The Railways defended itself today in the face of severe criticism over delays by Shramik Specials in reaching their destinations, saying they were not regular trains and can be extended or short-terminated, and their stoppages and routes can be changed for the benefit of migrant workers.
At a press conference, Railway Board Chairman VK Yadav clarified that no train can ever be "lost" and of the 3,840 trains operated since May 1, only four have taken over 72 hours to reach their destinations.
The clarifications came amid criticism that the migrant trains were getting "lost" before reaching their destinations. Railways data shows 36.5 per cent of all Shramik trains have ended up in Bihar and 42.2 per cent have terminated in Uttar Pradesh, leading to unequal pressure on these routes.
Repeatedly stating that these were "unusual times", Mr Yadav also defended the railways against the flak over lack of food and water on board the delayed trains, saying 85 lakh meals and 1.25 crore water bottles were supplied free of cost to passengers.
He said complaints from passengers aboard specific trains have been investigated and it was found that there were no discrepancies in supply of meals.
"Because of coronavirus, many contractors did not want to board the trains to distribute food. We would initially give the packets for them to take on their own. But now our employees are using masks and gloves to enter the trains and distribute food."
"So, out of the 3,840 trains, these incidents are maybe in 1 or 2 per cent trains. In 98-99 per cent cases, this has gone smoothly," he asserted.
Mr Yadav said the Railways was compiling a list of people who died on Shramik Specials as he urged everyone with pre-existing health conditions, pregnant women and the aged to avoid unnecessary travel.
"Indian Railways has a control system; the train is immediately stopped if someone is found ill and doctors try to save their lives. Many passengers have been attended to by Railway doctors, 31 successful deliveries have been done. In many cases they were sent to the nearest hospital base. I understand they are travelling in desperate times."
"Each death is investigated. We are compiling the data on deaths and the reasons behind the deaths from state governments. We will make it public when we have the numbers, I don't want to comment on this without the numbers," he said responding to a question on the number of deaths aboard these trains.
He also said 90 per cent of the migrant trains ran with an average speed higher than regular mail express trains.
"There was some fake news that a train reached Siwan (from Surat) in nine days... We diverted only 1.8 per cent trains. From 20-24 May, 71 trains were diverted because of high demand for trains to UP, Bihar, where 90 per cent trains were going from across the country," Mr Yadav said.
He said in one case, a train which was to go to Allahabad was sent to Lucknow and was reported as "lost". It was diverted to the Uttar Pradesh capital when it was realised that there were fewer people destined for Allahabad and more on the Lucknow route.
"We spoke to the state government and we took a decision in Kanpur to take the train to Lucknow. These trains are not normal trains, Railways has maintained full flexibility in them.
State governments have been given full flexibility to short-terminate trains, extend trains, change stoppages and change routes. We will do whatever it takes to help migrant workers reach home," he said.
Among the destination-states for which the trains were diverted were Bihar (51), Uttar Pradesh (16), Jharkhand (2), Assam and Manipur (1 each).
The originating-states for which trains were diverted included Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan.
Till May 28, Mr Yadav said, 3,840 Shramik Specials operated ferrying a total of 52 lakh passengers. He said 1,524 Shramik trains operated in last one week and over 20 lakh passengers were ferried.
"Railways has accommodated almost all requests received from the sending states and we are ready to meet all demand of Shramik movements. Requirement of states as on May 24 was 923 trains, as per requirement yesterday, the figure is now 449 trains," he said.
He said meals - breakfast, lunch, dinner - were served at en-route stations and the state governments provided food and water at starting stations. IRCTC and various railway divisions arranged free meals and water for migrants in trains enroute and over 85 lakh meals and 1.25 crore water bottles were supplied free.
"NGOs supplemented efforts. Railway divisions mobilized local halwais, bakeries at various stations to prepare snacks and food for Shramiks," he said.
Mr Yadav again sought to address the controversy around the payment of Shramik fares, reiterating that no migrant is being made to pay for their tickets.
He said of the total cost involved in running a Shramik train, 85 per cent is being borne by Railways, while states are paying 15 per cent in the form of ticket fares. He also said the decision to not run migrant trains free of cost was a deliberate one.
"Even now, we have cases wherein states have made demands for trains, and yet the trains have had to go empty to a large extent. If there was no cost for running these trains, it would not have been possible for the Railways to handle the demands."
Earlier this week, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal said that several trains requested by the Maharashtra government had to return empty since the state did not arrange for passengers to come to the station.