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Passenger trains chugged out of stations on Friday for the first time in more than a month as the Union home ministry green-flagged Indian Railways to run special services to ferry stranded people home.

The Shramik Special trains will help millions of migrant workers, pilgrims, tourists, students, and others stranded by the lockdown return home.

The first train carrying migrant workers left Lingampally in Telangana for Hatia in Jharkhand at 5am. It was followed by trains on other routes, such as Aluva to Bhubaneswar, Nashik to Lucknow, Nashik to Bhopal, Jaipur to Patna, and Kota to Hatia.

Indian Railways will designate nodal officers and coordinate with states for “sale of tickets, social distancing and other safety measures to be observed at train stations and within trains", home secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote to states.

A senior official said the special trains are for people who are registered by state governments and are not open to the public at large. Passengers who have been brought to the railway stations by government officials of the sending state will be allowed to board.

Passengers will not have to buy tickets as the state governments concerned will have to coordinate and pay for the tickets, said a railway ministry spokesperson.

On Wednesday, the ministry had issued fresh guidelines for interstate movement to allow stranded migrant labourers, tourists, and students to go homes. States will have to arrange sanitized buses for transportation, it said.

More train routes and services are being finalized on the basis of demands by state governments, said a senior railway ministry official. “There will be more such trains in the next few days," the official said.

The relaxation will come as a relief to the millions of migrants stranded in the cities of their work, either at home or in temporary shelters, following the imposition of the lockdown on 25 March during which there was a complete ban on all modes of passenger transport. More than 600,000 are reported to be stuck in shelters alone.

The clamour for special buses and trains from states grew after thousands of desperate migrants set off for their hometowns on foot. Last month, Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar wrote to railway minister Piyush Goyal seeking special trains.

The railway ministry said the special trains will run from point to point on the request of both the state governments concerned according to home ministry protocols. The railways and the state governments will appoint senior officials as nodal officers for coordination.

“The passengers have to be screened by the sending states and only those found without symptoms would be allowed to travel. Sending state governments will have to bring these persons in batches that can be accommodated in the train to the designated railway station in sanitized buses following social distancing norms and other precautions," according to an official statement. It will be mandatory for everyone to wear face masks, it said.

Meals and drinking water will be provided to the passengers by the sending states at the originating station, according to the statement. On longer routes, the railways will provide a meal during the journey.

The government of the state in which the destination is located will make all the arrangements for passenger screening and quarantine, if necessary, and provide last-mile connectivity for the people to go home.

Nearly 1,200 migrant workers took the train that left Aluva, which is close to a major migration hub called Perumbavoor, at 6pm for Bhubaneswar.

“They were taken to the station in 30 buses. The passengers were identified using bilingual aid workers. Enough packets of food that will not perish immediately were loaded into the bogies," said V.S. Sunil Kumar, Kerala’s minister for agriculture, who is coordinating arrangements for the journey.

M.K. Nidheesh contributed to this story.

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