The train in Mumbai is something that must be experienced whilst in this city. 15,000 people die every year on the railways of India, and 6000 people die in Mumbai alone.
After experiencing the railway system first hand, I am not shocked by these statistics at all. We have been warned by almost everyone we have met not to go the train. ‘Order a taxi instead,’ people say.
So when we wake up on Sunday morning, I say to the boys ‘fancy going on the train?’
‘Yes please’ is their reply.
Michelle however doesn’t say anything – just gives me a look. I explain ‘come on. It’s Sunday, there are less people about, this is the best time to experience the train’.
‘Really’ is her response.
I sell the idea of getting on the train, by mention some sight-seeing in town, CMST station, a Victorian station built by the British. She agrees. ‘Great’ I am thinking ‘it can’t be that bad’, and the children are excited.
We buy our tickets 3rd class and the cheapest you can buy, if you are going to experience it you have to experience the way the locals do. Later, I find out that there is no real difference in class on these train, everyone just jumps on, in this case, literally whilst the train is moving.
The price of a 40 minute journey on a train is 8 pence, this is what keeps India moving, if it was more expensive people would not be able to travel.
I worked out, an interesting price comparison. If I was to travel to work by train 40 mins every day there and back (the same distance, say, from Epping to Liverpool Street) here in Mumbai, it would cost less for a month’s travel than it would cost me to buy one jar of chocolate spread!
So we buy the tickets and I decide to look after them all. Later, that turns out to be a mistake. We climb the footbridge over the railway line, there are only two platforms, so it can’t be difficult to figure out which way we need to go. We ask someone he tells us we are on the correct platform. We look across and see another train approaching from the opposite direction. This is our first experience of the way things happen here on the trains in Mumbai. The train approaches the station, people are jumping off the train as it enters the station – still moving! There is not a door to be seen anywhere on the entire train. Why have doors? This would be too safe and just slow things down and get in the way. There is an art to jumping off a moving train. You need to keep your feet moving, almost be running before you hit the ground, not that I am suggesting you should try it.
The other thing that you also notice is the amount of people in the train and hanging out of the doors. Further journeys travelling on the train has shown us that the prime position is to be hanging out of the door, holding on with only one hand, and your free leg dangling out of the train. This position does however only seem to be taken by so-called cool teenage boys!
We look across the platform, I say ‘did you see that?’
‘Yes’, reply the boys.
I don’t think this is going to be that easy. Michelle is not happy with the whole situation. We are then approached by a lady, who explains to us, that there are lady compartments, which Michelle should travel in, and with the boys. I am thinking that’s a bit sexist, but later realise that the trains get so busy, that at times you can’t even get on them. And if you do, you are certainly up close and personal. I would say imagine Liverpool Street tube at rush hour and then multiply it by 6 and you would get some idea of the amount of people that use these trains every day.
So we are ready I say to Michelle ‘it’s Sunday, you won’t have to use the lady’s compartment. Just jump on with us’. The train approaches the station,
I say ‘ready boys,’ ‘oh yes.’
I figure you have about 10 seconds to get on the train, 5 of those seconds the train is still slowly moving. You have to choose the compartment you are going to go for and move with the train and then jump on, easy, especially on a Sunday.
Go! Andrew jumps on and closely followed by me and Theo holding hands. The train is busy, but on this occasion there is enough room to get on through the doorless compartment.
‘Michelle! Mummy! Jump!’
I hold her hand come on the 5 seconds is ticking down.
‘Now’ I shout.
She lets go of my hand and does not jump and does not get on the train. All of us look at each other.
‘Why did she not jump on?’
I have no answer, but not only do have no answer, I have no phone. I can’t phone her. I have left my phone back at the hotel, thinking I wouldn’t need it, Michelle has a phone and we are together all day.
‘What are we going to do dad?’
‘Get off at the next station’ I reply, ‘and wait’.
‘she will jump on the next train, after seeing how much time she has got to get on the train she will be ready for the next one’
We wait and two train go by – she is not on either of them. I am thinking she is not happy. She has put the whole thing down to a bad experience and returned to the hotel. So we get the next train back and walk back to the hotel expecting to see Michelle there and waiting. But no, she isn’t there, my phone rings.
