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The terrible train rides of Mumbai


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    Indian commuters jostle to board a train in Mumbai in February 2007.

    - Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

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    Indian commuters travel by suburban train in Mumbai in July 2007.

    - Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

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    Commuters stand in the doorways of a crowded local train as it leaves Churchgate railway station in Mumbai in July 2006.

    - Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Pump up the tires and strap on the helmet, gang. This is National Bike-to-Work Week.

It's kind of an attractive option in the land of $4-a-gallon gas -- if you're willing to risk your neck dodging traffic.

Still, a bike commute here is way less dangerous than mass transit in some other places. Mehul Srivastava took a train ride in Mumbai, India's biggest city.


Mehul Srivastava: It's a blistering hot afternoon in Mumbai and Suraj Joshi is waiting to catch a train. It's rush hour and the train station is absolutely packed. Joshi is pushed to the edge of the platform by the crowds behind him. And then, he sees the train coming.

Suraj Joshi: Here it comes. This is the worst part of the travel.

Joshi is a software engineer and he's one of 8 million people who take the train in Mumbai everyday. The trains are easily the most crowded in the world: 500 people squeezed into a 200 person car. The trains stop for just a few seconds at each station and they don't even have doors, so everyday, about 14 people die just trying to get on and off a train. That makes Joshi's train ride one of the most dangerous in the world.

Joshi: I really hate this part of the travel. I can opt for traveling by road, but the roads are really bad and the only option left to me is traveling by trains.

When the passengers see the train coming, they push towards the edge of the platform and when it stops, a flood of people tumbles out, just as others push their way in.

Joshi: You have to push through the crowd and get inside. I really hate it. Let me show you how you go about doing it.

Srivastava: My god...

Joshi: That is nothing, that is nothing. Push your way through. This way, this way.

Inside the train, it is so hot and so crowded that most folks just concentrate on holding on. But like anywhere else in India, there's a guy trying to sell you something.

Given a chance, nobody in their right mind would get on these trains, but for most folks, there really aren't any other options. The government subsidizes the train fare so much than Joshi paid about a nickel for his 15 minute ride. On the roads outside, a bus ride would take him an hour and a taxi would cost close to a dollar. That's a lot of money in a country where most people still live on a few dollars a day.

But Joshi is young and he's a guy. For women, children and the elderly, things are much worse:

Nilofer Dadrewal: One word: hectic. Even though we travel by first class, it doesn't make much of a difference. After leaving the office, you are not that tired, but whilst going home, you get more tired. Just the travel part is killing.

That's Nilofer Dadrewal. She takes the train everyday. The 38-year bank employee has gotten good at pushing her way in and out of trains, but still, she realizes how dangerous her commute is.

Dadrewal: It is because people don't get to go inside because its very crowded and most of the time, they are hanging from the door. We women too.

Railway officials say that there isn't much they can do about conditions on those trains. R. Venkatraman is an official in charge of operations. He says that not all the deaths are the railway's fault.

R. Venkatraman: Safety is important for us. We are not ignoring safety, but we cannot be responsible for people who themselves are irresponsible: people climbing on top of trains, we cannot be responsible for them. We move millions of passengers daily.

And things may never get better. A $2 billion investment to increase capacity could take up to five years to show results, but by then Mumbai, India's fastest growing city, will have grown by at least 2 million people -- and almost all of them will be trying to take the train.

In Mumbai, this is Mehul Srivastava for Marketplace.

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