Piyush Goyal-led Indian Railways has fallen short of its previous year’s freight loading figures, for the very first time in the last 40 years. With the freight loading figure at 1,209 million tonnes, it is almost 14 million tonnes short of its freight figures as of the last financial year’s end, according to an IE report. This comes even after the Indian Railways freight network was on a swift course to overtake the previous year’s record in the month of February 2020, when it had witnessed the highest freight loading figures. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the country by the mid of March, several regions experienced restrictions on movement due to the lockdown. This led to the partial restriction of business as well as industrial activities, so the requirement to transport goods also decreased.
However, by the end of February 2020, Indian Railways carried 4 million tonnes of more freight than it did by the end of the month of February in 2019. But in the month of March, Indian Railways carried 18 million tonnes less goods than the previous year. Eventually from March 18, 2020, the freight volume started dropping to about 50 percent. In the pre-lockdown period, Indian Railways loaded about 61,000 wagons per day, but the figure dropped to around 34,000 wagons per day during the ongoing lockdown. The power demand was already less by 10-15 per cent before the lockdown.
Indian Railways officials were quoted saying that the need to carry coal to power houses decreased, due to lesser power demand. Hence, in the month of March 2020, coal carried to the power plants was just about 50 million tonnes. This is a sharp decline of 10 million tonnes as compared to the previous year in the same month.
However, it has not been easy for the national transporter even during the COVID-19 lockdown period, when the freight operations and movement of goods trains was exempted. Presently, about 130 goods trains being loaded with cement are stabled at the unloading points in the premises. A railway official was quoted in the report saying that the usual business model of the cement industry was to not take cement to the godowns directly, but to dump them to the various construction sites from the trains itself. But now that the construction activities are not taking place, the manufacturers and distributors are not finding the space to keep them.
However, essential supplies such as food grains and vegetables are loading and unloading well, although the pace is slower, because of social distancing and reduction of labour. The officials added that even after the lockdown is lifted, the availability of labour might be an issue of concern.