The curious case of the sinking platform

Every day, 75 lakh Mumbaiites use local trains, risking their lives as they jump across large, uneven gaps between platforms and trains. Why have the railways failed to ensure that this elementary aspect of travel is not life-threatening? Aarefa Johari, a sleuth from the HT Detective Bureau, sets out to investigate.

Chapter 1
Danger lurks below

On a hot November afternoon at Grant Road station, Dayanand Gupta stood waiting for a train to Bhayandar. The 27-year-old financial analyst stood with a crowd of young men, all poised for boarding as a Virar-bound train approached.

When it was his turn to climb on, he had to take, like everybody else, a giant step upwards to haul himself into the coach. For a brief instant, his foot dangled near the 18-inch gap between the train and the platform. Through the gap, the rail tracks were clearly visible, gleaming in the sun.  

"The platforms on most stations on my route are very low," said Gupta, looking a tad anxious. "When the crowds are large, the gaps can be very scary."

The fear in 64-year-old Ajit Karmakar was more palpable. He was waiting for a train from Lower Parel to Dadar.

He let one crowded train pass, and when the next one pulled in, he stood back and let the younger men jump in first.

Then, clutching the door handle, he carefully heaved aboard, staring all the while at the 19-inch gap below him.

"For 45 years I have travelled on these locals," said Karmakar. "But I still have to be alert around these gaps. Their sizes differ on every platform - sometimes even on different parts of the same platform."

There were no official figures available for the number of injuries and fatalities caused by gap-related railway accidents, but Gupta, Karmakar and several other commuters swore by the horrors they had witnessed.

They had seen people's feet and legs getting sandwiched between the train and the platform, at times it was a dupatta or a bag and sometimes - particularly during the monsoon - commuters had slipped completely through the gap.

Some worried passengers had lodged complaints with local station masters about the dangerously low platforms. The majority had simply given up hope that the railways would ever make the gap negligible and safe.

But behind their frustration, there were some baffling questions that had to be answered. And thus began the reporter's tryst with the case of the sinking platforms.

Chapter 2
That sinking feeling

Why couldn't the railways get serious about a fundamental problem that endangers the lives of lakhs of passengers every day?

How difficult could it be to bring the height of a platform comfortably close to the height of a train? Was it not elementary, dear Railways?

The sleuth decided to investigate.

The first step was to confront officials at the Western Railway, who denied, initially, that there was a problem. None of our stations have gaps large enough for people to fall through, they said with placatory smiles.

But didn't the railways have any norms for what the standard size of a gap should be?

At this point, the officials brought out the Schedule of Dimensions, a railway engineer's bible formulated by the Research Design and Standards Organisation, a national body governing all technical aspects of the railways in India.

The Schedule prescribed that the standard height of a platform should be between 76 cm (or 30 inches) and 84 cm (or 33 inches), while the height of a train coach from track level to footboard must be 120 cm (or 47 inches) to 134 cm (or 53 inches).

The officials left the math to the sleuth, who figured that with these parameters, the prescribed gap would be around 40 cm, or 15 inches.

High enough for a commuter's arm, leg or torso to slip through, thought the detective.

The officials, however, had elaborate, technical explanations for why a 12-inch to 15-inch gap, though not always safe, was essential.

One had to consider the space taken up by a moving train when it wobbled, the thickness of the footboard and the general safety gap required so that trains never hit the platform in an emergency.

"Our first priority is always safety," said one Western Railway engineer. "Everything is well-defined in the railways," said Subodh Jain, Central Railway's general manager.

"The standard gap has become unhealthy today because of larger crowds and people talking on cell phones while boarding and alighting."

Chapter 3
Some stark evidence

Railway commuters, both in Mumbai and in cities around the world, would certainly not buy this argument.

In Long Island, New York, for instance, the standard platform gap stipulated by the city's railway authorities was not more than 7 to 8 inches. In Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit system, the standard gap was even smaller - between 2.8 inches and 4 inches. 

Our railway officials thought this comparison was unfair. The trains in cities abroad are typically straight-walled, they pointed out, so the floor of the train could level with the platform and the gap formed was horizontal, not  vertical. Mumbai trains, on the other hand, were wider, with curved walls.

The sides of the train jutted out over the edge of the platform, so the gap had to be in height.

The two systems, officials insisted, were completely different.

