It was 10.30 am, a couple of days before Holi. The Paharganj side of the New Delhi station was buzzing with activity. Passengers were arriving in cabs and autos to board trains that would take them to their destinations.
There were others who had arrived in the Capital from different places across India; bargaining with taxi and auto drivers, as well as agents from Paharganj’s budget hotel hub, for better deals.
Elsewhere, passengers were haggling with porters over rates to cart their luggage either to the trains or to the nearest taxi stand.
The rows of food stalls outside and inside the stations were packed to capacity. The kiosks selling different items that can be used during a journey were equally busy.
As India opened up in view of the falling Covid-19 cases, railway life, it seemed, was also slowly chugging back to normal.
The scene was strikingly different two years ago, when India went into a never-heard-before lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19, known as the novel coronavirus at that time, and all modes of transport—including the railways—were closed down.
It was for the first time that the Indian Railways had stopped all its services; paralysing along with it all peripheral activities that form an entire ecosystem in and around railway stations—food stalls, shops, hotels, taxis, vendors, etc.
“I still remember the day when everything had shut down. I had never seen such a scene in my life. There was a deafening silence. It was like a ghost town,” said Pawan Kumar, a railway porter.
Munna Lal, a vendor selling tea and munchies at the station, recalled how life went for a toss as food stalls were not allowed till last year.
“We had no savings. Managing life in these two years had been really difficult. I tried selling vegetables for a living. Some went back to villages,” Munna Lal said, adding that things were better now.
From May 21, 2020, railways started operating a few trains to ferry thousands of stranded migrant workers to their home states.
Gradually, when the situation eased, special trains were launched for people who needed to travel for work, business and for other needs, but the limited services and the prevailing Covid atmosphere meant the peripheral activities remained affected.
The waiting rooms inside the New Delhi Railway Station were near full when this writer visited the station for his journey to his hometown Guwahati by the Rajdhani Express.
The entry lobby was buzzing but the uncontrolled crowds usually associated with railway stations were conspicuous by their absence.
Security personnel manning the X-ray machine said people were back but it was unlike pre-Covid times when the week before Holi would be one of the busiest for railways.
“This is a week when the stations would be teeming with people who would go home for Holi. But it is much better than before,” a policeman said.
Sharing similar views, a taxi driver at the station said how their business was directly proportional to travellers, tourists and regular train services.
Normal life inside trains
The train left the station at 11.30 sharp and most of the coaches were packed to capacity. The travelling ticket examiner (TTE) said passenger activity had been on and off according to the Covid waves in the past two years. When cases waned, footfall increased and when there was a fresh wave, people preferred to stay away from travelling.
This being Holi week, trains would mostly be full, the TTE said. “But we had seen days when seats would stay vacant. Passenger traffic is now mostly normal now,” he said.
As cases started declining, the railways in November last year started to restore train services to pre-Covid levels. Since May 21, 2020, select trains were being run in a graded manner with a special tag and with higher fares to deter non-essential travel.
Passengers this writer spoke to said restoration of earlier fares were a relief for frequent travellers who move about for work purposes.
Kartar Singh, a transporter from Himachal Pradesh who operates in the Northeastern states of Assam, Mizoram and Tripura, recalled how the limited number of trains and higher fares put small-time businessmen who are dependent on rail travel in a fix.
“I cannot afford air travel. Train is the only reliable mode for people like me. When the services were shut, I travelled in trucks for nearly 3,000 km to reach my village in Himachal,” Singh said.
According to a report by the India Brand Equity Foundation, before the pandemic, the route length of the Indian Railways was spread over 67,956 kms, with 13,169 passenger trains and 8,479 freight trains, plying 23 million travellers and 3 million tonnes of freight daily from 7,349 stations.
Zayeed Ahmed, a trader from Purnia district in Bihar, who often travels to small towns in UP and his state for business, echoed Singh’s feelings.
