Two train derailments within 24 hours on the Mumbai suburban railway have raised grave questions about the safety of the city’s lifeline and its 7.5 million passengers. What is causing these increasing derailments? Is the network too old or is it too overburdened? And, what can be done to make it more secure?

On Monday evening, a local train travelling from Bandra in the western suburbs to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in south Mumbai came off the tracks just as it was reaching its destination and blocked the adjoining rails. For at least four hours, the services on the corridor were disrupted, while the officials pleaded helplessness – according to them, the heavy use of the track has disturbed its “geometry”.

That episode was minor compared to the event that came a few hours later. Around 11am on Tuesday, a fast train from the northwestern suburb of Virar to the southern terminus of Churchgate went off the rails, throwing off seven coaches and damaging overhead wires as well as the tracks. At least four commuters were injured. The accident could have been much worse had another train speeding towards the site not braked in time. It isn't known  what caused the mishap, though theories range from shoddy track maintenance work to an external object hitting the train’s base.

Why has been there a sudden spurt of derailments? And more importantly, what should be done to avert them? The answer is simple, say officials, but difficult to enforce.

Wear and tear of the system

Every day, the Mumbai suburban railway runs 2,905 services (or train trips), ferrying 7.5 million commuters (which is approximately Hong Kong’s population). For historical reasons, the network is split into two systems – the Western Railway and Central Railway – each with a separate administration. Today, the Western Railway ferries 3.5 million passengers on its 1,305 services and the Central Railway’s 1,600 services carry 4 million commuters, making the Mumbai suburban railway the world’s busiest.

“The problem is that the system in Mumbai is overstretched,” a railway engineer said. “There is a lot of wear and tear of the system and not sufficient time to maintain. The suburban trains run for over 20 hours [a day]. The rest of the time there are cargo trains and outstation trains. There is a very small window for maintenance in the night and all the time we get is during the blocks [when train services are discontinued] on Sundays.”

The engineer added: “During day time, a train runs every three minutes in sync with so much equipment – the power cables, tracks, signalling – and the running staff with minimal errors. Even if one parameter goes awry, the system crashes. Tracks in Mumbai are the best-maintained, all they need is some breathing space. The solution would be to cut down the pressure on the existing tracks.”

To achieve this, the railways are working on building additional corridors that will put 200-odd outstation and cargo trains off the suburban tracks.

Insufficient funds and autonomy

But that will still leave behind the other problem of shoddy maintenance and repair work. Done in a hurry on weekends or at nights, this is a primary reason for the kind of derailments we saw early this week.

“The key is to fill vacancies in safety-related jobs,” said Jayant Nimsudkar, a retired motorman who worked with the Central Railway for 35 years and is now a trade unionist. “Earlier, we had trained section gangs and dedicated labour staff to maintain tracks and assets. They knew the history and peculiarities of each inch of track. But now the railways have moved to casual labourers who fix the problem without really knowing it. It’s a quick-fix solution, not a permanent one. A change of one inch in track geometry can bring trains crashing down.”

Moreover, with the world’s cheapest fare of 35-50 paise per kilometre, Mumbai’s suburban railway has been running in operational losses for years. As a result, it doesn’t have sufficient funds for important asset renewals like track upgrades and other improvements.

“One solution would be to separate the functioning of Mumbai railway into a separate body, so that managers here can take charge and make their own decisions as per the requirements, with the involvement of the local bodies,” said transport expert Ashok Datar of Mumbai Environment Social Network. “Today, for every small decision, one has to depend on the railway board.”