Why should stations remain in their colonial ‘hand-me-down’ state?

Why do people trespass railway tracks just to enter and exit the city’s suburban stations, risking death? Annually, a few hundred people are killed in the greater Chennai region in train mishaps. The Chennai division of Southern Railway is on record that on an average, two persons die in rail track accidents every day in three sectors.

Strange as it may seem, the official approach to death of people on railway tracks is confined to legalese: while all accidents involving train operations are probed with a great deal of seriousness, about 700 deaths on railway tracks in a year does not attract the same attention — simply because these are attributed to railway property trespass (which in any case is an offence).

About 15,000 people are killed on railway tracks nationally every year, according to the Anil Kakodkar High Level Committee on Rail Safety. The panel also pointed out that the exact figures have not been compiled by the Railways since the phenomenon is treated as an offence. This is an unhelpful, blinkered approach if the goal is to build a culture of safety. As anyone who uses the Indian Railway system will confirm, people take the quick route to platforms across tracks because the alternative is a stress test.

This is best illustrated by Chennai Fort station, serving Fort St. George and the Secretariat. People just stream across in droves. The problem is that most of our stations remain quaintly Victorian and many are plainly decrepit. There are four major suburban rail lines in Chennai, with about 25 stations each on three lines and 17 on the MRTS (Mass Rapid Transit System). If people prefer walking towards stations along the tracks, is it not because there are no other smooth approaches? If they cross tracks within stations (even at the busy Park station opposite Central), the reason is that the staircases are cruelly steep. The MRTS has lifts and escalators that are mostly non-functional.

After years of robust economic growth, propelled as much by train users as those on the roads, why should railway stations remain in their colonial ‘hand-me-down’ state? The solution to the problem is not to merely wall off the track alignment — which is necessary — but to invest in the stations. The cost of modernisation is not astronomical if you look at the multi-billion dollar outlay of the Metro Rail project.

So to look at the specifics, equipping all suburban railway stations with at least one set of lifts is an absolute necessity — and they must work. It is certainly warranted to help the disabled, under the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. The Act may not have mandatory provisions, but the Railways cannot afford to be disdainful of this egalitarian law. In fact, they must lead in its implementation.

Modernising access to all railway stations in Chennai area with lifts and escalators may cost a mere couple of hundred crores. The Chennai Corporation routinely spends that kind of money on road repairs every year after the monsoon. Also, take a concrete example. Retrofitting the foot overbridge on Nungambakkam High Road with lifts was done at a reported cost of just over Rs. 41 lakh for a pair of lifts, besides civil work costs.

As the Kakodkar Committee noted in its report, putting up such essential facilities in stations is the responsibility of the Railways, and they cannot claim that urban transport is not within their remit. Moreover, the general manager, Southern Railway, and the Chennai divisional railway manager are ex-officio members of CUMTA (Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority), the transport regulator with a legal obligation to provide infrastructure.

The indifference of our governments to death and disability in public places is appalling. Politicians take pride in the glittering shopping malls in cities that provide escalators and lifts as symbols of modern India, but ignore the infrastructure requirements of suburban railway stations and bus termini that need them even more.

It matters little to them that their retrograde policies are reinforcing the prejudice that public facilities, by definition, are bad, and private ones are good. But then, if citizens remain spectators, why would they change?

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