An officer stands guard outside the empty Delhi Junction railway station. The railways ministry says converted carriages will be used only if serious cases are more than hospitals can handle © Bloomberg

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Indian Railways, one of the country’s most venerable institutions and the backbone of life on the subcontinent, has begun converting empty carriages into isolation wards as the nation’s coronavirus outbreak shows no sign of slowing despite a national lockdown.

India suspended its intercity and suburban passenger train services on March 22 when New Delhi began moving towards a nationwide lockdown that has halted most of the economy and all public transport services.

The shutdown marked the first time that India’s railway network, which was started by the British in 1853 with a 32km line from Mumbai to the neighbouring town of Thane, has completely suspended its passenger services.

Today, Indian Railways, one of the largest rail networks in Asia, typically carries 23m passengers a day on its suburban and long-distance trains, with more than 12,600 daily trains covering 115,000km of tracks.

But with passenger services halted and no clarity on when they might resume, the group is converting 5,000 coaches into isolation wards for virus patients following concerns that India’s under-developed healthcare system could be overwhelmed.

It has overhauled 2,500 coaches, creating 40,000 isolation beds. In total, it will create 80,000 isolation beds, which authorities said would be equipped according to medical advisories. 

The railway coaches have the advantage of mobility, allowing them to be deployed to outbreaks in small towns or rural areas with limited local healthcare infrastructure.

“Governments are looking at different assets they have and saying: ‘How can this support the fight against Covid-19?’,” said Junaid Ahmad, country director of the World Bank in India. “Every country has used whatever public space they have that they can cordon off. In New York, they’ve turned the Javits Center into isolation wards. In the Indian railways, you have the most amazing infrastructure that connects this country.”

However, the railways ministry said the carriages-turned-hospital wards would be used only if the surge of cases requiring hospital treatment was more than hospitals could handle. “These isolation coaches are being prepared only as a contingency to supplement the efforts of the ministry of health in fighting Covid-19,” the ministry said in a statement.

India’s coronavirus caseload has risen steadily, with the number of confirmed cases nearing 6,500 as testing is ramped up. But India’s underfunded healthcare system is struggling with a shortage of personal protection equipment, which has led to increasing infections among healthcare professionals.

At least 100 doctors and nurses have been infected.

This weekend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the chief ministers of Indian states are to decide whether to slowly relax restrictions on public movements or to extend the national curfew.

The decision comes at a sensitive time for Indian farmers, who have been hit by plummeting prices for their vegetable harvest and who are soon due to harvest their winter wheat crop.

Twitter: @amykazmin

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