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'Every little tweak is calculated for weeks'

Thursday, November 01, 2018
Photograph by Azad Shrivastav

As the 35 lakh odd commuters of the Western Line are introduced to a new suburban time table today, Jagruti Verma talks to Suhani Mishra, Senior Divisional Operations Manager, the person responsible to keep the trains running in the Mumbai Division of the Western Railway

With no concrete, formal data (except for a 2010 report) on hand to track commuter movement and decide on which services to curtail and which to extend, there is a lot the Operations Department has to observe to ensure no mistakes are made. Right from checking on ticket sales to talking at length with station managers at suburban stations, every detail helps. “The station managers play a vital role in the process as they share their ground level observations regarding commuter movement,” said Mishra. If the station staff observes that there is a crowd even after the last peak hour train has left the station, it means that there has been a shift in the peak hour for that station and more services are required to compensate for it, she explains.

“Most of the team members are involved in making the time table live in areas around Virar and travel every day to Churchgate. They observe the crowd drift on a day-to-day basis not only as railway officials but also as regular commuters travelling during the peak hours,” said Mishra. The population growth in the area is also observed and the drift in the demography is considered while calculating the number of services.

 “We have observed an increase in the number of people residing in Andheri-Borivali-Virar section and the increase in the services has been made likewise,” she said. For a population of a little over 180 lakh in 2001, Western Railway ran about 998 services, of which 734 were with 9-car rakes and 264 with12-car rakes. There were no 15-car rakes back then. In 2017, while the total number increased to 1,323, 9-car rakes were eliminated and 15-car rake started taking thousands of commuters across the Western Line with 42 daily services.

Data collection and observation is one thing but there are several other factors that come into the picture while deciding something in regard to public transport, the most important being the public itself. “Suggestions from people have to be kept in mind and the political pressure too needs to be braved,” said Mishra, adding that the fact that most people and politicians are smart and understanding in terms of listening to the logistical aspects of why their wishes can’t be fulfilled, makes it slightly easier to work in Mumbai. Mishra has earlier worked in Vadodara, Ahmedabad and Ratlam Divisions of Western Railway in various capacities in the freight, coaching and safety related sub-departments of the Operations Department. After doing so for about ten years, she got posted in Mumbai Division in March 2017 as the head of Operations.

Mishra feels there is a need to up the technology which is being used to build railway infrastructure in the city. “There isn’t much scope to increase the number of services during peak hours on the Western Line with the current infrastructure,” said Mishra. Some relief is expected when the new lines become a reality but it will still take years before that truly happens. Getting traffic block hours during the day for infrastructural work and repair is a task for railway officials. The suburban services cannot be stopped or run with restricted speed for long hours. Mostly, night blocks are executed and they bring in their own set of hurdles. “Since the situation has been known for years, and is not expected to change any time soon, more efforts need to be put in to customise the equipments, technology and processes to be more efficient here,” added Mishra.

However, she doesn’t support the idea of radical change in technology either. “We need new technology but we can’t have Mumbai as the testing space for the prototype of any new technology,” said Mishra, hinting at the operational difficulties faced by the authorities in running the first AC local in the city.

In the new time table, the AC local is all set to get seven more halts at slow line stations and while efforts have been put in to ensure that the door closing mechanism doesn’t cause too much stress on the system, it is inevitable as the AC local requires about 45 to 60 seconds of halt at a station, while a non-AC local requires only about 15 to 30 seconds.

“While new technology is a must, we need such options for Mumbai that have been tested elsewhere on a smaller scale,” said Mishra, adding that it would have been less of a challenge if the AC local was introduced on a smaller suburban network in the city, probably in Kolkata.

Tackling death on a daily basis
Motormen, guards and station managers are a part of the Operations Department. They are the people who have to deal with the bodies of railway accident victims. There is a loco inspector for about 10 motormen to counsel them. However, most of the counselling happens among the peer group. “When they sit together and share their horrifying stories and experiences of hitting people, it helps them get over the feelings as a group,” said Mishra. Starting out is really tough but over the years, they get relatively accustomed to the conditions. Also, they are paid handsomely, in some ways, just to stay sane.

The job is not an easy one for it comes with a lot of stress and depressive thought but at the same time, they also get to live with the satisfaction of being the ones who help lakhs of people go from one place to another, every single day. Without them, people won't be able to reach their offices on time and the economy would be in shambles. The job is to exist between the two extremes, Mishra explained.

The station managers too have it tough for they have to be around and witness the body parts being picked up. “It is true that the work is mostly done by people who are drunk, the station managers too have to go through the trauma of standing there and seeing it through,” she added.

Features of the new Western Line timetable:
1)    10 new services (1355 to 1365) have been introduced, 122 services are being extended.
2)    AC local to halt at seven slow line stations including Marine Line, Charni Road, Grant Road, Dahisar, Mira Road, Naigaon, Nalasopara stations to improve occupancy.
3)    The 6.51 pm Churchgate to Bhayander ladies special has been extended to Virar.
4)    In up direction, the ladies special departing from Bhayander will originate from Virar at 8.44 am
5)    Vasai Road to Churchgate 9.56 am ladies special local will now depart from Virar at 9.47 am.

Quick six:
Worst thing about Western Line commuters?
The selfish nature of those who practice door-blocking in trains.

Something you could tell Mumbaikars at large?
Stop killing yourself. Don't encroach on railway land, practice stunts whilst trespassing.

Are the questions raised about train operations genuine or just blabber?
People need to be allowed to question. Eventually, questions become better when they know better.

Something people don't understand at all about train operations?
Every station cannot have originating trains as they require a siding and related space. If we increase the number of terminal stations, it would mean an increase in the number of points where the mainline gets punctured. This leads to a reduction of speed of the train coming from behind. Sometimes the better option is to let the train travel from end to end.

Does monsoon make running trains tougher in Mumbai?
We do need to introduce better rakes with indigenous designs that are customised to run better during the rainy season. The under-frame can be lifted a little because that can be controlled more easily than the flooding situation in the city.

What's your favourite thing about the new timetable?
We have added a little colour to the working timetable used by motormen and guards, making it easier to read and the different kinds of services distinguishable.

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