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Friday, September 17, 2021

Off the rails

Daily life in Mumbai hinges on its railway network,and it’s absurdly easy to crash the system....

Written by Kavitha Iyer |
May 8, 2010 10:27:47 pm

Mumbaiites are rarely given to melodrama,so it was more than a little surprising to receive text messages on Monday evening warning that road traffic was like July 26,2005,when a 944-mm cloudburst crashed all services in the city. By 11 pm though,on an arterial road connecting the island city’s commercial districts with the dormitory suburbs,there were flashback scenes: A knock on the taxi window: how far can I ride with you? I’ve been walking an hour.

It was perspiration,not rain,plastering their shirts to their backs as thousands of Mumbaiites trudged home having found neither a seat in taxis being shared by strangers nor a toehold on lorries and trailers ferrying thousands more through traffic that growled,unmoving,for kilometres.

There was the same single-minded focus on getting the job done that is mistaken for the city’s “spirit” or resilience,but this time,there was more irritation than fear. After all,the railways had been given adequate,ample,advance notice that there could be trouble. Motormen on both the Central and Western Railway had threatened,weeks ago,that on May 3 they would run trains without eating a morsel,and would continue to do so until their demands were met. That should have been enough warning for the railway administration to put in place,at the outset,everything they scrambled together too late on Tuesday,after the havoc had been wreaked — motormen from other sections to fill in,motormen at various railway stations ready to reach trains abandoned midway,effective plans to beat possible bunching of trains along the tracks and security for those motormen willing to report for duty.

On Tuesday,some commuters also found long distance 18-coach trains being run as local services,something the railways had last done after the 2005 deluge. And,on Tuesday,a weak attempt to minimise chaos: An advisory against using the local trains unless unavoidable,something the railways did not do even after the train bombings of July 11,2006 or after the washout of July 26,2005.

The mismanagement was not limited to the railways. The state government,which jumped in to score brownie points on Tuesday evening by “intervening” and placating the striking motormen,was once again unable to coordinate traffic dispersal systems on Monday night. The traffic police neither opened extra lanes towards the suburbs,nor requested heavy vehicles carrying non-essential goods to postpone their trips by a few hours.

The result was precisely what the motormen would have wished for: a commuter class defenceless in the face of a railway shutdown.

The suburban railways are not called Mumbai’s lifeline without reason,and non-Mumbaiites will perhaps never really comprehend why train timings determine daily routines and college choices for the urban middle class,nor how their steaming interiors are home to a unique and thriving economy. The trains are possibly the best way to experience Mumbai,something Rahul Gandhi might vouch for.

The problem is,sturdy and dependable as it is on most days,it’s the sole system that can adequately deal with the extreme requirements of mass transportation in Mumbai. Take the example of the Bandra Worli Sea Link,the most major addition to city infrastructure over the past decade: at 43,000 cars a day,it injects a maximum of 4000 cars an hour into south Mumbai. Even assuming that every car has four occupants,that’s still less than the 18,000 people rushing through Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in just four trains,or 15 minutes,during peak hours.

The numbers,though they only present part of the story: The suburban systems of Western and Central Railway together ferry a little less than 7 million people to work and back every day. Mumbai’s bus service,run by the loss-making Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport undertaking (BEST) and still perhaps the best in the country,along with the taxis and autorickshaws carry about 4.5 million. But these are also feeder services — a good chunk of their passengers need the railway anyway. Evidently,it’s a simple mathematical problem.

Together,the two railways have inherited and operate India’s most extensive urban rail system,putting Mumbai at the forefront for urban studies on sustainable and energy-efficient transportation and development. But the unparalleled success of these two lines has been conversely been the average commuter’s biggest curse: Not only do crush-hour commuters travel 16 people to a square metre of space,but the city’s administration has also repeatedly shown its inability to put in place additional systems of transportation that complement the railways.

Refreshingly,parliamentarians were outraged enough on Tuesday to draw attention to the situation in Mumbai. And,across party lines for once,they effectively pressurised the Union government to act. The immediate crisis was over on Tuesday evening,but it won’t be the last.

Plans for an elevated railway corridor from Churchgate to Virar,almost absurdly ambitious,as well as the introduction of air-conditioned trains on the suburban section have not taken off. The Mumbai Urban Transport Project foresees more new trains,additional lines,quadrupling of tracks,all much-needed reinforcements,but nowhere near enough to deal with the estimated population of the Mumbai region in 2031,up from the current 16 million to 31 million.

For rioters,anti-migrant activists or striking motormen,Mumbai’s long suffering commuters remain comfortable targets.

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