It was time, then, to throw in the counter-evidence, gathered by the sleuth's own hand.

Even if one were to set international standards aside, what about the fact that most of the platform gaps around the city were much higher than the 15 inches prescribed by the Indian Railways themselves?

The measuring tape read 16 inches at most Dadar platforms, 17 inches at Churchgate and at one Mumbai Central platform, it was 21 inches high and 4 inches wide. The platforms seemed to be sinking lower and lower. How did the officials account for that?

Chapter 4
The case gets stranger

With some more prodding, answers finally began to pour out. Every year, the railways raise the height of the tracks gradually, by a few millimetres, one stretch at a time. "We have to do this to prevent water-logging on the tracks during the monsoon," said Sharat Chandrayan, Western Railway's chief public relations officer. Platforms cannot be raised bit by bit in keeping with tracks, he added, so they are renovated after longer intervals.

Another reason they cited were the new white-and-violet trains, introduced in 2007. The old brown-and-yellow trains operated on spring suspensions, so in case of large crowds, the coaches would sink a little and the gap at platforms would be reduced.

The new train coaches worked without spring suspension, so they were higher. This, officials said, had marginally increased the gap in the past five years.

Ah, so the platforms were not sinking; it's the trains that were getting higher? Just marginally, they said.

The officials wanted to point out that raising the heights of various platforms was a constant work-in-progress for them. On the Central line, for instance, five platforms were being raised at that moment and on the Western line, more than 40 had been done that year.

One of the most dangerous platforms at Dadar (Western) - where the gap ranged from 19 inches at one end and nearly 22 inches at the other - had been raised in November, reducing the gap to 12 inches. This, the sleuth had to admit, was a welcome change.

But it only made the case curiouser and curiouser, giving rise to an inevitable question: How did the railways account for all the gap-related accidents that had been taking place for decades, well before the new trains were introduced? Didn't they ever think of a solution?

Chapter 5
An alternative plan

It's not like the railways didn't have complaints coming their way from commuters - or recommendations from experts - to motivate them to take action.

Civil engineer and transportation analyst Sudhir Badami, for instance, was not convinced by the argument that the wider, curved coaches of Mumbai trains necessitated a vertical gap.

He has devised an alternative set of parameters in which platforms could be brought level with the floor of a train coach.

In this design, the height of a platform could be raised from 33 inches to 47 inches, so that vertical gap would be non-existent and the horizontal gap would be almost 2 inches.

"From an engineering point of view, I believe mine is a workable design," said Badami, a member of a committee constituted by the Bombay high court for making the railways accessible to people with disabilities. In May, he had submitted his proposal to this committee. In December, the committee decided to consider it.

"The railways need to be put under pressure to act," said Badami.

Such criticism, in fact, had constantly been levelled against railway authorities.

"Most of the platform repair or extension work is uncoordinated, carried out without taking all variables - such as the height of the trains - into account," said architect Jagdeep Desai. "The authorities have an attitude of apathy, and they lack foresight."

For Deepak Gandhi, president of the Mumbai Suburban Railway Passengers Association, this apathy had given rise to suspicion. "On record, our platforms are required to have a certain height. In reality, they are much lower," said Gandhi. "Fixing this is a very simple job. I wonder why they can't get it done."

Chapter 6
Don't mind the irony

If raising platform heights appeared so complicated to the engineers and officials at the railways, were there no simpler solutions at hand? How about the most popular one used by railways around the world - making 'Mind the gap' announcements?

Central Railway's general manager was quick to react. In the detective's presence, he picked up the phone and asked his secretary to introduce 'Mind the gap' announcements on his rail line from the next day.

In the three months since then, commuters have heard no such announcement yet.

Western Railway, meanwhile, was beaming with pride. They had found a way out, they claimed.

"In July, we requested for a change in the Schedule of Dimension norms so that the height of suburban platforms can be raised from 84 cm (33 inches) to 92 cm (36 inches)," said Chandrayan.

Trials had begun on a few platforms and if approved, the gaps could be brought down to 9 inches or 12 inches on both the Western and Central lines.

If this was uniformly implemented, thought the sleuth, the case could actually be closed!

But there was one more important question to answer: What, in heaven's name, took them so long to come up with such an obvious solution?

Denial, again. "Right now, the prescribed norms for platform height are fine," said Chandrayan. "We are doing this in view of future needs."


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