----

----
Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

December 15, 2012

Reading room on wheels

© www.wr.indianrailways.gov.in
Mumbai's in-famous suburban railway network comprising Western Railway (which I take), Central Railway and Harbour Line carries over 70 crore (seven million) commuters daily, the highest urban rail passenger density anywhere in the world. The locals, as these trains or EMUs (electric multiple units) are called in local parlance, operate over nearly 500 km of track from downtown Mumbai to the distant suburbs in the north of India's financial capital. In all there are 136 stations on the three networks.

The suburban railway system is Mumbai's lifeline: the day the local trains stop moving, as has happened in recent years owing to flash strikes by motormen demanding better wages, the city grinds to a halt, offices report poor attendance, and trade and businesses are hit. It is the fastest and smoothest mode of transport in the city. 

© www.westernrlyaudit.gov.in
Some 4,000 people die and several times that number are injured, annually, on the three railway networks. Most deaths occur due to track crossing, falling off overcrowded trains, and travelling on rooftops. For these reasons the suburban network is also known as hell on wheels.

Things are looking up, though. The new stainless steel Siemens 12-coach rakes, as opposed to the earlier nine-coach rakes, introduced by Indian Railways on the suburban network are airier, roomier, and better looking and they have, to some extent, alleviated the plight of harried commuters. There is now talk of introducing 15-car locals, which will require extension of all the platforms, as well as AC trains, aimed at first-class commuters and car owners driving down from the suburbs.
 

Red stripes distinguish first-class from second-class coaches.  
Female commuters are a happier lot these days and deservedly so. Indian Railways has introduced 12-coach local trains exclusively for women, known as Ladies Special, during the morning and evening peak hours. These locals are beehives of activity: groups of women from all walks of life pass their time in more ways than one—singing and joking, stitching and embroidering, sharing personal stories and native recipes, and publicising and selling merchandise from cakes and pastries to craft and handicraft. These locals are also mini bazaars on wheels.

For many people, travelling by the local trains is a living nightmare. The faint-hearted prefer to commute by other modes of public transport, such as state-owned BEST (Bombay Electric and Supply Transport) buses, taxis, and autorickshaws. The black-and-yellow autos are allowed to ply only in the suburbs where drivers of the monstrous BEST buses liken them to ants because of their annoying habit of shooting in and out of traffic.
 

Inside a first-class compartment.
In spite of the constant battle for space inside the packed trains, fights seldom occur between commuters and when they do, there are sane people around to pull them apart and knock sense into them. “Why fight? We are all in the same boat, aren't we?” is the common refrain. I like it better when a voice pipes up from somewhere, as it always does: “Throw the two gents out at the next station. Let them fight it out on the platform.” The verbal abuses and inane arguments and gnashing of the teeth continue till either of the aggrieved party gets off at a station, turns around and throws a fist before walking away.

For people like me, an episode like this is a source of amusement and a welcome distraction during my 45-minute routine journey to and from work. I look forward to them. Otherwise I read books or listen to music. I manage to read about 30-40 pages during the entire 90-minute two-way trip, sometimes much less if I am not in the mood to read. Since I travel first-class, the noise is less than in the second-class coach allowing for sufficient concentration. I have finished reading many a book in the 8.57 am and 6.22 pm locals.

There are days when I don’t read a single page, preferring music instead or listening in on loud conversations. This morning, for instance, I was listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical renditions in The Phantom of the Opera (2004) starring Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, and Patrick Wilson. My favourite songs in this film by Joel Schumacher are Phantom of the Opera and All I Ask of You by English soprano Sarah Brightman and actor-singer Michael Crawford.

The Mumbai local train has been my reading room on wheels for more than two decades and it might well be for a few more years or at least as long as I have to travel from my suburban home to my office in south Mumbai. I intend to read as many books as I can till then.



