding to the lobby of passenger vehicles at the cost of passengers of local trains. The demand for resumption of these train services will grow in the coming days. It has the potential to snowball into a larger issue if the State government remains indifferent to the demand of the railway passengers and fails to explain the rationale behind adoption two different standards for train services and passenger vehicles. The downturn in the economy has already made life difficult for the economically weaker sections of the society. Travelling by buses and other modes in lieu of trains has almost doubled their commuting time causing more hardship. The State government's action should not put more economic burden on them.
Women employees of government departments as well as private companies are the worst sufferer because of increase in commuting time as they have been forced to travel early after completing the household chores to reach offices and workplaces in time. When the government has remained indifferent to violation of COVID-19 norms of mandatory wearing of face mask, physical distance norms by participants in election rallies organised by political parties, both ruling and opposition, withholding green signal to running of local and suburban trains despite the NFR running the long distance trains and two local trains by following all COVID-19 safety norms, is mysterious.
The South Eastern Railway has already resumed services of local and suburban trains in neighbouring West Bengal after suspension for over seven months due to the pandemic situation. Lack of required coordination between the Ministry of Railways and the State government has added to the confusion. The State government should play a pro-active role in impressing upon the Ministry and the Railway Board to respond to the demand of the passengers of local trains. The passengers of local train must not be held hostage by lack of coordination between the ministry and the State government. A meeting between the State government and the NFR authorities for reviewing the situation and taking a rationale decision is the need of the hour.