India is rebuilding trains as rolling hospital wards, refitting coaches into care facilities with 16 beds. Indian Railways is modifying 20,000 carriage coaches, for a total of 320,000 new isolation pods, announcing the program on the same week COVID-19 cases increased by 1,637 infections and 38 deaths. Sports stadiums are also being deployed: Assam’s Sarusajai stadium will hold 1,000 patients, while Chandigarth’s complex will become a temporary jail to impound those who violate lockdown policy. (Singh 2020).
Using trains for public health and education is not a new idea. When the Canadian Pacific Railway opened, special purpose carriages were a regular part of the route. Trains brought health care and education to previously unreachable places. Children saw a teacher once-a-week in a classroom car, then homeschooled until the next whistle stop. The Trans-Siberian railway and Russia’s rail system offered options like mobile therapy.
FIVE REASONS FOR USING TRAINS AS MOBILE MEDICAL SYSTEM
Trains, with their flexible number of carriages, can be configured to custom purposes.
Another factor? Speed and access. Amtrak is the only railroad in North America that holds right-of-way service speed: many stretches of track are certified and maintained for speeds up to 100+ miles per hour (160+ kph) on routes with no other traffic.
A third factor? Idle. With the advent of air travel and the building of the United States Federal Highway System, trains were already second class. Add stay-at-home lockdowns and social distancing for those few who must travel, and you’ve got a lot of idle equipment.
A fourth factor? Expensive to maintain idle. Planes, buses, and trains are all idle. Planes can be parked, buses can use roads already serviced for general vehicles. But trains require tracks and that means specialized maintenance.
A fifth factor? Subsidized, anyway.
Proposal: use Amtrak train network as a mobile medical system. India shows that trains can easily be retrofitted as hospital wards, isolation units. And why not rolling ventilator-ready beds with the respiratory equipment already installed? Governor Andrew Cuomo announced New York will send medical equipment to the next peak place. The virus is a rolling phenomenon: a rolling response is a good option.
The United States Transcontinental Railroad once transformed and united a country. Now, can rails help address the virus crisis? Afterwards, American rail needs rebuilding, anyway; repurposing medical cars will offer a chance to rethink Amtrak. Will Japan’s Shinkansen, upgraded with maglev trains reaching 374 mph for the Tokyo Olympics, be an inspiration? One hopeful step is Amtrak’s strategic agreement with Alstom (2016) to produce 28 next-gen equipment to replace the Acela Express now entering 20 years of service. The new transit format is due to roll out in 2022, a timeframe parallel with virus response needed now. Many countries have train systems; this idea is scalable. But at the moment, the United States is experiencing an urgent medical crisis. We need every idea and every option. Let’s use sections of Amtrak as a mobile medical system.
Alstom. “Alstom to provide Amtrak with its new generation of high-speed train.” 26 August 2016. https://www.alstom.com/press-releases-news/2016/8/alstom-to-provide-amtrak-with-its-new-generation-of-high-speed-train/
Congressional Budget Office. “Federal Subsidies for Rail Passenger Service: An Assessment of Amtrak.” https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2018-10/41955-Amtrak.pdf
Japan Rail. “New Maglev Trains for Debut at Tokyo Olympics” Tokyo Summer Olympics Guide. https://www.jrailpass.com/blog/tokyo-2020-olympics.
Singh, Charanjit. “India turns trains into isolation wards as COVID-19 cases rise.” Charanjit Singh, quoted in the article, explains that Chandigarh’s temporary jail is a day’s sentence to education on sanitation and public health, before being released that evening to go home and stay there. 2 April 2020. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/india-turns-trains-isolation-wards-covid-19-cases-rise-200402071515155.html
Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unpo