‘Where are you? I am on the train’ she says
‘We are back at the hotel, why are you on the train we waited for you at the next station’
‘I had no ticket, you had it so I had to go back and buy another one’
‘Oh, get off the train and wait at the station, but let me know the name of the station and we will meet you there’
So after boarding the train again we all safely meet up. We did our sight-seeing as promised and even had a Macdonald’s for Sunday lunch. But was this our first day’s experience of the railways over yet? Not quite, we had to come back.
Michelle says ‘come on we have had the experience shall we just get a taxi back home?’
I say ‘no, you are used to trains now, and because this is the last station on the way back home, the train will not be moving when we get on, and it’s Sunday’.
On future train journeys I have since experienced crowds, on these train like nothing I have ever experienced. On one occasion when changing trains going over to the west, and entering the city, it was mad.
You have to simply fight like a rugby player to get on, elbows and all my experience as a scrum- half was needed to enter the train. So I think now I am on all is safe, but how wrong could I be. It wasn’t the getting on it was the getting off that proved to be the biggest problem. People are all touching like you can’t imagine. People shout the name of the station they are getting off at, the main changing station. If you are not getting off you are pushed and man-handled to the middle part of the train; if you are getting off, you just have to brace yourself. On this occasion I was getting off, the station name is called the 10 seconds is in countdown. Then the move starts.
The last time I can remember my feet not touching the ground and I was still moving was when I was extremely drunk, and a 6ft5”bouncer threw me out of a night club! This time, I was moving with the crowd and my feet were not touching the ground, and on this occasion I was not drunk. There was nothing I could do about it. ‘Help’ was the word that came to mind when the crowd finally moved me from the train. I dusted myself down and got my feet back on the ground, ready for the next scrum.
So if I knew then, what I know now, when we were just about to get on the train, then maybe Sunday or not we might have got a taxi back home.
We look around the lovely train station that ironically looks better and more British that the new changes at Kings Cross. The train arrives, we meet a guy who talks to us and says he will help us on the train. He says he just came back from visiting his family in Leicester, his name was Mistry.
He says being Sunday there is no need for us to split up, and for Michelle and the boys to go into the lady’s compartment. We can all travel together …. He was wrong.
We get on the train, no problem, a bit crowed, and we can’t get a seat, but at least we are together. On entering the train Mistry, who I guess was in his late 60’s shows us the Indian rugby or Kabaddi style of entering the train. Just push with all your might. Michelle is amazed but still smiling. I ask the boys if they are alright, and if they can still breathe. We talk to Mistry, and the space isn’t that bad, well not yet.
Mistry says goodbye and leaves the train, we are alone and all together, I figure out we have only 3 stops before we need to get off. Getting back to the hotel will be no problem. Then we stop at a station 3 stops from our stop. This is a connecting line stop. I know now, but not then, this is a station where lots of people either enter or get off of the train to connect to another line. There is movement we are pushed around, I hold onto the two boys, Michelle just ahead of me.
‘Alright everyone?’ I say.
Then there is a rush of more people getting the train; we are squashed so close together you can feel every part of the person’s body you are next to! I am now thinking, ‘Michelle should have gone into the ladies’ compartment’.
The squash continues, you can hear peoples discomforting sighs. I say to Andrew who is just in front of me, ‘only two more stops to go’. ‘Ok’, he smiles.
Michelle, standing just in front of Andrew, looks back over her shoulder, with a real worried look on her face. I am thinking ‘she is just squashed like the rest of us’. The final stop one more stop and we can get off, we are nearly off this train.
She looks over again, this time with a more than worried look on her face, I can see she wants to say something. I squash closer to Andrew to meet her face.
She says: ‘John’.
I know straight away to use my name in a situation like this there must be something wrong.
‘Are you ok?’
‘John’, she whispers.
‘Don’t do anything, but someone has got their hand right on my bum’
I am thinking, how could I do anything, my hands are so closely squashed against my body, I couldn’t even pick my nose if I wanted to.
She squirms, ‘it’s still there. There is still a hand on my bum’.
‘Michelle, I am sorry there is nothing I can do’
I did think about saying just enjoy it while you can, but then thought that wouldn’t have been the correct timing for such a poor joke.
She looks more over her shoulder more worried this time. I am thinking the old scrum-half might have rearrange this scrum.
‘Don’t worry Michelle I am coming’ I say.
‘Quick’ she says ‘the hand is moving’
‘Oh no’, I am thinking. Then Andrew who is sandwiched between us both for the whole journey, decides to speak.
‘Don’t worry, mum. That’s my hand!’