Every day, 70-year-old Kasturibai Tekade crosses the busy railway tracks close to her home with a basket full of green vegetables on her head, to set up shop a few metres from one of several “black spots” on the line infamous for the large numbers of people who are killed by trains on it.
Kasturibai knows the risk only too well — her 23-year-old son died after being hit by a train at that spot some 12 years ago. But she, and the other residents of Reti bunder and Datta chawl, have come to accept death as part of their lives.
Nearly 11,000 residents of these illegal settlements at the foot of a hill on Central Railway’s Mumbra-Kalwa stretch must cross the railway line in order to reach the highway that connects them to the rest of the world. They — and the Railways — have no option: it is not possible to build a foot overbridge (FOB) at that spot, identified in Railway records as “Km No. 38/1-16”.
So, between March and August this year, what the Railways tried instead, was three seemingly simple interventions at 22 locations between Thane and Kalwa, which saw 88 deaths between January and November 2018 — the worst black spot, with 21 deaths, being Km No. 38/1-16.
And the interventions, based on principles of cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics, have shown results.
First, in order to help people gauge more accurately the speed of an oncoming train, five sets of sleepers at intervals of 100 metres have been painted yellow, with the nearest set of these sleepers about 150 m from the black spot. The idea is for people to watch how quickly the yellow sleepers are being swallowed as the train approaches them.
Second, a “whistle board” has been put up 120 m from the spot, asking the motorman to blow the hooter with breaks in between, described as a “staccato horn”. Research suggests the human brain reacts better to a staccato horn than to a single, long blast.
Third, a huge board with a picture of a man with vivid expressions as he is being hit by a train, has been put up at all locations.
Between March and August, these 22 locations saw 27 deaths — a 44 per cent lower number than the corresponding period in the previous year. Deaths on the full stretch between Mumbra and Kalwa have come down by 81 per cent over the same period, records show.
K K Asharaf, Senior Divisional Security Commissioner, Railway Protection Force, Central Railway, said: “This is one of the effective measures we have found, which have shown an impact in reducing trespassing deaths. We will be carrying out repainting of yellow sleepers in December, as they have faded over the months. We will also carry out these interventions at other locations to observe their impact.”
Biju Dominic, a consultant with Final Mile, the company that designed the interventions for Central Railway, said: “Bridges cannot be made at every location as these are illegal settlements, but we have to find a way to reduce such deaths.”
A similar experiment carried out by Final Mile on a 1-km stretch at Wadala resulted in a 75 per cent reduction in the number of deaths at the end of a year. The Railway has asked Final Mile to implement the innovations at other critical locations such as Diva and Kurla now.
Dominic said 90 per cent of deaths occurred at isolated spots between stations where people don’t cross in large numbers, and 85 per cent of victims were hit in broad daylight. “Our observations led us to believe that people become overconfident, which makes them less cautious. In this situation, a staccato horn and painted sleepers have a better chance of reducing deaths than a traditional awareness campaign,” Dominic said.
Jayant Panduram Shindi, an autorickshaw driver who lives in Datta chawl, said, “It has helped to have motormen honking while passing through this section. It grabs people’s attention, and provides adequate warning.” Shindi said his wife and he ensure that their three children do not cross the line unaccompanied.
The Government Railway Police (GRP) has identified some 128 black spots on Mumbai’s suburban railway network. Most of these spots are the result of poor connectivity across the tracks, which results in trespassing.
GRP records show trespassing is the biggest cause of deaths on tracks, and accounts for half of all accident deaths on Mumbai’s suburban network. An average eight deaths occur on the suburban network every day.
Of the 2,981 deaths in 2018, more than 54 per cent (1,619) were due to trespassing. In 2017, the ratio was nearly the same: 1,651 out of 3,014.
Both Central Railway and Western Railway have been carrying out awareness campaigns, creating infrastructure, imposing penalties, and shutting down level crossing gates in an attempt to reduce deaths on the tracks.