As I had planned yesterday, I set out today morning for the first time, after last week's flooding, to grapple with Central Railways' "restored" train service and get to the office.
So how was it?
The journey was faster than I had expected it to be. It took me about an hour and 40 minutes to reach Ghatkopar when I was expecting the journey to be well over 2 and half hours. That was about the only positive of the journey. Otherwise it was a painful ordeal.
I arrived at Ambernath station around 7.30 AM. Within a few minutes an announcement was made (in an excited sportscaster's mould) that there will be no train leaving for Mumbai for the next 25-30 minutes. Ok. I was prepared to wait. A few inquiries revealed that only one train had left for Mumbai around 6.00 AM. Meanwhile the announcement was repeated again (in the same excited voice) a few more times. Then around 7.40 AM the sportscaster announced that a train had left Badlapur and was "expected anytime" to reach Ambernath. I called my colleague from Badlapur (we had decided to take the same train, if possible) and he confirmed the departure of the train. He, however, had just missed it. He asked me to go ahead and promised to follow in the next train from Badlapur.
The train finally reached Ambernath around 8.00 AM. It had come from Karjat and was packed to the brim. I managed to get in. The train left after a 5 minute halt and crawled to Ulhasnagar. It took 15 minutes for a journey that normally takes about 4 minutes. More people crammed in and I got pushed deeper into the train. We finally reached Kalyan in another 15 minutes. By that time I had been pushed by the crowd right inside. I was balancing myself on a foot and had twisted my back in a way I never knew I was capable of to maintain my balance. Inside it was hot and humid and suffocating. Not surprisingly almost everyone around was on the edge and though people tried their best to avoid any fights and verbal fisticuffs, one could make out that tempers might snap at any moment. After another 5 minute halt the train proceeded towards Dombivli and reached the station quite quickly. More people piled into the train -- I don't know how they managed to find the space to get a toehold into the train. The local proceeded immediately. And soon we had cries of somebody at the door urging the people to "adjust" and move in. That fellow continued with his cries of "Push in, Go in" till a wag called out, "Let that man in, I have reserved a window seat for him." The man at the door stopped and the atmosphere lightened. I had already started worrying whether I would be able to get down at Ghatkopar or would I have to travel up to Dadar. A kindly man remarked that the crowd might ease a bit in Thane. We had reached the Parsik tunnel, where suddenly the train slowed down and took another 20 minutes to reach Thane. The journey from Kalyan to Thane had taken nearly 40 minutes. At Thane, the crowd didn't ease but seemed to double. I was pushed back further into the compartment. By this time my feet were hurting and my back was protesting. Sweat was getting into my eyes and I am sure some of it wasn't mine. When the train left Thane I decided to make an attempt to get down at Ghatkopar and started pushing out and trying to get to the door.Even after much cursing, grunting, when the train halted at and crossed Vikhroli (the station before Ghatkopar, my destination), I was no where near the door. And there were three others behind me who wanted to get down at Ghatkopar too. The two people in front of me didn't want to and refused to move. I tried to maneuver around them and squeeze out. By that time the train had reached Ghatkopar. A few heaves and pushes saw me reach the door, only to be pushed back by the crowd that had surged to get in. I fought against the crowd. Somebody behind me pushed and I found myself stumbling on to the platform. That push had knocked two people down. Thankfully no one trampled on them. The three others behind me weren't able to get down.
For some time i just gulped in the air and panted and staggered around the platform like a boxer who has had the worse of the 10 rounds. I made my way to a railway canteen and gulped down some water. My heart was still pumped up and working furiously. And my back hurt. It was 9.40 AM. I pulled out my cell and called my Badlapur colleague to ask his status. He replied that he had been waiting at Badlapur all this while and that he had just got onto a train that was now leaving the Badlapur Station. Phew!
I made my way to the office, reaching it finally around 10.15 AM. And I decided to have a word with my immediate bosses and express my inability to travel for the next few days. I then called up my family to tell them that I reached office in one piece.
Around 11.30 my colleague called to say that he was held up near Kalwa because of a rail roko. A few frantic calls and somebody said that there were protests at all stations: Thane, Kalwa, Mumbra, Diva, and Dombivli. I called my colleague back to ask him to go back home but couldn't get through. He finally reached office around 1.00 PM. He had walked from Kalwa to Thane. And had then taken a train to Ghatkopar. His actual journey had taken nearly three and a half hours. And before that he had waited for a train for nearly two hours.
Another friend who had also traveled called with more disturbing news. Two people had fainted near Kalwa, in his train compartment, due to the heat and suffocating density of the crowd. They were both stretchered off at Thane. And he too had taken over three hours to get to Dadar from Ambernath.
My Colleague and I decided to hoof it back early from the office. Meanwhile we tried to convince our bosses about our inability to travel for the next few days. The organization has promised to look into alternatives: We working from home, alternative road transport, etc.
We started back around 5.00 PM and reached Ghatkopar station around 5.40. A "fast" train to Kalyan arrived after a 15 minute wait. It was surprisingly bereft of any crowd. We could comfortably get in and stand without any hassles. We even got seats just after Thane. And the train made it to Kalyan at a good speed. We had to wait for about 30 minutes at Kalyan for a train to Badlapur. It came packed but much of the crowd got off at Kalyan an we made it comfortably back. I reached Ambernath around 7.30 PM. The surprisingly easy return journey put us both in a better frame of mind and we both have decided to make an attempt tomorrow to get to the office again.
But we might have been lucky enough to have got back without having to tackle the rush hour crowds. Two friends who traveled much later had to struggle -- first to get into the compartments and then to stay in them. The later trains were as packed as the trains in the morning. Nevertheless I intend to make an attempt to get to the office tomorrow. If, however, I find tomorrow a situation similar to the one I found today morning, I will turn back and go home.
Any concerns? Quite a few.
- The track between Ambernath and Kalyan is still not fully repaired. The trains are running very slowly in this section. It takes about 30 minutes on an average. Normally the journey is not more than 15 minutes.
- Two drains border the tracks from Kalyan to Withalwadi. These drains were built specifically to drain water quickly as that stretch is notorious for flooding. Both the drains are choked with stones and debris. If they are not cleaned quickly, even a sustained drizzle will ensure that the tracks go under water in no time.
- There are hardly any trains. Trains are running from Karjat to Mumbai every hour or at times one every two hours. Trains from Kalyan are every 30 minutes. All are packed to the brim. Hardly anyone can get in the train at Dombivli and beyond. Those who board, are hanging dangerously at doors with their finger-tips.
- The heavily packed trains and their slow speeds is causing major breathing problems to the commuters - as mentioned earlier, two fainted. And if the situation continues, they won't be the last.
- A number of students travel to colleges and schools by these trains. I don't know how they are managing it. At the moment it's inhuman to travel by those trains at peak hours.
- There are still no trains in the Kalyan-Kasara sector and in the Karjat-Khopoli sector.
- Long distance trains to Pune and beyond are expected to start next week. If the tracks don't improve drastically by then, the problems of the local trains are only going to be compounded.
- There is still no proper information about trains and their frequencies. The way it is announced or made known in the main stream media, anyone would feel that train services are back to "normal."
- At the moment, given the condition of the tracks and the densely packed trains, it is still very unsafe to travel.
- If the situation persists into another week, the rail-rokos are going to be extremely violent. They don't help matters but the frustrated public is bound to vent its frustration somewhere and somehow.