Saturday, February 6, 2016

The last week of January this year saw headlines about two tragic losses of life at the railway stations of Dadar and Borivali in Mumbai. Both the gruesome accidents were recorded by CCTV cameras, and the videos went viral on social media and TV networks.

In this first video from Borivali Railway station, a woman tries to jump off the train but accidentally slips and comes in between the platform and the moving train. A man, probably a family member, himself slips and falls on the platform in his failed attempt to pull the woman out. The most sad and tragic part of the video is when that man tries to stop the moving train with his hands.

In this second video from Dadar railway station of the Mumbai local, a man tries to board the local train which is already moving. Mumbai locals are already infamous for the rush and open doors. The man in this video, while running, falls at the end of the platform strip.

Both of these videos points out the callousness of the railway department and the irresponsible attitude of the people with regard to their own safety. The responsibility lies on both the railways and the victims.

Most of us are witness to the sad realities of our railway network. One of them is the design of our trains and platforms. There is a huge gap between the train and the platform. You can see this 'killing gap' in the first video of Borivali railway station. The risk of falling into this gap increases during rush hours.

We must ultimately aim for a clean and beautiful railway network but not at the cost of safety.

I am not an expert in railway design. But I have seen major national and international railway systems without that huge gap between train and platform. In fact, this gap is nowhere to be found in the Delhi Metro railway network. I am a frequent commuter and I can say that the Delhi Metro is perhaps the safest railway network in India. No open doors. No killing gaps. Therefore, no running and jumping for boarding and de-boarding the train. The Delhi Metro Railway Corporation (DMRC) is also planning to install 'platform doors' in its major stations to avoid any accidents. The system of automated platform doors already exists in Delhi Metro's airport line. Platform doors, though expensive, make the whole platform completely safe from such accidents. To board the train, a passenger must wait for the platform doors to open, and then, for the door of the train to open.
Safety over beauty

The Indian railways have a dismal safety record and we need to invest in developing safer design for our trains and railway platforms. Safety must take precedence over aesthetics and even comfort. Given the sheer size of Indian railways, the re-designing will take both time and money. But the pertinent question is: Do we even give any priority to safety? The current developments in Indian railways suggest that we don't.
The bullet trains and bells and whistles can wait until we redesign our platforms and trains.

Going by a notification issued by the Ministry of Railways on 10 April 2015 and recent reports in newspapers, the railways seem to be taking a lot of interest in beautification. The notification suggests that an MoU has been signed between Indian Railways and the Commerce & Industry Ministry to install a new Railway Design Centre in the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. In January 2016, Indian railways opened its newly designed "beautiful" and "comfortable" coaches to the media. News channels were hungry to get a glimpse of these world-class interiors. Social media also saw plenty of praise being directed towards the government.

With the newly designed bio-toilets installed in our coaches, no human excreta is going to directly fall on the railway tracks. That's great, really, but what about the human beings falling on to the tracks? When will our government sign MoUs to prevent that?
Is safety a dead issue?

With the emphasis on Swachh Bharat and beautiful India, safety seems to be a forgotten issue. We must ultimately aim for a clean and beautiful railway network but not at the cost of safety. I, personally, would not have any problem travelling in the usual pale blue coaches as long as they are safe. Let's first address the issues of safety. The bullet trains and bells and whistles can wait until we redesign our platforms and trains.
A possible solution

Given the financial health of our railways, automatic doors and platform doors in major railway stations remain a dream. However, there are some steps and strategies which can help avoid unfortunate accidents. We can appoint railway/train security marshals for the task of closing and opening the gates of coaches. If appointing marshals is expensive, then at least two passengers travelling from a coach can be asked to volunteer for this job. A communication channel can be installed in every coach so that these volunteers can speak to the driver and give appropriate instructions like "the doors are closed" and "we are good to go". I hope the brightest minds working in the top echelons of our bureaucracy will pay heed to the issue of passenger safety.
We can appoint railway/train security marshals for the task of closing and opening the gates of coaches.

What we can do

The government will as and when it chooses to. While we wait for that, the responsibility lies on us to guide and teach our parents, children and loved ones. The lessons are simple and most of us already follow them.

1. Don't try to board a moving train. 
2. Don't jump off from the train before it completely halts.

If we're not serious about these basics, we can easily meet the same fate as the recent Mumbai victims. Before the Indian Railways wakes up from its slumber we need to become responsible. Don't take risks while boarding and de-boarding a train. Travel safe.


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