Ahmed also recalled how he had to take his own food along as catering on trains was halted and food stalls at stations were not allowed to operate for a long time because of the pandemic.
The railways had last year allowed eateries to start selling foodstuff at stations and restored cooked meal services in trains this year. “Now, I can travel without any hassle,” Ahmed said.
Life looking up at stations
In Moradabad and Bareilly, the scene was slightly different than the New Delhi station. Passengers were present but the station campus was not as crowded and many benches were unoccupied.A person manning a refreshment centre in Moradabad said though passengers were back, business was still not like before as many still preferred to carry their own food.
“Your train may be packed but not all trains are. It is still cautious travel, though it is much better than before,” said the man, pointing to another train and the sparsely populated platforms and the empty benches.
In Bareilly, a fruit vendor was trying to find customers for his bananas. Some distance away, a man at a stall selling books, newspapers, locks, soap and first-aid items, was dozing off.
“I hope I would be able to sell the bananas before the end of the day. It’s getting warmer and so I can’t store them,” the fruit vendor said. The stall operator said business was slowly picking up speed but was uneven throughout the day.
The Lucknow, Varanasi and Kathiar railway stations were busier, much like New Delhi. The refreshment centres were mostly occupied. The kiosks and stalls were busy attending to customers. Other stations in UP and Bihar passed by late at night when the crowds are anyway quite thin.
In Lucknow, passengers were crowding a vendor selling cucumbers. In 10 minutes, he had finished his stock.
“I have more at my room outside the station. I can’t carry all of them, so I bring them in batches. Business has been good these days ever since more trains have started running,” he said.
At about 11 pm, the train rolled into the Varanasi station, which was full of life even at that hour. Passengers were boarding and de-boarding, vendors were attending to customers, some having a sip of steaming hot tea, while others were having a late dinner at the numerous stalls.
An ecosystem restored
A group of tourists boarded the train at Varanasi, on way to explore the North-East. They had come from Uttarakhand and spent a few days at the heritage city.
“We will visit Assam and Meghalaya this time. The situation is better now, so we thought of a family tour,” Raunak Sharma, the man leading the group, said. “We were holed up these two years. There is nothing like a train journey.”
The next morning, in Bihar’s Katihar, a trader unloaded big bags full of readymade garments. A regular in railways, he travels frequently to Old Delhi and Kolkata to buy stuff in bulk, which he sells at his shop in Katihar.
“Life would have been impossible without trains. Good that everything is back to normal,” he said, adding a note of caution. “Hope it stays like this.”
In fact, many passengers were traders, small-time businessmen and salespersons who travelled between cities for work purposes. They narrated how the shutting down of train services and the lockdowns disrupted everything.
The food attendants attached to the catering contractors were out of jobs as the railways had stopped serving of food inside trains for a few months from 2020.
Readymade packed meals were allowed in phases in 2021 and by this February, the railways allowed cooked food in most long-distance trains, much to the relief of people like Mukesh Kumar and Chhotu, both catering attendants.
Kumar and Chhotu said they went back to their villages and did odd jobs to sustain themselves. “It was difficult. Finally, our contractor called us when services were restored and we are back,” Kumar said, adding, he had taken loans which he had to repay.
At North Bengal’s New Jalpaiguri station, roving traders selling anything from toys to cheap Chinese electronic and electrical equipment to ‘imported’ garments to umbrellas were busy loading and unloading goods in trains.
These traders are not allowed in premium trains such as Rajdhani or Shatabdi but are omnipresent in almost all other trains that ply along the Assam, Bengal and Bihar routes. Many of them run small kiosks and shops at busy railway stations or nearby markets.
“We are trying to get back to business. Don't know if we shall be ever able to regain the losses,” said Tapas Mandal, a trader.
It is like starting from scratch but it felt good that things were back on track again, Mandal said while putting his stuff on to a handcart.“Indian Railways is an India within an India. India can’t move forward if the railway network is derailed. Both have to move hand in hand,” Mandal said, summing up the general mood.