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Mumbai Elphistone Road stampede: Tragedy was inevitable as Railways turned blind eye to city's network

The inevitable finally happened on Friday. There was a stampede at the foot-over bridge connecting Elphinstone Road and Parel railway stations on the Mumbai suburban network. Why was this inevitable? There are three major lines of the Mumbai suburban network. The Central, Western and Harbour lines. The Central and Western lines come together at Dadar station, which is generally where the business zones of south Mumbai are considered to begin. It's also the station used by commuters who wish to switch lines. In 2016-17, Dadar saw 211,888 commuters every day, making it one of the most crowded stations of the network.

 Mumbai Elphistone Road stampede: Tragedy was inevitable as Railways turned blind eye to citys network

A stampede killed 22 people at Elphistone Road station on Friday. PTI

But there is another way of switching lines. That is by travelling one station south-wards, till Elphinstone (on the Western line) or Parel (on the Central line) and using a foot-over bridge connecting these two stations. For a lot of people who are unable to switch lines at Dadar, this foot-over bridge is an alternative way of switching lines. But since this is not a proper exchange station, the bridge is always crowded.

Furthermore, with the rise of Lower Parel as a key business district in central Mumbai, thousands of commuters use Elphinstone and Parel stations to walk down to their respective offices, adding even more pressure on the bridge.

Since there was only one bridge here, a lot of people used to cross the tracks. The Railways responded in 2012, not by building another bridge but by fencing off the tracks, to prevent people from crossing them on foot. They also deployed eight RPF and Home Guard personnel to ensure there wasn't any congestion on the bridge. However, from as early as 2012,

As there was only one bridge, earlier a lot of people resorted to crossing the tracks. The Railways responded in 2012, not by building another bridge, but by fencing the tracks so people who use the already overcrowded bridge and employing about 8 RPF and Home Guards to ensure there is no congestion. However, the lack of an alternative was felt as many as five years ago, and passengers had urged the Railways to construct another foot-over bridge, saying the existing one is a disaster waiting to happen.

But instead of fixing such a major problem, the government has been more concerned about running Bullet Trains, Metro rail, and other costly projects that can't seem to translate into reality quick enough.

As highlighted by this Twitter user, the problem was in plain sight, for everybody to see. Several other panicked passengers had also highlighted this issue, as reported earlier in this Firstpost article, but the authorities had consistently turned a blind eye to the problem.

In fact, the problem was even raised in Lok Sabha in April this year. Five MPs raised the question of congestion on the Mumbai suburban network, and the Ministry of Railways laid a written reply on the table of Lok Sabha. They asked the following:

Will the Minister of Railways be pleased to state:
(a) Details of unreserved ticket sales to Mumbai suburban passengers during each of the last three years
(b) Whether due to overcrowding in Mumbai local trains and stations, the number of accidents are increasing, and if so, the facts in this regard
(c) Whether almost 98 percent of railway stations on the Mumbai suburban network pose high risk or are "dangerous" to persons with disabilities and senior citizens?
(d) And if so, whether the Railways is not able to decongest suburban stations on the pattern of Metro railway, and to meet the requirements of all types of daily passengers, and if so, the reasons therefor
(e) Steps being taken by the Railways to solve these problems, and the manner in which these will the effective

We need to examine questions (b) and (d), since they directly address the problem of overcrowding at stations. One would think the ministry would give a suitable reply and say it is addressing this problem. But unfortunately, it seems overcrowding isn't important enough, so the reply was as follows:

(a) The details of passengers who travelled in Mumbai suburban network during each of the last three years are as given below:

Year No. of Passengers (in millions)
2013-14 2,747
2014-15 2,759
2015-16 2,710
(b) No, Madam.
(c) No, Madam.
(d) Does not arise.
(e) Facilities to be provided at stations are an ongoing process. Various facilities are provided at railway stations for passengers, including specially designed coaches called SLRD with wider aisles, modified toilets, two lower berths for handicapped and upper berths for attendants which have been attached in many Mail/Express trains except Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Jan Shatabdi and Duronto trains. Ticket counters and earmarked parking facilities are provided at all A-1, A and B category stations. Eighty battery operated vehicles have already been provided at 54 major railway stations, and preference is given to senior citizens, physically handicapped, and pregnant commuters.

The ministry said there is no increase in deaths because of overcrowding at stations on the Mumbai suburban network, and even went on to say the need to fix to overcrowding at stations is something that "does not arise".

The Ministry of Railways dismissed a concern on decongestion by resorting to a technicality. The Railways admitted that every year more than 2,700 million tickets are sold, but said there is no increase in incidents because of overcrowding, and that the question of decongestion does not arise.

The Railways' reply need not be reduced any further to show its absolute absurdity in the face of reality and the apathy to which this current ministry has approached the problem of commuter woes in Mumbai.

After Friday's disaster, minister for state (the junior railway minister) Manoj Sinha declared, "There is no question of regular overcrowding on that bridge, had it been so, we'd have been made aware via reports. I believe the incident happened due to heavy rain."

This may probably not be such a bizarre response given that Mumbai, unlike every other decent city in the world, cannot control its own suburban railway network. These decisions are not taken locally but are taken from New Delhi. This results in situations like this, where a minister sitting in New Delhi is distanced from the ground realities of everyday life of a computer in Mumbai. But what's worse is that the ministry is fully aware of this distance but makes no active efforts to find out about the ground situation in the city.

If you look at the number of commuters who have been tweeting to the Ministry of Railways about this problem, one will notice that officials are not only in the know about this problem, but have been responding with apathy. There seems to be nothing that the Centre has done for Mumbai's suburban railway network.

What's the point of bringing in another 100 commuter railway services, as announced as part of Dussehra gift for Mumbai, if the ministry can't fix such a simple commuter woe, like ensuring there is a proper bridge connecting railway stations?

More Metro rail services will also not solve the problem. Metro fares are costlier compared to local train services, and hence remain unaffordable to a majority of commuters. What Mumbai deserves is a railway minister who doesn't resort to gimmicks to stay in office, but actually does his job.

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Updated Date: Sep 30, 2017 09:04:01 IST