12 April 2013

Mumbai's terror train on tracks

Mumbai's fitting reply to terrorism

Travelled in 864-A, back home from office late night… For starters, 864-A is the only surviving, restored and refurbished train coach of 11/7 Mumbai serial bomb blasts. It still runs smooth, ferries as many people as any other coach and no one is knows about or wants to know about its legacy. A silent and fitting reply to terrorism!

864-A was badly hit at Matunga. It was a part of the 5.57pm Churchgate-Virar train that day. The blast happened as the train on the fast corridor passing Matunga station. The first class coach had been originally manufactured in Kolkatta.

I remember first seeing the coach, ripped open and mangled standing still at the site under the Matunga bridge. The area had been cordoned off and politicians and VIPS, including Sonia Gandhi, had visited the station at Matunga to be with Mumbaikars. The coach reflected the horror that had unfolded on the city’s lifeline, leaving 186 dead.

The next time I saw the coach, it was at the railway workshop. Investigations were over and the coach had been handed over to the railways by the cops. A peep inside and it still smelt of blood, burnt flesh and scorched metal  and I vividly remember slippers and shoes were strewn and some bits of LIC insurance policy documents of some passenger who hoped to live.

The third time I saw the coach it was being refurbished. Of the seven blast-affected coaches, five were restored in one year at a total cost of Rs 1 to 1.2 crore but were slowly phased out in all these years. Two coaches had been immediately “condemned” as they were beyond repair. 864-A was the first to get back in tracks. It then smelt of fresh-cut metal and welding arcs, unlike the stench of blood and flesh of a year ago.

I remember faces of Chandrakant Mhatre, the technician team leader at the Western Railway’s railway workshop and Abdul Hamid, the welder who put back life into this coach. They were excited and explained how the entire roof had been severely damaged, besides widespread internal damage. The main frame of the coach, which is the skeleton of the structure, had sagged and needed replacement. Frames of the outer shell and the supporting rods were procured from original manufacturers in Kolkata. The coach ran exactly a year after the blast with painting of two doves on it signifying peace, flagged off by a railway babu from Churchgate station. The coach had been filled with more media men than commuters. This was in 2007.

A few years later the coach was forgotten, the doves vanished and so did its legacy from public memory. A few years ago, the coach was transferred to Central Railway and runs without any doves or markings. I have travelled in this coach several times now. Every time, I get into, I get memories of that stench, but am put off by the lively crowd and the dense rush crowd that gets into this coach, unaware of what it had been through. And such restoration is a rare thing…not done even to the coaches of the London subway trains that were hit by similar blasts. 864-A runs as national pride, I should say.