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The Lifeline Express, the world’s first train-hospital's incredible journey

M3 India Newsdesk Jul 24, 2018

With more than 1.37 lakh surgeries since its inception in 1991, The Lifeline Express, the world’s first train-hospital, has become a boon for remote areas with threadbare infrastructure.

So far, more than two lakh medical professionals, including volunteer doctors, have donated their services to the project. Since it first started from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus on July 16, 1991, the train has provided a multitude of medical services to poor patients. In the past 27 years, the Lifeline Express has held 192 medical camps across the country.

The seven-coach train is a flagship project of Mumbai-based NGO Impact India Foundation, the Indian Railways, and the Union Ministry of Health. At present, the train is stationed at Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. After Mirzapur, the train will go to Unakoti (Tripura), Arrah (Bihar), Bellari (Karnataka), Purnia (Bihar), Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Odisha. It will spend about a month in each destination to cater to poor patients there.

At each camp, Lifeline Express provides several medical services, which include:

  • Orthopaedic treatment: Correction of post-polio contractures, correction of club-foot deformities
  • Ophthalmological procedures: Cataract treatment
  • Audiometry: Surgical interventions for restoration of hearing
  • Aids, appliances: Hearing aids, spectacles, callipers crutches etc are distributed
  • Surgery for cleft palate
  • Family planning programmes
  • Epilepsy treatment
  • Connections with local health authorities and follow-up consultations
  • Immunisations and other preventive health programmes
  • Nutritional assessment and services
  • Promotional health awareness programmes in government schools

According to estimates, more than 1.37 lakh surgeries have been performed in the train. These include surgeries to restore mobility, vision, hearing, and correction of facial deformities. Free services for epilepsy and dental issues, and breast and cervical cancer screening are also provided by the locomotive hospital. It also has its own blood bank.

Cancer treatment

AK Jain, Senior Public Relations Officer, Central Railway, Mumbai said the Indian Railways has donated seven coaches to Lifeline Express. Two coaches have been donated, dedicated to work towards the prevention and control of oral, breast and cervical cancer, family health and general surgeries.

The train has three operation theatres, seven operating tables and a recovery room. It also has a pathology lab, a mammography unit, an X-ray unit, pharmacy, consultation cubicles, on board power generators, pantry and lodging for medical staff.

Doctors who have volunteered on the train-hospital said that availability of the state-of-art equipment on the train has made major surgeries possible. Medical students also offer their services during camps. While surgeries are conducted by senior doctors, post-operative care is often undertaken by local doctors.

The success of the project can easily be attributed to community participation, according to the medical community. Residents and NGOs offer assistance to the train-hospital at every stage, including food and laundry services, crowd management and accommodation for post-operative patients. Residents from rural areas say that the train is indeed a "lifeline" for those who can't wait for a long time to get treated at a government hospital or afford treatment at expensive private hospitals.

Training surgeons

According to Impact India Foundation, Lifeline Express has served more than 10 lakh poor patients in rural India with the services of two lakh volunteers. Senior doctors take up the responsibility of operations whereas post- operative care is done by the local doctors. It takes around three months of planning for each camp.

The hospital benefits not just the patients, but surgeons in smaller towns who are also taught to hone their skills. Camps also increase awareness about taking the right approach to healthcare among the rural population. Moreover, the train can also be used for relief and rescue during disaster scenarios.

The Lifeline Express has been listed as a ‘National Resource’ by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) for deployment during disaster and natural calamities. Many countries have replicated this model. Four such train-hospitals are operating in China while two are in South Africa. Bangladesh and Cambodia have boats that serve as clinics.


This story was contributed by Debdutta Mohanty, a Mumbai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

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