The wonderfully railway-friendly TV Channel, BBC 4, brought us part 1 of this documentary about the incredible suburban railway system serving the Indain city that is known nowadays as Mumbai, but used to be called Bombay.
This railway network moves many millions of commuters every day in a feat that at least rivals and probably exceeds that of any other railway serving any major city of the world. Mumbai is truly a city that never sleeps and the railway is pretty well a 24 hour operation, with well over a thousand trains each day. It grew from the British Raj, but in some respects seems to have kept up or even overtaken our own railway network with what seemed to be 100% coverage of electrification and some very modern control technology keeping the highly intensive service flowing.
However, the safety record of the railway, with an average of 10 deaths a day is appalling. The reason for this dreadful record became clear during the programme with people crossing the tracks in front of trains and using the permanent way as a walking route and even living within inches of the running lines in the shanty towns that have grown up around the metropolis.
The complete lack of doors on the carriages, the people jumping on and off moving trains and the super density crush loading that is accepted in peak hours must also be factors that contribute to the dire safety record.
Although the programme tackled this issue head on, a TV programme can never change the culture of a society. The programme makers featured a number of people who worked on or were inextricably linked to the railway. The General Manager of one of the lines was included, bbut a more interesting railwayman was the driver with 30 years experience who talked about the reality of working in these conditions. I found his matter of fact description of stopping the train, his guard and himself moving a body off the track and continuing to the next station to report the incident to be harrowing.
It was also very interesting to see and hear from the young child making a kind of living on the edge of the law working on a station as a shoeshine boy. It was also interesting to hear of a former shoeshine boy who has become an entrepreneur with fingers in all the business interests on the railway station, but who is also involved as a volunteer ambulance driver, often transporting the people killed or injured.
Perhaps the most moving story was that of a young woman hawker who travelled on the railway’s “Ladies Only” trains selling Saris and other clothing to the passengers. This is completely illegal, but when she was arrested by the railway police, she paid the fine and went straight back to her only work. At the end of the programme, however, she went with her family to visit the flat that her sales had enabled her to buy.
The young shoeshine boy also left the station that had been his home as well as his workplace and was seen at a centre for runaway children starting to learn the skills that will give him a better chance of improving his life than he would have found on the railway station.
Although British viewers could recognise the railway which was the central character of this documentary, the living and working conditions, the culture, the society and the attitudes that were revealed by the programme were a world away from our own urban railway networks. I am looking forward to seeing the second part of this revealing look at something that is simultaneously so familiar and so alien.