Musafir Says

Cracking the Local challenge

OPINION: This is bound to happen, says this friend, referring to the stampede at Mumbai’s Elphinstone railway station on September 28. She is quite casual, a hardy Mumbaikar, who has grown up in the city and familiar with the city’s promises and tragedies.

3,202 passengers died and 3,363 were injured on the suburban railway network in Mumbai in 2016. An average of eight people were killed daily on railway tracks in 2016.  Eight people dead on average every day!

As many as 1,798 people, more than 50 % of the total fatalities, died while they were crossing the tracks. Other reasons were falling from trains (657), hitting the pole (8), slipping through the platform gap (13), electric shock (34), suicides (35), natural death (524) and others (133).

Falling from trains led to the highest number of injuries (1,498) on the suburban railway network in 2016, revealed statistics compiled by the Government Railway Police (GRP).

It is estimated that Mumbai suburban trains have a Super-Dense Crush Load of 14 to 16 standing passengers per square metre of floor space. Even in the 12-car trains, with 33% more space, congestion has not eased dramatically. It is now at just over 12 persons per square metre.

Talk to an average Mumbai resident, and they are really blase about the state of Mumbai locals. Actually many are actually pretty proud of the local trains. BBC even made a pretty laudatory programme on Mumbai’s local trains. “The local trains are very efficient,” say the residents.

Mumbai Suburban Railway consists of exclusive inner suburban railway lines augmented by commuter rail on main lines serving outlying suburbs to serve the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, according to Wikipedia.

Spread over 465 kilometres, the suburban railway operates 2,342 train services and carries more than 7.5 million commuters daily. By annual ridership (2.64 billion), the Mumbai Suburban Railway is one of the busiest commuter rail systems in the world and it has some of the most severe overcrowding in the world.

The Mumbai local railway network branches out through three main lines – Central, Western and the Harbour, each connecting a distinct part of the city to another. Mumbai locals operate at an average speed of 32 kmph (slow trains) and 39 kmph (fast trains).  The trains have are no AC locals, or even coaches – possibly unique in a city of its size.

Of course, Mumbai is particularly challenged over infrastructure – congested roads, overcrowded public transport, poor planning, delays in implementation, increasing overpopulation – all have stretched this megapolis of about 20 million to far beyond the limits.

The city was built in, and for, another era.  Its its heyday under the British, and in the decades following independence, the socio-economic centre of town was its southern tip. As a result, the main commuting routes stretch north to south.

Activists have demanded that railway authorities should first decongest station to bring down the number of injuries. Solutions are possible, even in the short term. The city needs to look the bullet train, whose efficacy for the city’s transport is doubtful at best. Instead the Mumbai locals need to be faster, increase frequency to 2.2 minutes, and the number of trains. A switchover to electronic signalling systems. The lines must be fenced off. The coaches need to make for more standing places (just compare them to Delhi Metro’s excellent coaches). There are enough studies done and experts who can help. The governments – local and federal as well as past and present have been ridden with corruption and tended to populism, which has also held any real improvements that take time.

The new railway minister has called for a safety audit. Once again. There was specific warning about this foot over bridge.  Just about no one in Mumbai thinks anything will change on ground. Announcing schemes – done. Changing names – of course. Calling for improvements – why of course. Actual progress – that’s for the future, right?

Musafir Namah Bureau


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