A Shocking Death on Mumbai’s Tracks is Just One of Many Hundreds

Commuters in the compartment of a Mumbai suburban train. (Photo: Rajendra Aklekar)

Commuters in the compartment of a Mumbai suburban train. (Photo: Rajendra Aklekar)

An amateur video of a young man falling to his death from a Mumbai suburban local has graphically brought to the fore an issue that is widely known but barely discussed – severe overcrowding. The short video shows 21-year-old Bhavesh Laxman Nakhate grimly hanging on to a pole but even while other passengers try and hold on, he falls from the speeding train.

Nakhate, who was employed in a logistics company, got on to the train at Dombivli at just before 9 a.m., which is peak hour. In recent years, Dombivli, which is nearly 50 km away from the business district of South Mumbai, has rapidly developed and this has put inordinate pressure on passenger trains which carry thousands of commuters on the north-south axis. As the train picked up pace, he held on, but could not do it for long and slipped.

Another passenger filmed it on his phone and the video went viral, and even if train deaths are routine, it has left the city shocked. According to official figures, 3,466 people died on the Mumbai suburban railways system in 2014—that’s almost 10 passengers a day. It is a shocking number that has steadily grown as the number of commuters has increased over the years. The deaths are due to several reasons like overcrowding, crossing of tracks (what is termed as trespassing), falling in the gaps on platforms while boarding, roof-top travel by daredevils, leading to accidents and electrocution and hitting the electric poles due to hanging out.

The Mumbai railways system is the busiest in the world. It is called Mumbai’s lifeline–a small disruption can create havoc, throwing not just train services but also the city itself out of gear. A staggering 7.5 million passengers travel every day, most of them from the commercial areas of the south to the growing suburbs in the north. Due to historical reasons, the city has two parallel rail lines run by two separate administrative zones of Western and Central Railway; the latter ferries more passengers than the former. During rush hours, the trains carry 5,000 passengers, three times the official capacity.

There is no way that the railway authorities can increase capacity overnight, but several measures can be taken to cut down the number of accidents. Railway authorities claim they have fenced areas near tracks, raised the height of platforms and even fined those who try and clamber on to the roofs, but clearly it is not enough.

Overstretched system

The fact is that the Mumbai suburban railways system is stretched beyond its natural capacity. The network is choked with back-to-back local trains that leave every three minutes, punctuated by entering and existing national trains. No new lines have been added for at least two years. For years, there has also been talk that the suburban networks should be made independent commercial bodies, thus allowing them to raise funds independently instead of relying on the national Railway budget.

An operational solution would be to add more corridors, but that requires land as well as funding. Work is going on in different parts of the network – including where Nakhate fell – to segregate national and suburban trains, which would add capacity, but some issues with local civic bodies have held it up. The lack of pedestrian bridges means that trains have to stop at level crossings, which slows them down; consequently, more services cannot be added.

The biggest reason for the overcrowding is the rapid growth in the suburbs, thanks to unbridled – and unplanned – development and construction. With land available in abundance, builders have rushed to construct large townships, but work places, schools and other amenities are still far away; there is no option but to travel long distances.

The Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu is from Mumbai—he knows the severe problems that the system faces and the constraints it works under. Accidents such as this one will not stop soon, but the video of Nakhate’s death should prompt the government to speed up measures to make suburban railway travel in Mumbai not just smoother and faster but also safer.

Rajendra B Aklekar is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of a book on India’s first rail line