Crumbling structure

Mumbai’s suburban rail network ferries millions every day, but the stations and the infrastructure are in a pathetic state. The Elphinstone Road station stampede was a tragedy waiting to happen.

Published : Oct 11, 2017 12:30 IST

Passengers caught in the stampede at the Elphinstone Road station on September 29.

Passengers caught in the stampede at the Elphinstone Road station on September 29.

Twenty years ago, the Elphinstone Road station in Parel in Mumbai was an innocuous little station that served mainly local residents. Such was its unimportance that fast trains did not stop there. Located in Mumbai’s mill district, it had witnessed rush hours once but as the mills rapidly shut down, the number of people using the station dwindled. In the mid 1990s, when the mills’ land began developing into massive commercial and residential complexes, the little station saw a resurgence in commuters and has become an extremely busy one in recent years. But, in spite of the increase in traffic, nothing was done to improve the infrastructure.

Until a stampede struck. On September 29, because of a sudden downpour, hundreds of commuters took shelter under whatever covering was available at the station. One of these was the bridge. Reportedly, a flower hawker shouted at someone, saying “ phool gir gaya ” (the flowers have fallen). Some people heard it as “ pool gir gaya ” (“ pool ” in Hindi means bridge). Fearing that the bridge was collapsing, people began surging towards the exit, triggering a stampede which killed 23 people, including an 11-year-old boy.

Sadly, it took a carnage to jolt the Central and State administrations into looking at the pathetic state of Mumbai’s local stations. Mumbai’s suburban railway is the city’s lifeline. Eighty lakh people use 3,500 services on four arterial lines every day. The load on the local trains is high and observers say that their capacity has reached a saturation point. What happened at the Elphinstone Road station is symptomatic of the larger malaise afflicting Mumbai’s suburban railway system.

“For years commuters have been complaining of overcrowding at the foot overbridge [FOB], sending photographs and videos to the authorities; yet, no attention was paid to it. Eventually, an additional FOB was sanctioned but it remains stuck in red tape,” says Subash Gupta, president of the Rail Yatri Sangh, Mumbai, and member of the Zonal Railway Users’ Consultative Council.

“The authorities have begun to investigate the incident. They need to find out why this incident took place. Those responsible for the neglect of infrastructure should be arrested. Only then will they take these issues seriously,” an irate Gupta told Frontline . He says the increase in the commuter population is not a sudden phenomenon. Over the past five to eight years, since Parel became home to big corporations, malls, entertainment centres and restaurants, the numbers have increased multi-fold. The Railways, the government and the municipality should have improved the facilities accordingly. Increasing the number of tracks and trains does not solve the problem. It has to be a comprehensive plan which includes station infrastructure.

The Elphinstone Road station has probably not changed much since it was built in the late 1800s. Since then, it has had only one ticket counter and two platforms, totally inadequate for the numbers that use the station and for the 12-coach trains that ply on the route. The lone FOB is so narrow that it is always packed tight after the arrival and departure of trains, says Rajesh Dalvi, a commuter who works in a bank in Nariman Point. “The stampede was an accident waiting to happen. Several stations are in a similar condition; in fact, some are worse. If they don’t improve the infrastructure, the number of such terrible incidents will only increase,” he says.

Neglect and apathy

The Greater Metropolitan Region of Mumbai has 140 stations serviced by local trains. This is the main and preferred mode of transport used by citizens. Its four routes—the Western line, the Central line, the Harbour line and the Trans-harbour line—operate from the south to the north of the city. Buses, taxis and autorickshaws take care of the east-west corridor. There is a complex and efficient structure of feeder buses to the stations which works quite smoothly. Unfortunately, in recent years, the rapidly increasing population has put severe pressure on the local rail network. In spite of many studies conducted on the situation, nothing gets done for some unfathomable reason, says a railway official who does not want to be named.

“To upgrade, we need to acquire more land in the island city. There is little land to start with and it is extremely expensive. Most times, decisions fall through the cracks as too many authorities are involved. Both the Central and local government railway authorities have a stake in Mumbai’s suburban rail. For instance, the Central line is operated by Central Railways. Local services and outstation trains run on the same tracks that ferry freight [Mumbai is a major port]. There are discussions to segregate the suburban corridor from national tracks and a few projects have been commissioned in patches. But land remains a major issue,” he says.

Rajendra B. Aklekar, author of Halt Station India , a book about the nation’s first railway, which began in Mumbai, has a deep understanding of Mumbai’s local railway. He says: “Mumbai never got any alternative transport. Unlike many other cities, the local city government or State government did not develop its own mode of transport. It has always depended on the Central Railways for its local transport. We had a sturdy tram network that was shut down in 1964. After that, there has been nothing. They have been making various plans and studies since the late 1960s, spending money on them, but all it has produced is spiral-bound reports that are now stacked at MMRDA [Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority] offices and available for a fee!”

