Killer lifeline

The alarming rise in the number of accidental deaths on Mumbai’s suburban railway network points to the urgent need for remedial measures.

Published : May 11, 2016 12:30 IST

Commuters trying to board an overcrowded train at the Borivali station in Mumbai.

Commuters trying to board an overcrowded train at the Borivali station in Mumbai.

IT is 5 p.m. on a weekday at Mumbai’s Churchgate station. The rush hour is beginning and every inch of free space on the four platforms is filling up fast. By 5:30 p.m. it is a sea of office-goers waiting to catch their regular train home. As each train approaches, a crush of people race to enter the coaches. Somehow, there appears to be a method in the madness because thousands of people eventually manage to find, if not a seat, at least a foothold in the compartments. It is not any better in the morning, say commuters. Peak hours begin as early as 7 a.m. for commuters to reach Mumbai’s business district or government offices by 9 a.m. Each day is a struggle, but there are few alternatives.

For lakhs of regular commuters this is a daily routine. Twice a day they push their way into crammed trains, travel long distances to workplaces, spending an average of four hours commuting. Mumbai’s suburban rail lines form a well-oiled system that transports a staggering 75 lakh people to various destinations every day. Unfortunately, the burgeoning city and its rapidly growing population are putting the local railway network under huge pressure and it is now struggling to cope with the massive overcrowding.

A dreadful consequence of the overcrowding and poor infrastructure has been the alarming rate of accidents and deaths on the tracks. Mumbai’s suburban railway network records an average of nine deaths on the tracks every day. The injuries sustained are innumerable. According to figures released by the Government Railway Police (GRP), there were 3,305 accidental deaths in 2015; the figure was 3,429 in 2014. For the January-March period this year, the GRP reported 694 deaths.

According to the railway police, Mumbai records the highest number of deaths across the world’s metropolitan cities that have a public rail transport system. Some 60 per cent of the deaths reportedly happen because of trespassing. The rest are owing to falls from trains, suicides or natural causes. The statistics show that in 2015, 846 people died after falling off trains or slipping through the gap between the train and the platform, which typically happens when coaches are overcrowded.

It took the case of 21-year-old Bhavesh Nakate, who slipped from a footboard and was crushed to death under the tracks in November 2015, for the authorities and even the commuting population to rise out of their inertia and address the issue. Nakate’s death is no different from the many reported daily. He jumped on to a moving train and held on to a pole at the entrance of a compartment that is meant as a support for standing commuters. As the train gathered speed, Nakate lost his balance and fell. In his case, however, the tragic incident was caught on a mobile phone by another commuter. The clip went viral and the outrage grew. Eventually, the Railway Ministry took cognisance of the case and the issue of accidental deaths and began to implement remedial measures.

“The problem is that at rush hour all trains are crowded. We heard about Nakate’s case but every day people put their lives at risk. He was unlucky. How much earlier does one come to manage a seat or standing space? Commuting to office is a nightmare,” said Rihan Majumdar, a banker who travels about 25 kilometres from the Andheri neighbourhood in the west to the business district of Nariman Point five days a week. “I do not step out of my area during the weekends or go near a train because it is so tough during the week,” he added.

“The accidental deaths are a grave problem which has to be addressed on a war footing,” said Subash Gupta, a member of the Divisional Railway Users’ Consultative Committee (DRUCC) of the Central Railways in Mumbai. The DRUCC looks after commuter issues and liaisons between passengers and the Railways. “Sometimes the injuries are so severe that it is sad to see them live in such an unfortunate state. For instance, a young boy losing both arms or both legs. What kind of life is that? ” he said.

According to Gupta, until quite recently the Railways did not consider it their duty to look after commuter safety, believing that their job was to run the trains and work the lines. However, ever since the media began to highlight the issue of accidents and poor infrastructure, the Railway Ministry has been specifically looking at Mumbai’s suburban railway problems and attempting to find solutions to problematic areas, he said.

Owing to the increase in accidents, several public interest litigation (PIL) petitions have been filed in the Bombay High Court. Last November, while delivering the judgment on a case where a man lost both legs, the court took serious note of the deaths and said: “[In] no other country would so many deaths not be taken seriously, in India we just sit on the sidelines and watch on.”

The court also said: “There is complete lack of vision and planning on the part of the Railways. The situation of overcrowding in the local trains has gone out of control.” It lamented that none of the authorities concerned were taking the issue seriously and that these deaths would continue to occur unless the Railways and the state took immediate steps to rectify the situation. “People are dying on the trains and the tracks daily and the authorities cannot continue to keep their eyes shut. If you act now and succeed in saving even just one such life, your actions will make a large difference.”

Rajendra B. Aklekar, who has written extensively on the Railways and documented the history of the Railways, said: “When 7.5 million indisciplined commuters travel every single day on Mumbai's open-door trains along unfenced lines, 10 dying daily is a low figure given the sheer number. Many fall off, some cross tracks, others climb on to the rooftop and what not. At about 11 paise per kilometre, it is the cheapest mode of public transit in the world. The reality is that Mumbai’s railway system has become saturated. The population kept growing, but the rail tracks did not. The local governments failed to see this and never built any alternative options like a sturdy metro system. Everyone that has to commute a significant length in this city falls back on trains.”

