Mumbai Local

The problem of the closed door

Commuters on a crowded local train, unmindful of the risk involved during peak hours.– File Photo  

The viral video of Bhavesh Nakate falling off a local train a few weeks ago got me thinking about commuter safety and the redesign of the Mumbai Local. Two of the most common causes of fatalities on suburban trains are commuters falling out of open doors of crowded coaches and those gormless guys trying stunts, like riding the roof and getting electrocuted. In both cases, one can imagine design solutions (like closed doors and air conditioning) but these are part of a larger conundrum.

Suburban train travel in Mumbai is a sub-culture of practices acquired to fill the vacuum of neglect that the rail authorities have shown its users over decades. Most commuters are, of course, card-carrying members of this sub-culture. The few occasional travellers bear the inconveniences that accrue from not knowing its rules (“Bambai mein naya hai kya?”).

Inside knowledge makes possible what is referred to as the rush-hour hyper-dense crush load of 16 commuters occupying one square metre. It is also the inability to increase lines that forced authorities to increase coaches from nine to 12 instead and realign platforms to allow alighting from both sides of the train.

Can fresh design make travel safe, or account for commuter density during rush hour without increasing the stress of travel? Are automatically closing doors and air conditioned trains the answer? No one would fall off a moving train. Air conditioned trains imply closed windows. So, streamlining the outer body of the coach with a greater curvature, and fitting in fixed windows would give the bogie a ‘slick’ outer carapace, making climbing onto the roof impossible. That would save lives, too.

Platform behaviour

But how would experienced commuters alter their behaviour on the railway platform? Trains come to a standstill, doors open, those inside get off first and those on the platform enter. While already in practice in the new metro and the elevated lines, where traffic is still relatively sparse, this is a syntagm no one follows on the main lines.

Newly designed doors can never close unless the commuters stood back from the train voluntarily. In other parts of the world, railway guards stand in front of doors, stymieing the onslaught by simply allowing doors to close. Some physically push passengers in. A 12-coach train would need at least 24 trained personnel per train per station. I don’t see it happening.

Let’s argue this differently. Local train travel in Mumbai has a consonance with Mumbai’s climate. The bogies, such as they are, respond best to our intensely hot and humid subtropical conditions by acting like muslin shirts, whose large open doorways permit easy ventilation and evaporation.

Today a coach designed for 200 passengers accommodates around 800. Is this possible in a closed, air-conditioned capsule? Can the electricity that powers the train be stretched to handle the significant load for cooling and air-changes inside every coach?

Safety first. Imagine then, a Mumbaikar standing in line inside and outside a train, accepting that one dabba is full, and patiently wait for the next one, abiding uncomplainingly the stuffiness of a closed compartment. No matter the redesign, in the end, it is the commuter who will have to ‘please adjust’.

(Mustansir Dalvi is an architect and an academic teaching in Mumbai. He keeps one eye critically cast on Mumbai in its current post-planning avatar and another on its rapidly transforming urban culture)

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 8:36:03 AM |

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