Every day, 7.5 million commuters board 2,342 trains operated by the Mumbai Suburban Railway – one of the busiest railways in the world.
These trains flow in and out of the Maharashtra state capital over a 465 kilometre distance spanning the whole metropolitan region. The essential part the railways play in daily life for millions of Mumbaikars is such that they are often referred to as the city’s ‘lifeline’. Yet there is a dark underside to this vital service.
Every year, the railways claim the lives of thousands of Mumbaikars. They get hit by a train and die on the tracks, as was the case with 26-year-old policewoman Pratiksha Shinde. Or they slip and fall in the gap between the train and the platform, as was the case with 50-year-old Bank of India staffer Alka Patade. Or they fall to their deaths from a moving (invariably packed) train, as was the case with 30-year-old Ravi Jha.
These tragedies occur on a daily basis. Eight people died on the railway every day in 2017, according to an IndiaSpend analysis. This, it says, is the “good news” because the death toll in 2017 was lower than in years past. 3,014 commuters died on the tracks last year, compared to 3,460 the year before.
“The essential part the railways play in daily life for millions of Mumbaikars is such that they are often referred to as the city’s ‘lifeline’. Yet there is a dark underside to this vital service.”
This incremental drop in deaths aside, the fact remains: travelling by train in the Mumbai is a potentially injurious and deadly experience. As Health Issues India reported earlier this year, Mumbai’s densely packed metros also function as carriers of infectious diseases, allowing for the spread of pathogens through the city.
Is this just part and parcel of living in India’s business capital? Is it the price commuters must pay as part of living and working in modern Mumbai?
It is certainly something they feel they have little or no control over. “It’s our daily routine,” one woman told CNN last year. “What can we do?”
Yet there are failures that must be addressed. Many lose their lives crossing the tracks – a consequence, CNN posits, of a dearth of pedestrian overpasses. This absence points to a broader issue: that the infrastructure of Mumbai’s railway is pitifully outdated. It is, as CNN puts it, “a transport system meant to serve an earlier century.”
The Mumbai rail system is hopelessly out of date and ill-suited to cope with its multi-million person demand. As a result, peak hour sees overcrowding on local trains to the tune of six thousand people – three times their seating capacity. Increasing capacity to suit demand, meanwhile, is a process often frustrated by bureaucracy. The same is true of updating rail lines and acquiring new land to enhance connectivity between different areas of the metropolitan region in order to discourage rail crossings.
“The Mumbai rail system is hopelessly out of date and ill-suited to cope with its multi-million person demand”
Outdatedness is an issue which plagues much of India’s railway system. Experts say infrastructural inadequacies are the result of increased demand. The 2016-17 period alone witnessed seventy million more Indians travelling by train. While this is good news for India’s economy, it also puts the onus on authorities – namely, Indian Railways (IR) – to modernise infrastructure so that services run safely and smoothly.
This is not being done.
“The rapid increase in the number of trains and passengers has far outpaced the small strides that IR has been making towards improving and developing infrastructure,” Chairman of the Indian Railway Board Ashwani Lohani wrote in The Economic Times last year. “We now have reached a stage where finding a balance between train operations and maintenance of infrastructure…is becoming increasingly difficult.”
As Lohani points out, India’s trains handle almost 23 million passengers and three million tonnes of freight on a daily basis. It cannot do so safely unless improvements are undertaken and a concerted effort is made towards upscaling railway infrastructure for the 21st century.
This is not to say that modernisation efforts will not be undertaken. 2015 saw the announcement of an investment worth 130 billion USD project to upgrade the railways over a five-year period. Yet much of the work remains unfinished and, as the current government enters its final year, concerns abound that upgrading India’s railways will be an item on its agenda that the Centre will not be able to tick off.