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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 March, 2004, 13:33 GMT
Death on Bombay's lifeline

By Jayshree Bajoria
BBC correspondent in Bombay

The rail network that serves India's commercial capital, Bombay, and its suburbs is its lifeline, carrying six million people every day.
Man crosses tracks in Bombay
Stepping into danger

But every year, more than 3,500 commuters are killed using it - an average of 10 deaths a day.

Most are killed trying to cross tracks instead of using the bridges.

Many are simply trying to save time, but the railway authorities are not spared blame.

"The railways make last minute announcements changing the platform on which the train will pull in," says one commuter.

"If we don't cross the tracks to reach the platform, we will miss the train."

A second commuter adds: "Some stations don't have bridges in good condition. And most bridges are so crowded with vendors and beggars that walking through them is very difficult."

Safety steps

To help victims, a railway accident response helpline has been set up.

I kept shouting out to people standing on the platform... They all kept staring but didn't come to my help
Mahendra Sonawane,
injured passenger

The hotline, called Manavta (humanity), is run by a non-government organisation and runs 24 hours a day in co-ordination with railway authorities, police and the local governing bodies.

It has taken a number of practical steps, including providing more stretchers, improving the ambulance services for train stations, and providing volunteers to care for accident victims.

Manavta's chief coordinator, Bhawesh Patel, says it has been alerting the authorities to the causes of accidents.

"Some stations are beginning to erect fences on the tracks preventing commuters from crossing them," says Mr Patel.

"Also, several people die or get injured from falling into the gap between the platform and train while trying to board or get off. To prevent this, most platforms are being raised to reduce the gap.

"Poles on tracks, another danger to commuters hanging from doors and windows, are also being removed.''

Traveller apathy

While track safety is improved, conditions inside the carriages also need addressing.

A nine-coach train meant to carry 1,500 passengers can have during rush hour more than 4,000.

I don't like travelling alone. I prefer being in a group where there are other commuters
Elizabeth Rosario,
woman passenger

Overcrowding creates a perfect environment for pick-pocketing and heated rows.

In one incident earlier this year, a man was pushed off a moving train by fellow passengers after an argument over standing space.

In another, a video cameraman captured scenes of apathy among fellow travellers after a train knocked down a man.

Last year, Mahendra Sonawane lost his left leg when he slipped from an overcrowded train on to the tracks.

The 27-year-old lay there for 15 minutes before police arrived to lift him up and take him to hospital.

"I kept shouting out to people standing on the platform. I pleaded with them to lift me up and put me on the platform but no one listened," Mr Sonawane told BBC News Online.

"They all kept staring but didn't come to my help."

Acid attack

Serious crimes have also been recorded on the network.

Bombay train
Removing poles is one step being taken to prevent accidents

Eighteen months ago an underage girl was raped inside a rail compartment by a drunk while six passengers failed to act.

Youths have thrown stones at trains from shanty towns close to the tracks.

In January a man threw acid at three women inside a train.

Many women feel unsafe on the trains.

Students Puja Vardhan and Komal Jain say they always stay in a group.

They would never use the compartments reserved for women at night.

They wouldn't feel safe in them as the compartments are often nearly empty.

They are supposed to have a police guard at night. The guard's often not there. And even if he were, many women don't trust the police.

As fellow traveller Elizabeth Rosario puts it: "I don't like travelling alone. I prefer being in a group where there are other commuters.''

Scared of helping

One reason for the apathy for fellow passengers is the attitude of the police.

Mr Sonawane's sister says: "People did not come to help Mahendra because no one wants to get involved. Police ask a hundred questions and so everyone is scared to volunteer help.''

Manavta says its volunteers are helping to change this by providing help to victims until the next of kin arrives.

It says its helpline will soon be on display inside every coach on every train.

But one is forced to wonder whether it will be used by citizens who often prefer to look the other way or sidestep a man lying in a pool of blood.

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