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Fixing suburban rail travel

It accounts for about 13 per cent of the total traffic as well as nearly 85 per cent of deaths and injuries.

July 13, 2016 12:41 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:56 pm IST

The murder of a young woman in broad daylight at a key suburban railway station in Chennai on June 24 has exposed how train passengers remain vulnerable in terms of their personal safety and security. It is no surprise that the suspect chose a place where there was very poor security and surveillance. In fact public places with lax security are crime hotspots which include terrorist attacks.

However, the issue of safety and security on our suburban railway systems is under-reported. Why should this be so? Suburban passenger traffic accounts for about 13 per cent of the total passenger traffic on the Indian Railways. It also accounts for about 85 per cent of deaths and maiming injuries while on the system. In Mumbai, about 10 people die every day. These accidents and deaths are not due to collisions between trains or derailment. Rather, they are on account of a dysfunctional railway system that is unable to ensure facilities for smooth, quick, comfortable travel and the safe entry, exit and movement of passengers across platforms. There are two categories of accidents and deaths. The first is when people are hit by trains while crossing tracks and at midsections. Although this includes people who commit suicide, they form a small portion of the total number of deaths. The second is when passengers either fall from a train while travelling or when hit by a pole near the tracks while travelling close to or hanging out near the door due to the heavy rush as there are no coach doors to protect them.

While the second category is easy to address by providing closed-door trains, it is the first category that needs a rethink. To address this, new structures have to be developed in stations throughout the suburban network for safe passenger movement. Why do people have to cross tracks in the first place? It’s a simple answer. There is no easy and comfortable access to entry and exit routes and interconnected railway systems with escalators, lifts and walkalators. Although there are foot overbridges to move across platforms, their use is rare. Most people prefer to cross tracks in an emergency, when late or when there is a lot of luggage to carry.

I have used the example of the Mumbai network to highlight the extent of the issue. There are at least 3,500 deaths on the suburban rail system in Mumbai annually, out of which about 900 people die falling from trains. I would also like to highlight the huge difference between a transportation system that has done everything to safeguard passengers and one where passenger safety is almost nil — the Delhi Metro and the Mumbai suburban system respectively. In Mumbai, travel on the suburban system was about 95,000 million passenger-km (PKM), while in Delhi it was 14,000 million PKM in 2015-16. Barring cases of suicides, no passenger was killed in Delhi. Even if Delhi expands its network to match that of Mumbai’s, its exemplary safety record is bound to continue. This is because Delhi has focussed on complete passenger safety by providing safe and faster entry, crossings and exits and a safer journey with closed-door coaches. It is also true that the Delhi Metro is either elevated or runs underground so the issue of crossing tracks is much less. More than all this, it is the complete ecosystem around the Delhi Metro ensuring safety which makes the crucial difference.

A study by the Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation Ltd., on trespassing at stations and in mid-sections, did not realise the need for transforming stations. Instead, it blamed people — for instance saying “people are too much in a hurry during peak hours, and in this period they try to find the shortcuts to change the platforms or for getting out of station”.

Holistic solution needed The solution does not lie in adopting a piecemeal approach like providing a random escalator in some station here or a closed door on a train there. The solution has to be complete and holistic. In this the Indian Railways has two choices. The first lies in changing the behaviour of all people who come in contact with the railway system every day, but this involves time, money and effort. The second is to create an ecosystem that does not require people to change their behaviour but still be able to connect with the system safely. It is wise and practically feasible for the Indian Railways to choose and implement the second option.

But why hasn’t it acted? For example, to transform the Mumbai suburban system, the Railways has to make a huge investment running into thousands of crores of rupees. Whatever may be the means of funding, the interest and principal have to be paid back over a period of time. In this context, the stumbling block for such huge investment is the extremely low passenger fare fixed for suburban travel. To put things in perspective, suburban passengers pay about 16.4 paise per passenger km while on the Delhi Metro, it works out to about 103 paise per passenger km. Does this huge difference absolve the Railways of the need to upgrade its services and ensure safety?

The Railways should take the risk in making a huge investment and raise fares substantially. About 3 lakh passengers travel on the Mumbai Metro every day by paying about 200 paise to 300 paise per km of travel against 16 paise per km of suburban travel. People won’t mind paying more if the fare hike means a superb travel experience. Ultimately, the Railway Minister has to bite the bullet.

Ramakrishnan T.S. is a doctorate in Public Systems from IIM Ahmedabad and currently teaches at TAPMI, Manipal. Views are personal.

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