After the reopening of the railway routes following a 66-day corona-prompted shutdown, the passengers' initial rush for the apparently safe mode of transport was viewed as encouraging. The service re-started with eight pairs of inter-city trains on May 31. Eventually, the number of trains rose to 17, with the passengers' demand for rail travel increasing sharply. But it did not take much time for the passengers' early enthusiasm to begin evaporating. In a month of the re-start of the rail service, the inter-city trains found it quite hard to woe passengers in adequate numbers. Given the strict enforcement of safety measures like physical distance, with the trains accommodating 50 per cent of seating capacity, the rising number of unoccupied seats emerged as an upsetting development. On occasions, trains were seen operating with 70 per cent of their accommodations unoccupied. The railway authorities, evidently, were not prepared for this upsetting turn of events.
The railway management has identified some factors behind the sharp fall in the number of passengers. The most dominant among them is unabated rise in the COVID-19 incidence and the countrywide spread of the virus. A fear has also affected the other major communication sector, the inter-district bus service. But due to century-old presence in the communication sector and its unique style of operation, the problems facing the state-owned railway are typically its own. Nevertheless, online ticket system has been introduced, visibly, to avert the intending travellers' congestions before the ticket counters. The step is a wise and timely one in this dreadful corona-time.
True, availing train tickets online proved cumbersome on many occasions in the past. Making the general passengers adapt to a system they do not feel comfortable with only adds to their helplessness. But in the fast digitising world, lack of the elementary knowledge about online tickets' know-how may result in their being detached from the benefits of science. It warrants the imperative of the attainment of the basic digital literacy on the part of the educated segments in society.
The impact of the present trend of fall in the number of railway passengers, following their gestures of welcome in the beginning, means the sector is set to brace for huge monetary losses. Already the railway has incurred a loss of Tk 3.0 billion since its resumption on May 31. With just 17 pairs of inter-city trains carrying a fraction of the whole railway network's daily passenger load of over 200,000, the losses are feared to mount. The sector may not have thought of being mired in a deadlock such as this. Every year, the Bangladesh Railway adds new trains to its existing fleet during the two Eids. Against the backdrop of losses now being incurred, pressing new trains into service this year emerges as an impractical idea. The railway minister also hinted at that. But Eid-ul-Azha is not far away. With the festival just over a couple of weeks away, and the countdown to the village-bound Eid rush filling the air, the authorities may not be able to stick to their decision not to increase inter-city trains. The railway bosses ought to have preparations to tackle such emergencies with assured application of COVID-related public health protocols.