April 19, 2007

As Mumbai Grows, Commuter Trains Turn Deadly

Suburban Sprawl Strains
Capacity of Old Equipment;
Saving Mr. Malwankar
April 19, 2007; Page A1

MUMBAI, India -- There was a time, just a few years ago, when Jagdish Malwankar had no problem getting a seat on the Valsad express commuter train that takes him to work in the city center.

Today, Mumbai's trains are so overcrowded that one morning in January when he stumbled getting off a train, 10 people fell on him and he broke his foot. Another day recently, in the crush to board, fellow commuters shoved him onto the tracks. Two train cars passed over him before anyone noticed he had fallen.

Often, Mr. Malwankar, who is an education inspector for the western state of Maharashtra, witnesses something much worse. In January, he says, he saw two fellow commuters fall off the roof of the train and get sliced in half. And he saw a body on the platform missing its arms and legs. "Once or twice a month, I see people killed or injured on the tracks," says the 45-year-old Mr. Malwankar.

India's economic growth in the past several years has brought new wealth and a higher standard of living to many in this metropolis of 18 million. But it also has created suburban sprawl that is adding more people to a rail network that has seen few new trains or tracks added in the past 30 years.

Indian officials have a new term to describe the 2.5 times capacity crowds that now ride at peak hours: Super-Dense Crush Load. That is, 550 people crammed into a car built for 200.

The result is what may be the world's most dangerous commute. According to Mumbai police: 3,404 people, or about 13 each weekday, were killed in 2006 scrambling across the tracks, tumbling off packed trains, slipping off platforms, or sticking their heads out open doors and windows for air.

The toll has been increasing as daily ridership has increased to more than six million people a day. Last year's tally was up 10% from the year before. Accidents are so common that stations stock sheets to cover corpses.

The commute in many Indian cities has been getting worse as throngs flock from the countryside to urban centers in search of work, and housing developments create a new suburbia.

In Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, the railway system has long been a problem. But with ticket prices set artificially low by the federal government -- the one-hour trip from the southern tip of Mumbai to Mr. Malwankar's station costs less than 25 cents -- it is a money-losing business.

The federal and state governments have squabbled in the past over who is responsible for improvements. Now, a $2 billion upgrade is under way, partly financed by a loan from the World Bank. But that will take at least another five years to finish.

Meanwhile, the network's tracks carry 20,000 passengers a day for each kilometer, or 0.62 mile, of rail, eclipsing even Tokyo -- famous for its gloved pushers who cram passengers into cars -- where the system carries 15,000 per kilometer. In New York, the Long Island Rail Road's comparable number is 420, according to the Mumbai Railway Vikas Corp.

Even after the current expansion plans add 113 miles, or 22%, to the existing railways and 147, or 74%, more trains, Mumbai's commuter trains will still have to carry 1.5 times their capacity during peak hours.

The overcrowding has overwhelmed Mumbai's police. Around 200 officers spend most of their time dealing with deaths on the rails, says R.E. Pawar, a deputy commissioner of police in charge of the railways. The police have to first collect the bodies and bring them to the hospital to be confirmed dead by doctors. "Even if they are in four pieces, we are not able to certify whether they are dead," says Mr. Pawar.

Officers then take photos and clothing samples to put into a gruesome computer database so the victims' families can identify the bodies. Morgues don't have enough refrigerated spaces to keep all the bodies, and after seven days the police bury or cremate bodies. Even with the database, more than a third of the bodies are never claimed.

Many of the railway casualties are people crossing the tracks, too rushed or tired to use packed pedestrian overpasses. Mr. Pawar's officers fined more than 30,000 people $22 each for crossing the tracks last year and 1,712 for riding on top of trains. If a family can prove a victim was a commuter not a track trespasser, it is entitled to damages -- usually less than $10,000 -- from the Railway Claims Tribunal.

Frustrated commuters riot a few times each year, rampaging through stations, lighting trains on fire and throwing rocks at police. "The [train] engineer is the first target," Mr. Pawar says. "They catch him and they beat him."

The soft-spoken Mr. Malwankar, who smiles even as he recounts his troubles, usually begins his morning commute at 8:30, when he arrives at Borivali Station 30 minutes early so he can start working his way through the crowds. He bought his apartment near the station, which is at the end of the line in Mumbai's northern suburbs in the hopes it would make it easier for him to get a seat.

"There was nothing here until 2001," he says, pointing outside the window of his simple apartment to a view now obstructed by new apartment blocks. "Now we have a big road, traffic and a mall."

The trains that pull into his end-of-the-line station are already full. That's because commuters have started taking them in the wrong direction so they can grab seats when the trains turn around.

On the platform, Mr. Malwankar hooks up with a group of 10 friends -- government workers and bankers mostly -- whom he met on the commute. They now invite one another to weddings and big family meals. It was one of his commuting companions who yanked the emergency cord when Mr. Malwankar fell under the train.

"It's because of these friends that I still have my life," says Mr. Malwankar. "Nobody else would have noticed and I would have been killed."

Once on the train, he tries to move away from the doors where most of the pushing and shoving happen as people jump on and off the train even while it is moving. Three stations before a change of trains, he starts edging toward the door.

After another ride on a different line, two hours after leaving the house, and in temperatures that can reach 104 degrees in the summer, Mr. Malwankar exits at Chembur Station in the center of the city. Then he walks about five minutes to the office.

Since he broke his foot, Mr. Malwankar says he has considered switching to the first-class cars, which have fans and cushions, but they are only slightly less crowded and cost more than five times as much. Even the coaches exclusively for women are packed, which is one of the reasons his wife decided to retire early from her government job this year.

--Tariq Engineer contributed to this article.

Write to Eric Bellman at eric.bellman@awsj.com


No comments: