08 February 2016

“Trains without doors and a dishevelled double decker bus with a platform at the back” – British transport expert Christian Wolmar’s visit to Mumbai

A report by Rajendra B. Aklekar

"They run without doors?" was the first reaction of the alarmed Christian Wolmar, British transport expert, rail historian, author, journalist and the 2016 London mayoral candidate when he saw a crowded suburban local train pulling out of Churchgate station in Mumbai on his day-long visit.

Wolmar was in Mumbai as a part of his India tour for his new book on Indian Railways. Fascinated with trains and railways like me, Wolmar, first started as a transport journalist with The Independent and has been writing on transport issues since 1992. The award winning writer and broadcaster is also the author of a series of books on railway history. He was at Churchgate and Mumbai CST and spoke about a host of transport issues.

Earlier on his arrival, one the first photos that he had taken in Mumbai was that of the double-decker bus, calling it a “dishevelled Mumbai double decker with a platform at the back” tagging the Mayor of London, in his tweet. And he was correct as the Mumbai double deckers have been a British legacy and the last 120 buses that remain are diluted versions of the original Routemasters.

As I caught up with him at the Taj, Mumbai, he had bought for me a personally signed copy of the Iron Road, a fascinating account of hidden stories of railway history from the early steam train days to the high-speed bullet trains of today, a book authored by him that I had always wanted. It was quite an honour to get a copy from the person himself and that too a signed one. As the conversation moved to trains and railways, I suggested he should take a look at the city's two biggest rail terminii in Mumbai-- Churchgate and Mumbai CST and he readily agreed.

We hopped into cab (after refusals from a few) and reached Churchgate station. It was a Saturday evening and crowds were thin, but still good enough as there had been a few train delays. After examining the automatic ticket vending machines with the suburban maps on them, we got a platform ticket and entered the platform, walking to the other end as he wanted to take a good look at the trains entering and leaving the station. Technically, a variety of EMU trains were standing next to each other -- a Bombardier class and a Siemens one.

As we walked back after a brief photo session and as the train moved, Christian was alarmed that the train had started moving with open doors. As I explained  him later that the trains here were non-air-conditioned and there were ventilation issues if the doors got shut, he seemed convinced, but said it was a highly risky affair. “You die one way or the other, either by suffocation or via open doors,” said he and was quite stunned to know that about ten people die on the suburban lines of Mumbai every day. After examining and admiring the functional 1936 British Ransomes and Rapiers heritage buffers on Churchgate platform, we took the pedestrian subway to crossover to the Western Railway headquarters building.

“There is chaos, crowd and people everywhere, but things in India are always at their functional best. This is the best part of the country,” he said as we walked the subway, half of it occupied by hawkers, half of it under repairs.
The next stop was the Churchgate heritage building. Since the offices and the heritage gallery are shut on the weekend, we were not allowed to enter the building premise but Christian was quite impressed by the Bilimora-Waghai (Gujarat) railway’s steam engine on display in the building premise. He took a lot of its pics of it saying, “it’s built in Stafford,” and tweeted one immediately, calling it one for the “grocers”, an informal term for trainspotters or rail fans.

We decided to walk it up from Churchgate to Mumbai CST so that we could discuss more of two cities –London and Mumbai. Walking up from the by-lanes of Fort and reaching Mumbai CST discussing about traffic and problems, he said Mumbai needs to encourage public transport more and that more Metro lines will be of help. “The Monorail is quite an out-dated mode of transit and I don’t know why Mumbai is getting one, he wondered.

At Mumbai CST, after a few photographs of the DC and AC suburban trains in one premise, the Star Chamber and the jumble of train indicators, he was quite moved with the pictures of unidentified bodies that had been put up by the railway police at the station. “It’s quite disturbing thing, isn’t it?” Wolmar had a train to catch the next day early morning to the south and after the photos sessions, we soon decided to end the adventure. On his way back to the Taj, Christian Wolmar had one thing to say about Mumbai railway- just fascinating!

More about Christian here: http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/
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