Two minutes is an age in the life of Mumbai’s railway commuter. And twenty minutes looks like eternity – or a catastrophe in the case of delays. It is a very Mumbai thing, hard to explain to an outsider or a non-commuter of suburban trains or ‘locals’. Till a decade ago, the punctuality had earned them international accolades. But the system which carries a staggering 7.5 million commuters a day on its Western and Central lines has seen frequent delays and disruptions in recent years.
Stressed commuters respond to these in the only manner they can: by stalling train services and creating a ruckus targeting those in power. Such spontaneous protests lead to domino disruptions and cancellations. People lose half a day or more in the ensuing turmoil. This is what happened at Badlapur last Friday. It has happened several times earlier and is bound to occur again. Never mind that railway minister Suresh Prabhu is from Mumbai and understands the system better than most of his predecessors.
Prabhu cranked the Central Railway machinery in Mumbai and eventually shunted out a top officer. That day, it took five hours for services to resume. What damage the thousands of enraged passengers could have wrought that morning is best not imagined. The tipping point was that the Karjat-CST local arrived 20 minutes late because a signal failure led to bunching up of trains, and this train had to wait at a level crossing for additional two minutes.
Since June this year, the Central Railway has seen six major disruptions and the Western Railway two – due to signal failures, power supply trouble, technical snags, and theft of batteries. Add to this the delays and disruptions due to rain, over-crowding in trains and on platforms, filthy and ill-maintained rakes and stations, rude staff and insufficient security. At least ten people die every day on these tracks.
That so many millions travel daily in such dreadful circumstances is shameful for any city, more so for a city whose administrators want it to be a “world class” one. This demands more attention, investment and planning. For decades, the railway ministry in Delhi was remote and took cursory interest. This was to change 17 years ago when the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation was set up jointly between the ministry and Maharashtra government.
In the last decade, services were increased, new rakes introduced, 9-rake trains extended to 12 and 12-rakes to 15. But the bottomline is that services do not match the commuter load. Between 2001 and 2011, Western Railway saw 13% rise in commuters and Central Railway an overwhelming 23%, according to railway data. The two lines operated 1,279 and 1,519 services a day last year, with barely two-three minutes between trains. Yet, the capacity falls terribly short. And a ride is generally unpleasant if not fraught with danger.
Shunting out officers or writing assuring tweets is not the answer. It is a no-brainer that Mumbai’s suburban railways need plenty more investment and comprehensive, long-term realistic planning beyond elevated corridors. In the last decade, enhancement of public transport meant lavish attention and mega investments to improve road connectivity for private vehicles, though nearly 80% of Mumbai’s daily commuters use public transport and the largest majority take the trains. The huge discrepancy between need and supply was recently pointed out by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
There is an inescapable ideological bias here. In profit-driven economic systems, as Emile Burns showed, the production and delivery of goods follow profit and not the real needs of the majority. Still, chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Suresh Prabhu should realise that Mumbai cannot be made a “world class city” on the back of a deficient and creaking transport system that caters to its largest majority.