This is a post long in the making.
I have been travelling in Mumbai suburban trains (affectionately called ‘locals’) for nearly 20 odd years now. Starting from my engineering days (Matunga Road to Andheri), then when I was in Patni (again Matunga Road to Andheri for a few months) and then as part of my current job (Goregaon to Santacruz). Over this nearly two-decade period, the Mumbai local has become almost a part of me, so much so that I have not been able to (as yet) get myself to use my car (mostly lying unused now-a-days) for the daily commute to work. And over the past few years, there have been, at various points, a lot of thoughts that have crossed my mind as regards improvement of the suburban train system in general. Hence, when the newspaper DNA this week started a campaign inviting reader’s views on ways to improve the travelling ‘experience’ on the Mumbai suburban train system, I thought of this as the ideal time to gather all my thoughts, crystallize them and then put them across. So what follows are some suggestions to make the railways a better place for the nearly 7 odd million Mumbaikars that use them every day. I will be submitting a summarized version of this to the DNA. Note that I have tried to go beyond the usual stuff (e.g. increasing no. of coaches in every rake, extra services or increasing the no. of lines etc.) since there either involve huge, and possibly improbable, changes in infrastructure or are (in case of increased no. of coaches) not sustainable going forward. Your comments/observations are most welcome.
I have divided my suggestions into two main categories:
a. Basic changes
b. Passenger amenities and education (this I will cover in the 2nd post).
Glossary: ‘Rake’ refers to the entire ‘train’ while coaches are divisions of a rake (i.e. 9-coach rake, 12-coach rake etc.). ‘Rake’ and ‘train’ may be used interchangeably.
a) All-standing coaches: I will start off with the most radical suggestion of all. I firmly believe that there should be at least two, if not three, all-standing coaches in each rake. This is for the benefit of short-distance travellers. In the space currently occupied by six seats (three facing each other) today only 8 people (6 in first class) can sit. However, if the seats are removed, that same space can easily accommodate 12-15 standees, straightaway an increase in capacity of 50% at least. It will also be easier to move around in such a compartment. People that are travelling over short-distances (say people like me who travel not more than 4-5 stations) should be encouraged to use such coaches whereas the long-distance travellers can continue using the existing coaches. For a journey not lasting more than 15 minutes or so, I would gladly travel in a coach without seats (which would reduce the crowds in the gangway and near the doors). Incidentally, there were a few coaches some years back which had two, instead of three, seats in a row. It was significantly more comfortable than the normal trains (one of my friends referred to it as the ‘garba gaadi’, implying that it had enough space in the aisle to play ‘garba’ J). I wonder why the railways discontinued it.
b) Extra women’s 2nd class coach in peak hours: While the proportion of women to total no. of passengers would have probably increased over past few years (more women joining workforce etc.), the no. of coaches reserved for them has not increased (in terms of % to overall capacity of the rake). In the evenings, the ladies 2nd class coaches are a horrible sight from the outside, with ladies clinging on for dear life. Hence, there is a need for an additional half (or full) coach for women during peak hours (8 – 10 am and 5 to 8 pm). If need be, one ladies special during this period can be reduced (there is a world of difference in the occupancy levels of a ladies special and that of the ladies coaches in a normal train).
c) First class coaches to be refurbished: Today, as the popular saying goes, the only difference between 1st and 2nd class in Mumbai locals is the odour of those around you. Till recently, first class fares had remained virtually static for many years, which ensured that many more people (as a result of increased income) could afford first-class travel, as a result leading to over-capacity in first class coaches. Case in point, I travel from Goregaon to Santacruz in 2nd class every morning (even though I have a 1st class season ticket) simply because I have no way of getting into the 1st class coach at Goregaon station. Hence, I feel first class coaches should be upgraded in terms of facilities (AC etc. ?) even at the cost of increasing the fares further. Maybe there can be a ‘luxury first class’ coach in each train (along with the two regular 1st class coaches) with a premium being charged on its tickets. I prefer this to the suggestion of having full AC trains, which too me, do not serve much purpose. Maybe having such luxury first class coaches may also take some private cars off the road?
In the next post, I turn towards the balance part (almost as important) viz. passenger amenities and education.