One of Mumbai's enduring images is of men and women standing on the footboards of the local trains, their shirts and salwars fluttering in the wind.

That image will disappear if a new experiment is successfully implemented on the Western Railway, one of the city's three train lines. The Western Railway has been testing trains retrofitted with automatic sliding doors that will woosh close, just like in Metro coaches. The sliding doors are aimed at eliminating the deaths of commuters who fall out of overcrowded compartments each year. (An average of 2,000 people die on the rails every year: most of them are killed while illegally crossing the tracks.)


Perhaps no other city in the world loses a section of its population in this manner every year, but perhaps no other city in the world has a public transport system as overburdened as the train network.

Nearly half of the city’s estimated population of 12 million takes the train every day. Railway officials have made numerous efforts to curb the incidence of passengers falling to their deaths because they were hanging out of the compartment or crushed after slipping through the gap between the platforms and the trains. Since people darting across the tracks form the largest numbers of casualties, posters of a man being pulverised to death on the rails have been put up at all stations to discourage others from repeating this action. Loud announcements warn travellers against leaping into moving trains, as do exhortations to passengers to use the foot over-bridges instead of crossing the tracks. Ever so often, stories of motormen traumatised by mangled bodies find their way into the local press.

None of these measures has been overly effective. There are always too many people in the trains and platforms at any given point. A delay of a minute or two during peak hour can make the “super-dense crush load”, as the railway authorities refer to the rush-hour crowd, assume frightening proportions.

On time, every time

There's a good reason for the crowds. The Mumbai train is affordable, mostly on time, and the only mode of transport that can defeat traffic jams. Though the mega-city doesn’t seem very efficient at first glance, its people place immense value on being on time and being on the move all the time. Whether it’s a trinket seller or a stock broker, everybody who is on the train is on the clock. If travelling conditions are basic, the compartments are as congested as beehives and not as clean as they could be, no one seems to complain too loudly.

However, the fortitude with which commuters tolerate the sometimes beastly nature of train travel will be severely tested by the automatic sliding doors. The open entrances perform two vital functions: they let in the breeze, sticky and smelly at the best of times, but a breeze nonetheless, and they allow commuters to leap into moving trains. Writer Suketu Mehta famously wrote of the petal-like hands that grab the last-minute traveller sprinting across the platform with the energy of a short-distance runner.

“If you are late for work in the morning in Bombay, and you reach the station just as the train is leaving the platform, you can run up to the packed compartments and find many hands stretching out to grab you on board, unfolding outwards from the train like petals," Mehta writes in Maximum City. "As you run alongside the train, you will be picked up and some tiny space will be made for your feet on the edge of the open doorway.”

A fine art

Every train traveller has perfected the fine art of catapulting the body into a moving train. Some quicken their stride and break into a trot just as the train gains speed. Others jog furiously and crash through the open doorway, hauling themselves aboard by grasping at the silver pole in the middle of the entrance. The much-greased pole won’t be necessary with sliding doors. But how will Mumbai’s famously frenzied passengers react to being denied their God-given right to hurl themselves into moving trains rather than wait for the next one?

It’s easy to predict some of the reactions that will follow when the rakes with sliding doors are tested with real passengers in the coming weeks. Commuters are likely to complain about the lack of ventilation inside the shuttered compartments – a very real problem in a city with sweltering weather for the better part of the year. Although the railways have promised that air will be let into the non air-conditioned coaches through vents, the highly voluble and restive travellers will not be placated so easily, especially during peak hours, when even a first class compartment can resemble cattle class.

And what is to be done with the flying commuter, the one who risks life and limb just to be on time? Mumbaiites are famously adaptable creatures, and are likely to devise ways to squeeze into the ten-second gap as the doors slide shut. If you can momentarily prevent an elevator from closing, a train should be easy enough. Hands may no longer unfold like petals, but bodies are certain to be twisted about like rubber.