Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Riding the local trains

In order to get around Mumbai, you need to brave the local trains. At first it can be quite a daunting experience, however the more I ride the trains, the more this mode of transport has grown on me. The local trains carry an estimated 6.1 million commuters each day between downtown and the sprawling northern suburbs. The sheer number of people the trains manage to accommodate each day is astonishing to me.
Once you arrive at the train station, the first order of business is to locate the ticket counter and obtain a ticket. True, it is debatable whether buying a ticket to ride the train is actually a necessity. I have never been asked or seen anyone be asked by a railway official to present a ticket however the system miraculously seems to function pretty well based on trust. Behind the ticket counter are a number of long lines, none of which are clearly marked. I’ve learned that the answer to buying a ticket is to cut the line and request a coupon booklet. Yes, believe it or not, it is allowed, even recommended, to cut the line if you’re looking to buy a coupon book.
Three main railway lines connect the city: the Western line, the Central line, and the Harbor line. The main transfer points are Kurla, Dadar, and C.S.T., the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Terminus. Also, there are both slow trains and fast trains.
Then boarding the train is another challenging experience. Locating the right platform can be rather confusing since all of the signs are written in Hindi. The flyover tunnels that connect the platforms to the station create a sort of meandering cobweb. Once you find the right platform, look for the ladies. Trains in Mumbai have separate compartments for women, which to their benefit, seek to minimize harassment and help women to feel safe and comfortable when riding, yet I have mixed feelings about since ladies’ compartments are only a band-aid solution to alleviate the symptoms of larger structural issues.
As the train is nearing the station, you have to be sure not to stand too close to the edge of the tracks because gaggles of men hang out of the compartments, arms stretching out in every direction, eager to push one another out as soon as the train slows down. Once the train stops, the true chaos sets in. A mad rush of commuters flood out of the compartments as those boarding fight to get on in time before the train lurches out of the station. When it comes to boarding, survival of the fittest is the dominant philosophy. If anything stands in the way of you and the train, it is socially acceptable for you to take any necessary measures to remove the obstacle. I’ve definitely experienced a lot of pushing, shoving, and even trampling while boarding the local trains. And, believe it or not, this transition of passengers is every bit as crazy and feisty among women within the women’s compartments.
Assuming you are lucky enough to make it onto the train, finding a seat is not always possible. Once you’re on, you’ll be confronted with women selling everything from tacky stuffed animal keychains to chai and street snacks. During your journey, you learn to expect the unexpected—its entirely possible for you to be asked to pose in a family photo or to hold a baby. So, riding the local trains is quite a colorful, exhausting yet equally exhilarating experience.


  1. I love the arches!!! Is that the train station?

  2. Great writing, hils- I feel like I'm right there next to you on that crowded platform trying to fight our way onto a train!