By Manya Prasad

How it works:

The railways have been asked to convert 20,000 coaches (which is 40% of total holding) into isolation chambers or wards. This decision was taken after a meeting amongst the Armed Forces Medical Services, Medical Department of various Zonal Railways, and Ayushman Bharat, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Due to the lack of sufficient and proper healthcare facilities and isolation areas, the government had to come up with this ingenious solution. 3.2 lacs of people are supposed to be accommodated in these 20,000 chambers. 5,000 isolation chambers have already been made in the various railway workshops. Each coach will hopefully house 16 patients.

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The process:

The original prototype was developed by Northern Railway, but there was input from all the other zones. The original plan was to convert the WGSCN (Second Class Sleeper Coaches) to the isolation chambers. It was also instructed by the officials that only coaches with more than 15 years of life would be taken up for conversion. It later came to light that many zones did not have sufficient numbers of WGSCN (Second Class Sleeper Coaches) coaches of more than 15 years vintage available for conversion. Thus, they concluded that all zones may also convert the Hybrid WGSCN, GS coaches and GS Hybrid coaches to make up the total number of coaches to be converted into isolation facilities. Around 482 coaches in the Central Railway zone,  338 coaches in the Eastern Railway zone, 208 coaches in the Eastern Central Railway zone,  261  coaches in the ECoR zone,  370 coaches in the Northern Railway zone,  290 coaches in the North-Central Railway zone, 216 coaches in the North-Eastern Railway zone, 315 coaches in the NFR zone, 266 coaches in the NWR zone, 473 coaches in the Southern Railway zone, 486 coaches in the South-Central Railway zone, 329 coaches in the South-Eastern Railway zone, 111 coaches in the South-Eastern-Central Railway zone, 312 coaches in the Western Railway zone and 133 coaches in the West-Central Railway zone.

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The logistic issues:

Fundamentally, the isolation chambers should be kept completely isolated or isolated to a maximum extent, but stations are areas of maximum traffic and movement. A huge number of protective gear will have to be procured and provided to the sanitation workers. They will have to provide additional hard and specific training to the railway staff. Furthermore, it will be difficult to convince the railway staff to work as healthcare facilitators. Essentially, restricted movement, sanitation maintainability, and toilet/bath discharge difficulties are required, whilst the narrow passages available do not suit the purpose. In hot weather, ventilation will quickly become an issue. The cost of coach modification and maintenance has to be taken into consideration. To avoid drainage contamination, effluent treatment is required. When there is a complaint of either electrical or water supply or any such coach related complaint, they have to be attended by railway staff as they are the only ones who have the technical knowledge. Converted rakes stabled at stations require logistics support in terms of power, watering, sanitation, etc. Such stations/platforms need to be cordoned off, and further its use may be barred for certain undefined periods.

The Pros:

It is a cost-effective option, even on account of losing a vast area of a scarce platform for total isolation and trained staff to deliver medical and other maintenance services. The modified quarantine coaches are excellent for easy transportation, especially in rural areas, where accessibility to permanent centres are limited. Where countries like Italy and the USA equipped with fascinating health-care systems are not able to handle this disaster, we have to be prepared for much worse.

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The aftermath:

If the lockdown lasts less than 3 months, the trains would have to be reopened. With 50% of the trains out of commission for the likelihood of 15 to 30 days. It will cause utter-chaos, especially because most of the coaches under conversion are general coaches. The majority of Indian population travels in general class. Stations will have large areas cordoned off, hence it will be very hard to resume normal travel and transportation. The staff might not be completely ready or safe to completely help or work for the railways.  If this situation lasts for more than 3 months, this action might be the only recourse.

The alternatives:

Railway officials who disagree with this decision, have offered up alternatives to the coach transformation. In urban areas where the social, strategic, and economic value of platforms is so high, there is no justification to lose them for medical purposes. Training centres, hotels, etc. as suggested are far more convenient alternatives. Hotels, Stadiums, Training institutes, Community halls, Function halls, Sports hostels, Private hostels, Schools, Colleges are believed by them to be more appropriate for the transformation.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!


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