[FoRK] [WSJ] Mumbai trains: Super-Dense Crush Load

Rohit Khare <rkhare at commerce.net> on Thu Apr 26 16:34:25 PDT 2007

50x the usage of the Long Island Railroad, eh? Packed enough that  
people commute the "wrong-way" to get seats when it turns around?  
sigh... and you gotta love the bureaucracy: "Even if they are in four  
pieces, we are not able to certify whether they are dead," says Mr.  
Pawar. -- RK

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  

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.  

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  

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.

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