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Thursday, April 19, 2007 

Deadly Mumbai Local Trains

(*Image Courtesy: SebastiĆ£o Salgado)
Picture of Victoria Terminus Station of Mumbai during peak hours. From Sebastiao's Exhibit titled 'Exodus'

Ask anyone who has lived in Mumbai about getting around in a local train and you'd likely get one of the following two responses based on who you are. If you are a local, people would assume you know the dangers of traveling it and give you the directions. If you are a foreigner, people would advise you to stay away from it or words like "once-in-a-lifetime" experience will be thrown around. Wall Street Journal carried a very interesting story on its front page today about the dangerous mumbai trains (Subscription required). There is also a video with it, which is embedded below.

Its no secret that Mumbai trains that are used by millions of city residents to commute to work and to get around are over crowded. During peak hours, the trains normally carry 2.5 to 3 times the number of people that it can safely carry. Thats about 550 to 600 passengers per car whereas the number to safely operate is 200 per car. Even during non-peak hours, the trains carry more than 1.5x the load.

This may seem like a feat accomplished, but it really is very dangerous. The train cars are normally packed like animals with no room to move your foot. If you shuffle your hands in or out of your pockets, you may get into a fight with the person standing nearby because you have just hit them with your elbow.

(*Image courtesy Wall Street Journal)

The trains are so crowded that to get to the door from inside the car, you have to plan three to four stations ahead and get up and start making your way outwards slowly. To do that, you also need to know which side - left or right - your station will arrive at. If one doesn't plan well, it is impossible to get out because if you try to hurry, the crowd will push you right back in. Besides there are people hanging on by the doors who may fall out if you push too much!

Every year many people die from crossing the tracks carelessly, but even more so from falling out of running trains overcrowded beyond capacity. Many people also fall between the platform and the train due to the jostle of getting in or out when the train arrives. You must be wondering how this could happen? Believe it or not, but many platforms are not aligned to the height of the train (due to repairs carried out on the tracks, which leave them elevated and the contractor didnt level them back down to save costs - i.e. more money in his own pocket). So on many platforms the train is usually a foot higher than the platform and there is a huge opening for anyone to fall through! (So much for the combined talent pool of India's millions of engineers)

No wonder when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie decided to hop on to a Mumbai train while shooting for A Mighty Heart, it made world wide news.

The train authorities are seen regularly on television boasting about the capacities mumbai train network handles. They use popular words like courage and strength to describe the commuters and win them over. Thats why, whenever I read someone from the rail administration being interviewed, I don't pay much attention. In fact, I run far from anybody who starts boasting about today's state of mumbai trains. (*Image courtesy: BBC)

I consider that both the Central Railway and the Western Railway (the two government agencies that manage Mumbai's entire rail network) have terribly failed the Mumbai residents. Its a failure of the top level management in not understanding the demands of a growing metropolis of one of the fastest growing nations. It is a failure of planners that are hired by the railway. It is the failure of the politicians who prefer united minorities who establish illegal slum-type settements over the tax-paying, honest but divided commuter public. The city authorities almost have their hands tied by these politicians when time comes to demolish these illegally occupied public lands next to railway tracks. Thats why new rail lines cannot be laid and the frequency of trains cannot be laid. (At least thats what the rail authorities like to claim). But as you probably see by now, these are just some of the many parties to successfully play the point-the-fingers game when blame comes around. And nothing ever gets accomplished. (*Image Courtesy: http://www.cbc.ca)

I am certain that there are many things that can be done if the railway authorities wanted to. In the next few weeks, I am going to gather some data on the railways performance in Mumbai and draw some comparables with other cities metro and public transportation. If anybody has smart suggestions as to what can be done, please post those in the comments. And if you are one of the affected Mumbai residents, please think about this deeper than usual. Lets not shurg and slide this as a part of life as many of us Mumbaikars have gotten used to doing.

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well u left out the pick pocketers on the stations...yes the rail network has become terrible ...but the commuters are to be blamed too ... lack of civic sense, utter bad looking station, over growing population....if you give citizens the facilities they dont use them properly ...from the govt point of view...yes desmukh n co have been slow ...compare mumbai to other indian metro cities today ..all seem to take on mumbai easily now ...lets hope for the best

You can get free access to Wall STreet Journal and those other subscription sites with a netpass from www.congoo.com

This was on CNBC last week.

@nikhil: yeah, i left out the pickpocketers and all. but dont you think thats trivial compared to the gross mismanagement going on at the top level? petty thievery and so on can be enforced and will actually go down if the trains are more frequent and as a result are less crowded.

I completely agree with your second point. commuters are to be blamed too. the WSJ article referenced in my post mentions that angry commuters sometimes pelt stones at the trains, set them on fire and beat the drivers. this is no way to live. I agree that many indians lack the civility and target their anger at public property and/or other citizens. However, I also believe that with better facilities, the overall quality and 'happyness' of life will increase and such incidents will go down.

Yes, all other metros seem to take on mumbai easily, but thats not a bad thing. Its a sign of progress for the country as a whole. Its also a sign of mumbai just left back there as it has always been. Mumbai as such has made very little progress with the rest of the nation. We need to change that and once again have mumbai lead the national change (just as it did with Quit India Movement, then after independence with stock markets and becoming the finance capital of India).

lastly, as you said, lets hope for the best. :)

@Richard Jennings
Thanks for the hint. I have an account with WSJ, but Im sure many readers who come across this post will find it helpful!

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About me

  • I'm Indyman
  • From Seattle, WA, United States
  • I am a Risk Management Consultant at KPMG. Before this, I was an Investment Associate at University Venture Fund in Salt Lake City, UT. My personal interests are in venture capital, private equity, technology, real estate, entrepreneurship, investing, stocks, india, patriotism, mumbai, hanoi, vietnam and life in the united states.
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