“Of course it is a tragic and real problem,” said Ravinder Bhakar, the chief public relations officer of Western Railway. “As the demand increases, we are working on fast expansion and improving safety features.” Bhakar said 60 per cent of the deaths were because of trespassing, irresponsible crossing of tracks —some times people have ear plugs on and cannot hear the trains coming—not using the foot overbridge and, in general, the lack of boundary walls at some critical areas. He said 80-90 per cent of those who died were male commuters between 25 and 35, the agile ones risking life and limb by jumping on to moving trains or hanging on to footboards.

Capacity enhancement has been given priority, Bhakar said. The Railways are introducing many more 15-car trains. Work on two lines in addition to the existing four lines has begun. With large numbers of commuters residing in northern suburbs such as Virar, track distances are also being increased. Furthermore, platform heights have been and will be increased. This is expected to solve the problem of people slipping through the gaps. Awareness campaigns have been launched and will be stepped up on how to be more careful while travelling, he said.

“The reality is that Mumbai is an island. It does not have the land to help the Railways expand. Besides, we face restrictions on the acquisition of land all the time. This stalls work and we run behind on projects,” Bhakar said.

The Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation (MRVC) is responsible for executing projects under the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) sanctioned by the Ministry of Railways. This includes Mumbai’s suburban railways. Speaking to Frontline on the challenges and the plans in place, MRVC Chairman Prabhat Sahai said: “With few alternatives available in the city, all the pressure is on the Railways. We need to find another solution in an all-weather transport system.”

Sahai said the MRVC had been working on the issue of accidental deaths and trespassing for a few years now but the increasing load on the trains made every solution that much harder. In July 2012, a study on trespassing on railway tracks, done by the JJ School of Architecture and commissioned by the MRVC, found that the main reasons for trespassing were that the platforms were too narrow and commuters preferred to cross the tracks rather than climb the foot overbridges, which were in insufficient numbers at stations. Senior citizens and physically challenged people find it hard to use platforms that have no ramps or climb the foot overbridges to reach the next platform.

The study said that human settlements along the tracks, small-time vendors on trains who often criss-crossed tracks to catch trains, people who did not buy tickets and ragpickers added to the trespassing woes. Additionally, the inadequate height of the fencing between tracks encouraged people to jump from the platform to the track and climb the fencing to reach the next platform, thus leading to serious trespassing.

In conclusion, it said that improving some of the amenities, such as the foot overbridges which were narrow and crowded, along with raising the height of boundary walls, using RCC to build them, and increasing the railings, would make movement on platforms smoother and lead to less trespassing.

Further, Sahai said, the MUTP, which began in the mid-1990s, had gone into the MUTP-II A and B phases, and had largely improved the local suburban railway network. This included conversion from direct current to alternating current, procurement of rolling stock, measures to control trespassing, and adding fifth and sixth lines between Kurla and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). MUTP-II A is expected to be completed by December 2016 and increase the passenger capacity by 35 per cent. MUTP-II B will add another 20-25 per cent capacity by 2019.

The MRVC has toyed with the idea of introducing automatic closing doors in coaches and reducing the seating space to create more standing room. Additionally, there has been a move by the State government to stagger office timings or give a 10-30 minute leeway past the official time to bring down the peak hour rush. The GRP, which has instituted ambulances at every station and enhanced the level of emergency care, recently asked the Railways to amend their policies and take accident victims to hospital without issuing a memo.

Mumbai’s lifeline

Mumbai’s local railway network, called the city’s lifeline, has four arterial lines, the Western, Central, Harbour and Trans-Harbour lines. Spread over 319 route kilometres via approximately 116 stations, the local railways operate 2,800 services a day from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m.

The suburban railway lines are fed by a complex network of buses, which make the two dependent on each other. Buses and taxis are an alternative form of commuting but cannot cope with the numbers or distances that the railways can. Local people may complain but agree that it is the most efficient, dependable and economical mode of transportation available to them. In fact, if the trains stop, the city comes to a grinding halt.

“Nothing can beat the efficiency of the Bombay locals,” said Prakash Mhatre, a railway employee who has travelled on the Virar fast for close to 25 years. “But I retire in a few months and I will be glad to see the last of my commuting days. It is time to go back to the village. Enough of Bombay’s madness.”

“In 2002, when I began work, it was not so difficult,” said Mahendra Jadav, a bank clerk who travels from Virar to Churchgate. “Now getting in is difficult and getting out even harder!” Jadav says the frequency of trains reduces from Borivali to Virar. Therefore, that line is always crowded. “I have seen many fall off the train. Fortunately, none of them lost their lives. But it has become very dangerous.”

Jadav also said that since residential accommodation was affordable in the northern suburbs, a large chunk of people live there and travel to the island city for work. The local train, while being the most efficient and inexpensive way to get around, is also the only mode of transport for long-distance commutes. Buses do not ply and would take too long even if they did. Adding to the problem are the industries that have come up in Virar. People need to commute northwards as well and again it is only the trains that can help them.

Mumbai’s suburban railway network traces its roots to the beginning of railways in India. Aklekar, in his book Halt Station India , says: “India’s first train ran in 1853 from Bori Bunder in the southern tip of the vertical island of Bombay—stretching 34 km northwards—to the town of Thana.” A decade later, another line began on the western side of the island. This came from Surat all the way down to Colaba (which was later discontinued and Churchgate became the last station). Eventually, as the city grew into a major business hub, the train became an essential part of public transport.

From Mumbai’s famous dabbawalas to the working class, finance executives, domestic helps, school and college students, traders and the fisherfolk, everyone somehow finds a place or, in today’s world, fights for a place on the train.

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