Living with the Railways

Living with the Railways

Train track trespassing is the largest cause of daily unnatural deaths in Mumbai. And little is being done to change that

Each time she hears the drone of an approaching local train’s horn,Bharati Surve is gripped by a fleeting anxiety about her two-year-old daughter Vaishali,playing outside their matchbox dwelling less than 3 metres from Mahim station’s Harbour Line track. Two months ago,a young boy in Bharati’s neighbourhood was run over by a train. Unable to live with the fear,she now ties Vaishali’s leg to their house door with a rope. She doesn’t feel apologetic,she says,for now she’s sure Vaishali won’t venture close to the railway tracks while she is busy with her chores.

Track trespassing is the largest cause of daily unnatural deaths in Mumbai,as per police records. On an average,a person dies every four hours after being hit by a local train in the city. In five years from 2008 to 2012,10,909 deaths and 3,577 injuries were reported as a result of track-trespassing across the Central,Harbour and Western lines,according to information sourced from the Central Railway and Western Railway.

Those like Bharati staying near the Mahim station cross six railway lines to get from east to west,where a common municipal tap is their only source of water. On their way back,they cross these tracks carrying buckets full of water. The two nearest municipal schools are also in the west.

Railway authorities in Mumbai do not have a count of the number of families such as Bharati’s living along suburban railway tracks,but admit that nearly 60 per cent of its network track length of 426 km is dotted by slums. Given that daunting statistic,the Railway authorities say that building foot overbridges or stationing guards to prevent track trespassing has so far proved unfeasible.


Adbul Kazi,an NGO worker in the Bengalipura slums close to Wadala station,says men in the 16-40 age group are the most reckless and hence comprise the biggest group of fatalities. “Warning signs,announcements and past incidents have not deterred people,” he says.

What has met with success is an experiment undertaken by Final Mile,which describes itself as a “behaviour architecture firm”. It chose Wadala station,that had seen 42 deaths due to trespassing in 2009,for the experiment. A large pictorial tableau of a horror-struck man getting mowed down by a train was placed at either end of the platform. The cement slabs holding the railway tracks were painted yellow so that people could have a reference point to judge the speed of the moving train,looking at how quickly the yellow slabs diminished under the train. And motormen were asked to change the honking pattern from a long “Po” to two-three short “Po,Po,Po” to attract more attention. They were also asked to horn twice,once when the train was 200 metres away and the second time when it was 100 metres away.

After these changes,the number of fatalities at Wadala station came down to 10 in 2010 and 12 in 2011.

However,while the successful Wadala experiment was to be repeated at five other stations,the urgency with which Railways first pursued the project has already dissipated.

Ram Prasad from Final Mile said that solutions such as foot overbridges were useless since people were known to cross the tracks even if these were available,preferring a “short cut”. “Everyone knows that stopping trespassing is never going to happen. The only thing we can do is minimise the number of deaths by stimulating a few behavioural changes,” says Prasad.

Amina Bi,living in the Bengalipura slums close to Wadala station,lost her eldest son Naeem two years ago after he was hit by a speeding train. Criss-cross tracks in the mid-section between GTB Nagar and Wadala stations,where tracks for CST- and Andheri-bound trains bifurcate,often create confusion in the mind of the trespasser,who ends up misjudging the track which the approaching train will finally take.

“In such a scenario,people often underestimate the speed of large moving objects by 40 per cent,as proven by the Leibowitz Hypothesis (which says that humans are very bad at judging the speed of oncoming large objects). Confusing tracks add to this misjudgment. The yellow painted slabs give an idea of the train’s speed,” says Prasad.

Officials from the Railways state their responsibility is limited to building foot overbridges,even as P Malegaonkar,public relations officer,Central Railway,says it is impossible to have them mid-stretch. “Slums that have come up near the tracks are encroachments. It is therefore not feasible to build FOBs (foot overbridges) along mid-stretches,” says Malegaonkar.

Another reason for the slow progress on the problem is that multiple agencies own land in the vicinity of the railway tracks,from the Railways to the collector,state revenue department,Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation,Mumbai Port Trust etc. “There is no single agency that wants to take the responsibility of protecting their land,” says P H Warwadekar,a retired town planning expert of the MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority).

Besides,officials and local politicians have a stake in letting the encroachments continue. “There is no political will to rehabilitate these slum-dwellers or to stop newer ones… everyone has their vested interest in letting them remain,” Warwadekar says.