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National Opinion

Will Corona Make Train Travel With Dignity The New Normal?

Right now, most are enduring the ordeal of spending hours in never-ending queues for the BEST buses and thereafter, another long journey.

Currently, living in a non-Bharatiya Janata Party-led government means there is a constant slanging match between Maharashtra and Union government. But the problem is their decisions take a toll on the public which mostly finds itself at the receiving end. Most are waiting for the nod from the railway ministry to travel for work. Many are facing job losses, pay cuts and an uncertain future, with offices being shut due to the lockdown. Even though some restrictions on train travel have been eased, the question remains, when will local trains be open to all public, at all times of operation?

Right now, most are enduring the ordeal of spending hours in never-ending queues for the BEST buses and thereafter, another long journey. But these are mundane questions for the national leaders who are busy shooting water cannons on farmers questioning their farm bills. They couldn’t be bothered with train schedules and incomes of the ordinary.  For once, whatever the political fight maybe, a positive outcome is railway ministry has insisted that they can only accommodate 25 per cent of the daily number of commuters while implementing the social distancing norms. Thanks to Covid-19, finally the railway ministry is finally implementing what it needs to have done at least 40+ years ago.

In a letter to the state, the Western Railway said, it could transport a maximum of 9.6 lakh commuters even if it operated all 1,367 suburban services, while the Central Railway said only 12.4 lakh passengers can travel if it operated all 1,776 services. Ideally, this is how the public should travel.

 

In a letter to the state, the Western Railway said, it could transport a maximum of 9.6 lakh commuters even if it operated all 1,367 suburban services.

 

Mumbai’s lifeline

Imagine, in the pre-coronavirus days, 80 lakh people travelled by the local trains on Western, Central, Harbour and trans-Harbour, in sub-human conditions.  Packed like sardines, with people’s basic right to travel safely being shamelessly denied. Yes, this has been the biggest failing of the Indian Railways towards the city where local trains are the lifeline. Every political party has failed the local commuters, be it the Congress or the BJP, the latter despite its loud proclamations.

Now, we know what number could optimally travel on these trains daily and emerge still human at the end of their commute. The fact is, this 25% only rule should be mandatory. In 1996, when the late James Wolfensohn, the then World Bank chief, had come to Churchgate station in the morning to check on morning peak hour travel.

Wolfensohn and his wife watched the large crowds pour out on the platforms.  The ‘live streaming’ of the unending multitudes must’ve unnerved him so much that he grabbed his wife’s hand, probably saying, ‘Let’s get out of here’. I was then a television journalist with a top news channel and asked him what he thought. He said he was shocked. He told me on record, he was shocked “how citizens were packed like sardines on trains in India. Had it been Germany or any other such country, there would have been riots every single day.” That very evening the MUTP project was launched and the World Bank committed to investment in local train expansion. But the conditions have only worsened. It is only in the last 10-15 years we are seeing impromptu rail roko, protests by commuters.

Those privileged citizens with vehicles or those who do not have to travel back and forth on the trains have absolutely no clue how dehumanising it is, to go through harrowing experiences every single day. Stories told by female commuters are hardly ever lighthearted. Basic issues like security, safety, travelling with dignity, being spared the misery of another person’s body brushing past yours, which is a basic right to travel with dignity is disallowed. The fact is, the number of trains need to be increased, permanent amnesia on the passenger intake from pre-Covid times and make this safe travel in keeping with pandemic protocols the new normal. Even if fares were to be increased, people will pay because it is worth it.

The fact is, a 12-car train has the capacity to carry 1,174 passengers, while on a normal day, a train has been carrying 6,000 passengers. This overcrowding has been the cause of deaths. People falling off trains, hitting their head on poles, slipping between the footboard of the train and the platform in the rush to board. The infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing population. It has always been like a band-aid; only after the fact and public outrage have the railway authorities responded.

Overcrowding has been the cause of deaths. People falling off trains, hitting their head on poles, slipping between the footboard of the train and the platform in the rush to board.

 

Deadly travel

Take a look at these grim statistics from the railways: In 2015, 806 people died after falling off trains, 657 in 2016, 654 in 2017 and 711 in 2018. If people are not falling off during their precarious commute, there are accidents that occur, claiming even more lives. In 2015, 3,304 died, in 2016, 3202, in 2017, 3014 and in 2018, 2,981 died while in 2019, 2,991 died in various train accidents. (Data sourced from the railways). On an average,every year, nearly 3,000-odd people are injured travelling in local trains.

The fact is, in the last 60 years, the number of commuters has increased eight-fold as compared to train capacity, which has grown only thrice as much.

Look at the ad hoc manner in which the railways responds. Firstly, it has failed to expand the existing infrastructure. Secondly, it has failed to revamp foot overbridges (FOBs). Some of these FOBs were constructed over 50 years ago. Unless these are refurbished or rebuilt, to account for increased footfall, there can only be more of Elphinstone Road (now Prabhadevi) stampedes. One of the worst-ever bridge collapses occurred on September 29, 2017, with 23 people dying in a stampede. The trouble is, railways seems to shirk its responsibility ever so often. The Charni Road bridge is one such example. At both ends, north and south, this bridge has fallen twice in a decade. However, the tussle between agencies continues to delay the reconstruction of this bridge.

It is only in the last seven years that we have seen revamping of stations and most of all, the provision of escalators. Common sense should dictate that better the infrastructure, healthier the work force, which directly helps the economy. All that the authorities who went on junkets to Shanghai and Bangkok gave us badly built, hideous skywalks, which were a waste of public money. On their free foreign jaunts, clearly, they had missed the sight of the innumerable escalators. Beijing railway station is fully air-conditioned. Tokyo trains will not carry passengers once optimal capacity is reached. This can be replicated here, only if more trains are added. But, instead of overhauling the local train system, authorities are constructing new metro links, which may not be affordable to many.  How can safe travel be an ‘either/or’ choice? Convenience must begin with local trains. Other modes of transport like the metro can add to the convenience but cannot necessarily substitute.

The fact is, public transport is not necessarily a profit-making proposition. But that doesn’t mean it should be given third-rate treatment. An important factor that the railways need to keep in mind is: the millions who use the local trains are actually contributing to reducing millions of metric tonnes of carbon emissions. Something the Indian Railways may not even have envisaged. According to the New York Public Transport Association, which owns the NY subway, they have clearly, and in simple language, explained how much better and healthier an option it is to travel by subway. The NYPTA specifies the reduction in carbon emissions and the daily automobile fill-ups saved and takes pride in providing a service which millions use every day.

New York City Subway. (Credits- WSJ)

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