Back on track with the Metro?
The resumption of Metro services brings back a sense of normalcy for students and office-goers
The moment Rashmi S. saw him on Platform No.3 of Delhi’s Rajiv Chowk Metro station, she ran to hug him. The college sweethearts were meeting after six months of seeing each other only on WhatsApp video calls. “It was weird, like good weird…going beyond the colony after so long," laughs Rashmi, who doesn’t wish to share her surname since she had told the family she was stepping out at 8.30am on 13 September to meet her tutor.
For the 20-something couple, the Metro station in central Delhi was always the preferred meeting spot, whether they were on way to college or on a date, as they live at opposite ends of the Yellow Line. It was also the last place they had held hands before the pandemic locked us inside our homes, forcing governments across the country to put the brakes on their Metro services towards the end of March to contain the covid-19 outbreak.
On Sunday, when the two met after some 170 days and sat physically distanced, following the Delhi Metro’s rules, fear was the last thing on their minds. “There was so much checking, everything was sanitized. It felt very safe inside," says Rashmi. They spent the date riding the Yellow Line, between Samaypur Badli in Delhi and Gurugram’s Huda City centre, clicking pictures of each other and of Delhi buildings standing tall against a clear blue sky, while the five-odd fellow commuters smiled at them from behind face shields. “Being on the Metro felt like things were back to normal. Like Delhi was alive again," says Rashmi.
At a time when India is struggling with the world’s second highest number of novel coronavirus cases, the recent phased and guarded reopening of Metro services across cities, including Lucknow, Chennai, Bengaluru and the Capital, brings back a sense of normalcy after months of uncertainty.
Cabs and autorickshaws emerged from the shutdown a few months ago but they don’t evoke the same joy, ease or economy of travel that the Metro does. It’s not just about getting from point to point: The Metro is also about familiarity of routes and faces, chance encounters and people-watching, even catching up on sleep and waking up just in time to hop out. Most Metro services bring everything—friends, family, offices, hospitals, malls, markets—closer for well under ₹100 for the longest ride. While millions of Indians still choose to stay away from public transport for fear of contagion, thousands of others are back on the Metro out of necessity or choice.
“The economy cannot revive without the reopening of the Metro. It has become our backbone, our lifeline," says public mobility expert Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director (research and advocacy) of the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment. Though she is glad the trains are running, she is concerned about people following the safety protocols. “This whole exercise can only be a success if we strictly follow the safety precautions. One small slip and everything falls apart," explains Roychowdhury, citing the examples of cities like Hong Kong and London, which continued to provide Metro services through lockdowns by adopting strict measures for physical distancing.
A moving window
India’s rapid transit systems may no longer be the technological marvel they were when the first one started in the 1980s in Kolkata, but they perform a magic trick every day: bringing together people from rich and poor households, offering a peek into city cultures.
Sumit Kumar has travelled on the Lucknow Metro train so often since it started three years ago that he can spot a tourist instantly. “If someone enters from Hazratganj in the evening, bags of chikankari in hand, you know they are visitors," laughs Kumar, 28, a photographer. When he took the Metro for the first time after it restarted, on the afternoon of 7 September from Hazratganj to Munshi Pulia and back, he was nervous as well as excited to see his city “running again". “I was a little anxious about whether it was safe but once I was inside, it felt so familiar and normal that I forgot all my worries."
That’s the comfort of Metro, points out sociologist Santosh Desai, who terms the public transport mode the “surrogate" of the city. “In the pre-covid era, the Metro was that unremarkable daily part of our lives that simply dropped us at our destinations. Now, when we are all craving a ‘normal’ life with a fixed routine, the train becomes very important, giving a clear direction to our day, an idea of a routine."
Both Usha Rao and Harsha Shah had been craving this kind of routine for six months. Rao, 32, a fitness expert, was tired of hosting online spinning classes from her Indiranagar home in Bengaluru. On the morning of 10 September, she took the Purple Line to Mysore Road to meet office colleagues who had discouraged her from taking the Metro. “People are very sceptical but Metro is the best way to beat traffic, and given the precautions the authorities had taken, I felt safer," says Rao.
Shah, 29, a public bank employee in west Delhi, too believes the Metro is better. She was going to work through the lockdown, spending an hour daily to find an autorickshaw or book a cab, paying close to ₹500 for a 7km ride, only to reach office late. “Almost 3 hours of my life every day were spent on the commute—first finding a taxi and then being stuck in traffic (post lockdown). The past months just went by, running between office and home," she says. “This reopening is an answer to my prayers," adds Shah, who started using the Delhi Metro’s Blue Line from 9 September. It cuts her travel time by 70% and leaves her with enough time to keep her Instagram food page, @mummassecretchefofficial, updated.
That same evening, Aakriti Bhardwaj, a college student, took the Blue Line from her home in Vaishali, adjoining Delhi, to meet her friends in Connaught Place. Like many on the train, it was Bhardwaj’s first outing since the lockdown. “I was shocked by the emptiness of the station," she says. When Bhardwaj first arrived in the Capital in 2017, after finishing schooling from her home-town Lucknow, she took the Metro from the railway station to Vaishali, where she now stays. “It was the first time I was seeing a Metro. I was at the Rajiv Chowk Metro station, carrying my luggage and waiting for the train. As soon as it reached, a wave of people pushed me inside. I didn’t have to do a thing. And the same way, I was pushed out at the other end," says Bhardwaj, bursting into laughter.
Her favourite part about Metro travel, and the thing she missed most, is observing people’s clothes. “I have got so many ideas about matching outfits just from the ladies’ compartment. It’s a window to the latest street fashion," says Bhardwaj, who is planning to take the Metro trip on Sunday to the Sarojini Nagar market.
A city has arrived
Digging tunnels and constructing elevated corridors to build hundreds of kilometres of track shooting out in every direction is a mad feat of engineering meant to deliver on the promise of a better quality of life. While India’s largest and busiest Delhi Metro system, built at a cost of ₹70,000 crore, with a network of over 250 stations connecting Delhi to several satellite cities, might not have helped reduce pollution or discourage people from buying personal vehicles, it did seamlessly become part of our lives, giving the Capital an international feel.
Chennai’s Sri Krishna A., who describes himself as a “Metro enthusiast", can’t forget the day he first saw the Delhi Metro during a family vacation years ago. “It was like I was in an international city, the kind I had seen only in Hollywood films," recalls Krishna, 25, who works in an IT company.
Krishna is such a big fan of the Metro that he was among the first commuters during the opening of every phase of the Chennai Metro. And when his city’s Metro reopened on 7 September, he was there in the morning to enjoy the first ride. “I was a little anxious about safety but there weren’t many people and there were enough sanitizers around the stations and in the train," he says.
There’s enough research to show that public transport can be risky during the pandemic. A recent study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, says the covid-19 virus can spread readily in a closed setting like public transport. Yet, in France, Japan and the UK, where public transport is fully functional, the transit systems haven’t been the super-spreader sites one would expect. Why? “Passengers are paying attention to safety guidelines. They are wearing masks, commuting in silence (speaking is an effective disperser of virus-infected aerosol), distancing and sanitizing," explains Roychowdhury.
She reiterates the need to follow safety rules to remove the fear associated with public transport. “There’s going to be a spike in personal vehicles, given the current situation, which means more pollution. This pandemic has given us the perfect chance to rethink public transport."
Rashmi, meanwhile, has decided to meet her boyfriend at the station after a 10-day gap. “It will help us to know whether either of us has been infected. We have to be responsible; I have no desire to sit at home for another six months."