Crackdown on rooftop train travellers

MUMBAI: The sight of people perched precariously on the roofs of trains is an iconic image of India. But the days of death-defying commuting could be over as one firm gets tough on daredevil travellers.

The Western Railway company, which operates trains on 60 kilometres of track in the western city of Mumbai, is warning passengers to stay inside carriages and says anyone caught outside will face prosecution.

“Rooftop travelling per se is dangerous,” said S S Gupta, from the state-run network. “There’s a danger of falling down and people have

been injured or died. Similarly, there’s a danger of getting electrocuted from the overhead wires running above the trains,” he said.

And the dangers seem very real indeed: from the end of this month, powerful 25,000-volt power lines will be installed above 30 kilometres of track as part of an upgrade to the network expected to finish by the end of the year. “A person should not be within two metres of the wire or they will be electrocuted,” said Gupta.

To drive the message home, actors began performing plays at stations along the route last Thursday, regular announcements are being made and a media advertising campaign started on Friday, he added.

With chronic congestion

on the roads of India’s

financial capital, the Western Railway and the Central Railway, which serves the central and eastern suburbs, are a lifeline for the estimated 18 million people living in Mumbai.

Nearly seven million

people use the cheap suburban trains — called “locals” — everyday to beat the traffic jams, which can turn even the shortest journey into a lengthy, maddening crawl.

But although they are

the quickest way of getting around the city, peak times can see more than 5,000 people crammed into nine-carriage trains — over three times the capacity.

With train doors open to the elements to combat high temperatures and humidity, many opt to hang out of the side of carriages or perch between them, putting themselves at risk of injury and death from trackside pylons.

A staggering 17 people died everyday on Mumbai’s suburban rail network in 2008, according to Indian government figures obtained by The Times of London newspaper using freedom of information laws.

Most deaths were trespassers on tracks but more than three people every working day were killed after falling or being pushed from moving trains, the daily said.

“Rooftop travel happens at certain periods of the day. It’s limited to a certain section of people. Most of them are aged 18 to 30 and men,” said Gupta. “They may have tickets or not. It’s more a daredevil act than anything else.”

Rooftop travel is already illegal in India and carries a sanction of one month in jail and/or a Rs 500 fine, the official said. Yet, as in many other areas of Indian life, the law is rarely, if ever, enforced.

Gupta said railway police

will increase their spot

checks of trains and he is confident the campaign will work. But one regular commuter said: “In principle it’s a good idea but in practice I don’t see it working because there’s so many people doing it. You can’t monitor every train criss-crossing the city.”