Aklekar says the Railways can still upgrade the existing suburban network by installing modern signalling, cab signalling, working out a unique timetable and increasing services as needed, but there will always be limitations. A Central government-run railway, he says, will have national priorities and hence there is a need to segregate this completely. Additionally, with so much usage, the wear and tear of the city infrastructure is very high with just a two-hour maintenance window in the night which is not enough to keep such a high-volume system going. Expanding the infrastructure gets more difficult because building foundations for new bridges, pillars, girders and so on has to be done while keeping the network in operating condition.

Dedicated corridors

He suggests that what Mumbai needs is its own transport network and coordination between various modes of transport, something like the Transport for London, a local government body responsible for the transport system in London. There are a large number of services and passengers in big cities such as Tokyo, but the services there are run on the lines of metro trains. In Mumbai, however, these are run as a commuter railway with open-door trains and do not have dedicated corridors. As a result, there are level crossings at multiple points, slowing the trains and affecting their punctuality (with the given density of services). Adding to the railway’s woes, Aklekar says, is that at 18 paise per kilometre, it is the cheapest and fastest mode of transport in the city.

In 2015, Suresh Prabhu, Union Railway Minister at that time, announced that the Mumbai Suburban Railway had incurred a loss of Rs.3,394 crore in the three years ending 2014-15 because of the highly subsidised fare structure. He said that since efforts to increase the fare met with protests, they had to find alternative sources of revenue.

There are few suburban railway networks in the world that earn a profit. That is not the intention of the state when such services are instituted. In India, two-thirds of commuters hold highly subsidised season passes, usually for three months which only pays for the cost of 15 trips, or seven days of travelling. This subsidy is part of a social wage. According to figures given by the Railways, the Western Suburban line (all India) incurred a loss of Rs.169.43 crore in 2015-16. It is not a big amount in the overall context and must be absorbed by the state as a part of its responsibility to provide a service, says an observer. If Mumbai’s suburban railway stops, the city will come to a grinding halt. Spread over 319 route kilometres and approximately 140 stations, it operates 3,500 services a day from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m. From Mumbai’s famous dabbawalas to the working class, finance executives, domestic helps, school and college students, traders and fisherfolk, there are few who do not use the locals. During peak hours, a single 12-coach train carries up to 6,000 commuters.

“The problem is they [officials] sit in air conditioned rooms and look for solutions for Mumbai’s local railway. It should be mandatory for every agency involved in the railway to travel and audit the routes. Only then will they understand the state of the stations and the plight of the commuters,” says Subash Gupta. “Mumbai’s commuters, made up primarily of the working class, are critical to the economy. Treat them with some respect and humaneness.” Gupta says people talk about Mumbai’s resilience after an accident. But he feels resilience has nothing to do with it. Workers, particularly daily-wage earners, have no option but to get on with their day. It is sheer survival and the railway plays a vital role in it.

Suvarna Bharve travels from Vasai to Churchgate every day during non-peak hours (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.). “The trains used to be empty and I took the job so I will not have to battle for space. Now, if I am lucky I get to sit at Dadar.” She says she has been using the train for 20 years and finds it is getting harder by the day.

It may appear terribly bleak when incidents such as the stampede occur. Yet, some efforts have been made to tackle the pressure. The Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation, constituted in 1999, has executed three World Bank-funded projects under the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP). One of the projects led to the new violet trains plying on the tracks. MUTP has plans to convert all the suburban network trains into metro-like trains (closed door and AC), tenders for which have been published on its site.

A day before the stampede, Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal was in Mumbai to flag off 60 new suburban trains. This was the biggest exercise in augmenting the struggling train services. Subash Gupta and a group of activists have been consistently saying that increasing the number of coaches was not the only solution. Installing escalators, creating multiple entry and exit points, clearing pathways inside stations, linking FOBs and so on are as necessary for a smooth commuting experience.

Recommendations ignored

Interestingly, a Standing Committee on Railways addressed the issue of overcrowding and infrastructure in a 2014 report on suburban rail in India. It observed that platforms were too narrow and their heights irregular, which was dangerous when passengers got on and off trains. It also specifically said that railway bridges were narrow, which “could lead to a stampede-like situation during peak hours”. Clearly, the recommendations of the committee to follow prescribed standards for suburban railway infrastructure have been completely ignored.

Piyush Goyal announced a slew of audits and investigations after the stampede. According to railway sources, officials from several government bodies, including the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), have begun inspections of all local stations. Immediate decisions include increasing the number of escalators and FOBs. A few days before the stampede, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of a bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad.

After the tragedy, commuters were not in the mood to talk about high-speed trains, saying all they wanted were clean and safe platforms and coaches. Meanwhile, work on Mumbai’s underground metro is being carried out at an aggressive pace. This project, it is hoped, will ease the load on the suburban network. However, it is only a single line and is definitely not a solution to ferrying the city’s millions.

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