Copyright for the bottom three photographs: Prashant C. Trikannad

10 comments:

  1. 4,000 a year is just a horrifying number Prashant - so glad o hear things are finally inproving. It's been 20 years since I took public transport in (as it then was) Bombay, but it was certainly a memorable experience. I do most of reading, and listening,on my daily commute too (I live 60 miles away from my office). Really enjoyed the post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Sergio. 4,000 is a horrifying number, I agree, but death on Mumbai's tracks is an everyday occurrence. The moment you see porters rushing onto the tracks with a dirty stretcher you know somebody's just been knocked down. I have seen a few of the injured (or dead), unintentionally, not a pretty sight at all. What makes it worse is the pathetic medical infrastructure at the railway stations. Travelling by these local trains is an experience but after all these years I find it rather tedious and I can't wait to reach office or home.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for this. Interesting to know about your day, and getting to/from work is a big part of it for anyone with a job.

    I commuted daily on the Metro North line into New York for many years, and I did a lot of reading while in transit, the trip each way taking more than an hour. Morning commutes were quiet; daytime was noisy; evening commute quiet again. Often had to stand on the way home, if I got to the platform just before the train left the station. Commuters pretty courteous; don't recall a single fistfight or even shouting match. Fatalities were extremely rare, but the occasional death would stop a train for hours.

    More recently, commuting into LA, there are designated quiet cars, which don't permit talking or cell phones. Very civilized.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ron, you are welcome. I guess, local commute is more or less the same everywhere except varying in degrees of comfort, system, and infrastructure. We have a long way to go before we travel in relative comfort as in the West. There are just too many people travelling by Indian Railways, mainly due to the rural-to-urban migration, and there's nothing one can do about it. Fatalities occur almost everyday on Mumbai's tracks and the trains are held up for 15 to 20 minutes at most. The accident victim is taken away quickly on a stretcher though station masters are wont to argue as to whose jurisdiction the mishap occurred. The victim could be lying a few metres one way or the other.

      It was interesting to read about your travel days. Frankly, I never thought Americans commuted long distances to and from work that took them as much as an hour and more.

      Delete
  3. This was very, very interesting. The number of deaths is shocking, and the discomfort and fighting also. I have been spoiled to never have to do more than a 20 minute drive to work. I am glad to hear that the situation is improving.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Tracy. The people of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) have become inured to all the negatives of rail travel in the city and, I think, that's pretty much the case in the rest of the country. The situation is improving, slowly, and what we are seeing now in terms of expansion and upgradation ought to have happened more than a decade ago. The state-owned Indian Railways continues to be shortsighted: for instance, a few years ago they built new platforms in my suburban station with just one pedestrian stairway at the north-end. As a result, for the past decade or so we have been walking the entire length of the platform in order to take the stairway. There's none at the south-end or anywhere in the middle.

      Delete
  4. Very interesting. We have almost no rail system in Detroit. Just a couple of trains passing through on long distance runs. I guess we are victims of the auto company's determination to make everyone buy cars. Yet many Detroiters have no car.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Patti, it certainly is and we have a lot of foreigners who are absolutely amazed at the way we travel, like pigs and cattle. That major catastrophes don't occur on the railway networks is credit to the tolerance and resilience of the commuters. Mumbai has one of the best public transport systems in the world but at the same time it also has one of the fastest growing car populations anywhere. Today, more people in Mumbai have cars and two-wheelers than they did, say, 10 years ago.

      Delete
  5. I don't envy you your daily commute, Prashant. But you seem very philosophical about it. Thanks for the photos as well, it's so interesting to see what other bloggers around the world do on a daily basis, work-wise. Here in New Jersey, public transportation in not nearly as prevalent as it is in the city. There are buses and such, but everyone prefers cars.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are welcome, Yvette. There's not much to envy about daily commute in Mumbai though rail travel across this vast and unpredictable country can be fun and educating. Most commuters in Mumbai are rather stoic about their "fate," even resigned to it, though things are beginning to look up with some of the ongoing and planned expansion projects. In the past the local trains have been soft targets for terrorists and just six years ago a series of bomb explosions in 11 trains killed more than 200 people and injured hundreds. In Mumbai, trains take you to your destination faster than cars, 30 minutes by rail to as much as two hours by road!

      Delete