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Rail minister's ‘take a bus’ suggestion is like asking the starving to eat cake

Railway Minister Mallikarjun Kharge, on a visit to Mumbai earlier this week, told Mumbai's commuters that if they had issues with the local trains they would be better off taking a bus. He apparently saw Mumbai's millions of commuters as perennial whiners. In that, the man was way off the mark.

It was more than insensitive, arising out of ignorance of the demography and geography of Mumbai and the metropolitan region surrounding it, nine times larger than the city. His statement was akin to suggesting to people starved of bread that they could eat cake instead. No one in the ministry seems to have briefed Kharge about Mumbai’s local trains, the much-appreciated lifeline of the city.

Even a new set of metro and monorails that the city is set to get, in painfully slow phases, are only a new provision not designed to replace the "locals", the Mumbai word for the suburban local trains. It only augments the buses with quicker options on routes not served by the railways.

 Rail ministers ‘take a bus’ suggestion is like asking the starving to eat cake

A local train in Mumbai. File photo

Before he decides to snap again, Kharge would do well to reach the Borivli platform at 6 am – not the peak hour by normal standards - and try getting into a train coming from Vasai-Virar to reach the Western Railway headquarters. He would be lucky to get a toe-hold, assuming of course that a coach is not blocked off for him.

Kharge should also know that, according to a World Bank study later reiterated by Mumbai’s civic body, nearly half of Mumbai's citizens walk to their place of work.

No doubt the 2,923 trains carry 75 lakh passengers in such congestion that he, if he were to venture to take one of those trains, would probably asphyxiate. Before that, nausea would grip him having to smell armpits. Each coach, not during peak periods but on an average, carries about 230 persons. No doubt, passengers' demand for better services is justified.

Even if the commuters were to consider the Kharge alternative, there are problems. In September 2010, the fleet operator drove away many of its 45 lakh daily commuters from using it by steep fare hikes – up to 50 per cent. The first month had seen a ten per cent drop and increased use of share taxis and autorickshaws which surprisingly were cheaper.

Recently, the city’s municipalised bus operator, BEST’s General Manager, OP Gupta, had revealed that a commuter spent 15 per cent of his income on commuting by bus while internationally it was two-three per cent. A fare hike proposal recently mooted but shot down probably because of elections would have meant 25 per cent of income spends on commuting.

Mumbai’s transportation needs are quite complex and the services offered are inadequate despite adding compartments to the commuter trains from nine to a dozen to the new 15-coach trains. They are not a seamless network despite being multimodal. The trains bring in people into the city from the hinterland which is the larger metropolitan region – from Vasai, Dahanu, Kasara, Karjat, Panvel, among them.

Not all home-work-home trips are short since they move people across the huge metropolitan region. A bus from Vasai to South Mumbai takes three hours. From Thane to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus two hours, and more even if they depart at 8 am. Subsidised train tariffs and speed make the local trains most useful.

The difficulties in shifting to buses are many. Even within Mumbai, forget the larger metropolitan region, the roads are congested and overrun by private cars. These cars, expensive as they are to run, are an alternative to congested trains. The high-end residents prefer only cars. The public transport is not like Hong Kong’s.

Why aren’t the commuters demanding better services from the BEST instead? Kharge seemed to be peeved that the railways which subsidises the travel to keep the city moving should be targeted. The apparent logic is, was it the Indian Railways job to do everything and not the others? He may have something there.

It has to be admitted, however, that the Railways – Central, Western, Harbour, and Trans-harbour – is constantly adding something or the other to make it easier: adding capacity by increasing coaches from nine to 12 to 15, laying of new lines, acquiring new rakes, changing signal locations to speed up commutes.. But the slow pace of improvement is unable to neutralise the backlogs.

A major ire the commuters have is the number of deaths on the tracks – 3,510 last year plus 2,674 injuries last year - without having to justify those occurring due to crossing tracks. The deaths or maiming when passengers fall off moving trains because of choked compartments and commuters forced to hang at the door with barely a toe-hold is a major daily risk.

While the tech and operational parts of running the services is one thing, the death – at least two this month – because the platform had gaping holes and persons fell to the tracks to be neatly sliced by the wheels underscores the management deficiencies. An ordinary mind manning a station would have known what it implied as a risk but remained unattended.

Even to the most hardened these avoidable situations arise because of refusal to meet the minimum needs apart from running trains. Ambulances are not available to carry the hurt or the dying to hospitals. In the recent accident where a girl lost her arms, a porter carried her severed limbs to the hospital in his hands.

Therefore the commuters have enough to complain about: overcrowded trains, poor station facilities, even almost inaccessible stations because of hawkers crowding their paths. But they are no whiners, for each and every commuter using a Western, Central and Harbour line train is actually a braveheart. He risks his life to get to work and back home. He needs some consideration.

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Updated Date: Jan 26, 2014 10:34:39 IST