The Indian Railways suspended passenger trains across India until April 14 immediately after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 25. It was the first time in 167 years that Asia's oldest rail network had been suspended. The railway network has now decided to convert as many as 20,000 old train carriages into isolation wards for patients of the coronavirus.

Trains in India made into hospitals

The network is the world's fourth-largest rail operator and India's biggest employer, it already operates 125 hospitals across the nation, so it can expand into mobile beds. According to Johns Hopkins University, on April 1, India has recorded 4,288 cases of COVID-19 and had 117 deaths, which is a small number for a country with a population of 1.3 billion. While India's hospital system is not overwhelmed by coronavirus patients yet, re-purposed trains could help ease the pressure on hospitals if ever the number of patients increases.

The lockdown has put 67,368 kilometers of track out of use, and it has left thousands of passenger trains sitting idle. Freight trains remain operational to deliver goods. The bosses of the Railway have instructed each of India's 16 railway zones to identify non-air conditioned carriages that are not used on passenger routes to turn into hospitals and have them ready for use in case the number of patients goes up.

The first 5,000 isolation wards will be ready within a fortnight, and if needed, more carriages can be converted within 48 hours, according to the executive director of information and publicity at the Railway Board, Rajesh Dutt Baipai.

Each carriage was sanitized and will be able to accommodate up to 16 patients, including a doctor's cabin, nurses' station and space for medical supplies and equipment. The trains, as soon as it is ready, will be sent to any location that might be facing a hospital bed shortage. The local health authorities will also assign government doctors, nurses, paramedics and volunteers on the trains.

The government of India has also instructed railway factories to assess the feasibility of manufacturing stretchers, hospital beds, masks, medical trolleys, aprons, sanitizers and medical apparatus like ventilators for use in railway hospitals and other government hospitals.

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Indian Railways has experience in running hospitals on trains. In its 29 years of service, the hospitals-on-wheels has traveled across 19 Indian states and treated more than 1 million people. Launched in 1991, the Lifeline Express provides on-the-spot diagnostic, medical and advanced surgical treatment for adults and children.

The train is funded by the Institute of International Finance, international charities, Indian corporations, and individuals, and it started as a collaboration between the Indian Railways, the Impact India Foundation, and the Indian Health Ministry.

The hospital train is equipped to treat a variety of ailments such as cleft lips, cataracts, hearing problems, mobility issues, epilepsy, plastic surgeries, dental surgeries, cancer screening and more. The Lifeline Express has operation theater, treatment rooms, recovery wards, a pantry car, and accommodation for medical staff.

The coronavirus trains are not made to function as full-service hospitals, but local health officials will have the option of using them for COVID-19 patients who are not critically ill and just needs to be isolated for treatment.

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