Since its first train run in 1853, the Mumbai Suburban Railway has undergone rapid expansion. Today, over seven million people depend every day on this network, the oldest railway system in Asia.TEXT AND PHOTOS PAUL NORONHA

Ask an average “Mumbaikar” what rush hour is and he/ she will say something about the local train. It is a story of every day, of every season. People cling to speeding trains cheating death and challenging nightmares.

The Mumbai Suburban Railway, more popularly known as local trains, is the oldest railway system in Asia and is considered the quickest mode of travel in Mumbai. It was an offshoot of the first railway to be built by the British in India. The trains ply along every significant junction of the island city. Little surprise then that the trains, called the “Backbone of Mumbai”, transport more than seven million people a day.

Though it may seem ominous to get on and off an overcrowded train, which looks stretched to its bursting point, Mumbaikars go about their business with élan. A peek into the train will reveal interesting truths like how life and existence run parallel, even on board.

Devotees of Bhajan Mandhalis sing and chant. They are a group of passengers who while away time on their way to work and back home. The Omkar Bhajan Mandhali travels from the suburb of Borivali to Churchgate. They immerse themselves in spirituality, totally oblivious to the surroundings.

The train is a vehicle for social causes too. Professor Sandeep Desai, an ex-teacher of the renowned S.P. Jain Institute of Management Studies, solicits donations from passengers to complete the construction of a school for the underprivileged in Nanar village, in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra.

If you are looking to buy things that are needed and affordable, the corridors of the local train present many options. From clothes to imitation jewellery, vegetables and fish, you can find them all at arm’s length. This privilege, however, is the reserve of the Ladies compartment or the Ladies Special trains.

The luggage compartment too is the small-time traders’ place of opportunity. Who can miss the ubiquitous Dabbawalas (Tiffin carriers) who carry home-cooked food to clients across Mumbai? When railway motormen went on strike for days in 2010, and local train services were disrupted, the entire system was pushed into disorder. But Mumbai survived.

Mumbai’s local trains embody the spirit of the city and continue to remain not just its backbone but its lifeline.