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Elphinstone Road disaster: When a city's lifeline crumbles

Elphinstone Road disaster presents a case for augmenting the supporting infrastructure in and around most suburban railway stations

Pankaj Joshi 

Elphinstone Road and Parel stations foot over bridge
Policemen at the foot overbridge linking Elphinstone Road and Parel stations in Mumbai, where 22 persons were killed and over 30 got injured on Friday. Photo: reuters

Public furore over the recent stampede at the Station has seen most of the blame directed at the state for criminal dereliction of duty and for ignoring the clearly visible warning signs of a deteriorating public infrastructure. The stampede that claimed 23 lives and injured many others has brought, in its wake, a delayed but opportune moment to rethink, revisualise and revamp our railway infrastructure, which is the city’s lifeline. 

Several theories and analyses have been doing the rounds following the incident that occurred on 29th September 2017, from rumours of a bridge collapse to a short circuit in the overhead wires, all of which led to a panic situation among clueless commuters who had no other option but to bottleneck into the only single exit available. The foot over-bridge at was approximately four metres wide, which fell short by at least two metres, as per an audit carried out by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) way back in 2015 which recommended a 6-metre width. While most populist thought focused on how the situation could have been avoided, the stampede is telling of a far larger, deep-rooted problem facing an already overstressed transport network – overcrowded trains due to manifold increase in the footfalls of rail commuters and an outdated infrastructure that has been stretched thin to manage this voluminous proportion. All these issues warrant urgent but lasting solutions to the city’s transport network.     

As is the case with many of the city’s century-old stations, that were once made to cater to a far less density of population, and are unable to cope with current high densities, the disaster presents a case for not just improving but also augmenting the supporting infrastructure in and around most suburban railway stations. A look at the Census 2011 data reveals that while the actual population growth (decadal growth) for Greater may have declined by a little over seven percent, the density of population using the railways has vastly increased. Most of this population, typically residing in parts of the Metropolitan Region (MMR), still commutes to which remains the only major employment hub. Every day, large concentrations of population travel these far distances by local trains, which are the fastest and often the only mode of public transport connecting the Region to the City.

Following the massacre, the government was jolted into conducting safety audits at every station between Churchgate and Dahanu Road. But, the government cannot stop at merely carrying out safety audits, the larger picture needs to be looked at which is the fact that our railway system is running at more than fourfold capacity and is in complete shambles. It shouts out for imminent short and long-term remedial measures to avoid further catastrophes: 

Engineering Spaces

In order to address the most pressing issue of overcrowding, it is imperative to conduct a study of the number of commuters, the busiest routes on the railway network and the carrying capacity of stations, including entry and exit points, staircase widths and foot over-bridges. Given the interaction between people and civic infrastructure, particularly that of public transport, the need of the hour is to engineer commuter movement to ensure a systematic flow by providing facilities such as adequately wide staircases and bridges, clearly demarcated exit and entry points, volumetric detectors to warn against overcrowding and well-defined staircases to regulate flows. Such infrastructure can be quickly constructed by using sturdy and cost-efficient materials like concrete and steel. One of the most fundamental issues with regards to a number of suburban stations is the lack of spill-out spaces immediately outside the station premises. In many cases, this forces passengers to step out in the midst of moving traffic as soon as they exit the station, creating a major conflict between vehicles and pedestrians. In these areas, spill-out spaces are crucial to effectively disperse the crowds that leave the station. In severely congested station areas, with little room for such spaces, these could be provided as elevated decks at a higher level and connected to the foot over-bridges. These spill-out areas act as buffer zones and allow pedestrians to plan their onward commute. This entire process should be expedited and not take more than three months, in spite of following the due process of inviting tenders and implementation. 

Another major factor which exacerbates overcrowding, and was evident at Elphinstone Road, are the staircases which are covered on both sides to prevent littering. Such covered staircases seen at railway stations across the city must be left open to allow ample daylight and ventilation.

Inter-modal Connectivity

Another crucial aspect that should be looked into is seamless inter-modal transfers and last mile connectivity. is touted to have one of the most efficient public bus transport networks – the BEST. The scores of commuters relying on the railways as their main mode of transport and spilling onto the roads to reach their workplaces, are often seen crowding outside the station either looking for taxis or walking due to the lack of a well-connected mass transit route that connects railway stations to key destinations. Most often, the pedestrian is forced to adjust to not only cramped infrastructure but is also compelled to navigate a busy street bustling with cars and other vehicles. 

Mumbai’s public bus transport system, until a few years ago, was a popular choice in terms of short route connectivity and efficiency. However, in recent times, a very strategic dismantling of an otherwise well-functioning system has been at play, specifically designed to serve vested private interests. The potential of the bus system of has been seriously undermined by the civic administration, and has led to stagnation and in fact a significantly reduced fleet. Authorities must look at installing bus stops outside railway stations in order to ensure end-to-end connectivity for commuters. With the ongoing metro networks and monorail projects, the commuter density in the city is expected to increase manifold, which can be supported robustly by the BEST, if planned well. 

Pedestrianisation and public transport must feature as the government’s top priority and must reflect in the form of stringent policy changes that would seek to drastically improve the existing public transport system. 

Redevelopment Strategy

Section 33 under the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act 1966 mandates a comprehensive development strategy for the city, directed towards addressing issues such as bad layout and detailed planning of civic centres. It also calls for urban renewal with planned stages of development. These issues need to be addressed through a stated policy, one that is informed by looking at issues through a wider city lens. The Elphinstone and Parel areas that have organically grown due to their natural market potential, unlike stated Central Business Districts (CBDs), need to be planned for in a comprehensive manner as these will continue to see heavier, denser populations. These localities currently house several large MNCs, media houses and other commercial enterprises that employ hundreds of people that commute daily to both areas, a potential calamity waiting to repeat itself with far worse repercussions.  

Elsewhere in the world, public transport sees heavy government spending through subsidies for it to sustain and manage its commuter population. However, in the state is yet to step in and financially support the city’s public transport infrastructure which currently largely relies on ticketing and advertising, making this city’s lifeline limp at the mercy of an ignorant civic administration.  

with its increasing population growth, negligence from successive governments and lack of essential infrastructure provision, is headed towards becoming a civic disaster if immediate steps are not taken to address its pressing issues in a cohesive manner. Repeated criminal negligence of civic duties which reveal the administration’s apathy towards strategic urban planning should no longer be tolerated. The time to merely propose ad-hoc suggestions to macro problems is long gone and instead, requires a thorough assessment of the city’s issues that need to be addressed with multi-pronged, short-term and long-term measures. 

The author is Executive Director, Urban Design Research Institute, Mumbai, and founder-trustee, School of Environment and Architecture, Mumbai

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Tue, October 24 2017. 12:25 IST