“And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable or whether you were born in this city or arrived only this morning or whether you live in Malabar Hill or New York or Jogeshwari; whether you’re from Bombay or Mumbai or New York… Come on board, they say. We’ll adjust.” –Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Mumbai is home to India’s corporate powerhouses, its entertainment industry, the dreams of an entire nation, and 22 million people who make this city come alive. The rhythmic clatter of local trains searing through the city is the sound of its beating heart (captured by A. R. Rahman in ‘O Saya’ from the soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire). The city is a cluster of islands that were reclaimed to form a single, sprawling land mass, flanked by the sea on two sides. Owing to geographical constraints, growing towards the north was the only way this city could expand and accommodate the millions of people who have kept surging in over the years. Most business districts, however, are still located towards the south, which means that a vast majority of the city is compelled to traverse great distances to get to work. The Mumbai local trains are the best way to do that. Carrying over 7.4 million passengers every day, they are the lifelines of this city.
Spread over 427 km, Mumbai’s local trains run over three arterial routes that connect the city’s southern hubs to the suburbs located in the north going up to Dahanu in the west, beyond Kalyan in the northeast, and all the way through Navi Mumbai. The first railway in Mumbai — built in 1853 to connect Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus with Thane over 34 km away — has now spawned this behemoth that runs over 2,600 services every day, one of the largest suburban rail networks in the world.
Though the system is almost always pushed to its limits, the railways have state-of-the-art systems to manage their fleet and keep the trains running like clockwork day after day. In a city where people need to keep tight schedules, you can depend on your train to be on time to the minute, even at a frequency of one train every two minutes during the peak hours. Through incessant rains or the aftermath of a terror attack, the Mumbai local trains keep running and get you where you need to be.
The Mumbai local train network has undergone several rounds of improvements over the years. The diesel locomotives have long since been replaced by Electric Multiple Units (trains consisting of self-propelled carriages, using electricity as the motive power) that allow the trains to operate with minimal disturbance even as they speed through the dense suburbs. EMUs are quieter and pollution free — attributes that are essential when trains pass by houses that are often at touching distance. The ability to operate without a separate locomotive also allows the trains to be scaled up in size. The 9 carriage trains have given way to 12 and 15 carriage trains. The platforms in their current state are equipped to handle 18 carriages. This has helped ease the overcrowding to some extent.
The carriages, built by Siemens, are also a study in user experience and design. There had been clamor from many quarters to adopt the style of seating that is seen in metros (longitudinally aligned seats) but the railways decided to continue with the current layout that lets 3-4 people sit comfortably on each bench. Many people travel 4 hours in the Mumbai local trains every day. You can often see women cutting vegetables on their way home and groups of strangers chanting devotional songs together; people have built their lives around the local trains. Optimizing their comfort while maximizing the standing room within the compartments is imperative. Forced induction to reduce CO2 levels is the next step on the way. Air-conditioned compartments are also on the horizon and should be pushed into service over the coming months.
The railway stations and ticket queues too are important aspects of the suburban railway ecosystem and many steps have been taken over the past few years for their improvement. The stations have been equipped with escalators recently. Over the years, the station overbridges have also been connected to extended walkways in many parts of the city. This allows pedestrians to reach their destination swiftly on foot without having to negotiate the road traffic and makes walking a pleasant experience.
In addition to Smart Cards and Automated Ticket Vending Machines, the UTSOnMobile app was launched a few months back. This allows passengers to book e-tickets for their local train commute instantly and complete the payment online. These initiatives have gone a long way in helping commuters negotiate the long queues at railway stations.
Standing on the gate of a local train as it zooms through the city is one of the most liberating experiences in Mumbai. But some people take this a step too far and pay a heavy price for the thrills. In spite of all that has been done for the convenience of the passengers, safety remains a prime concern on the Mumbai local train network. Old habits die hard, and despite the presence of several conveniently located overhead passes, a few people still try to take a shortcut and scoot across the railway lines.
To curb this tendency, the railways have now adopted a behavioral approach. In addition to regular cautionary announcements, they have replaced the stick-figure signboards with a graphic image, featuring in extreme close-up the horror-struck face of a man being plowed down by a locomotive. A warning like that is hard to ignore. They have also painted alternate sets of railway ties in fluorescent yellow to help people gauge how quickly the train is approaching. The lack of perspective about a train’s true speed is a major reason why people underestimate the risk in their attempt to cross a railway line.
Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of the Mumbai local trains is its role as a great leveler. It isn’t uncommon to find the managers and janitors of a company traveling side by side in the local trains. With a 10 rupee ticket to traverse 30 km in an hour, avoid the pollution of the jammed expressways, and get you to your destination on time every time, the local trains of Mumbai exemplify the best of what this city stands for — grit, reliability, and the determination to get the job done and keep surging ahead.