Early last month, local TV news in Mumbai picked up a video that was going viral on social media. It showed 19-year-old Pratiksha Natekar, a resident of Bhandup, crossing tracks between platforms, as a goods train barrelled down in the near distance. Talking on the phone with headphones plugged in, Natekar didn’t hear the train till it was too late. She panicked. The video showed her running to the edge of the platform before turning to run straight into the oncoming locomotive. Horrified commuters watched as the teenager was knocked down in the impact. By the time the motorman hit the brakes, the first wagon had already passed over her.

Fearing the worst, when the commuters checked under the train they were relieved to find Natekar terrified but alive. Sustaining only minor injuries, Natekar lived to see another day. But on Mumbai’s overcrowded suburban rail network — often called its lifeline — nine people a day aren’t as lucky.

A lot of adjectives are thrown around when the subject is the Mumbai Suburban Railway (MSR). ‘Historic’ is one. Tracing its origins to the country’s first passenger railway line, laid in 1853 between the docks of Bori Bunder on the southern tip of the island city and the town of Thane to the north, it’s the oldest railway system in Asia. ‘Iconic’ is another. After all, these rickety, open-door trains — colloquially called ‘locals’ — are as much a fixture of Mumbai life as black-and-yellow taxis and red-and-silver BEST buses. There’s even a movie whose entire plot revolves around missing the last local train of the night, Sanjay Khanduri’s Ek Chalis Ki Last Local .

But in recent years, as the 164-year-old railway system struggles to ferry over 75 lakh passengers a day, the adjective that comes up more often is ‘deadly’. According to statistics obtained by rail activist Samir Zaveri under the Right to Information Act, 3,202 people died on the railway tracks of Mumbai in 2016. That averages out to almost nine deaths a day. Another 3,363 were injured. These figures are not statistical outliers, but representative of a long-term trend. The death count for 2015 was higher at 3,304. And according to figures on shodh.gov.in, 1,618 accidental deaths have been recorded so far this year. That makes the MSR one of the deadliest public rail transit systems in the world.

For years, this damning mortality rate was ignored by the railway authorities and the State government. The press followed suit, relegating statistics about accidental deaths to blurbs on the back pages. And Mumbai’s long-suffering commuters, used to risking life and limb every day on the way to work, became inured to the idea of daily commute as a life-or-death lottery. They even took perverse pride in it, treating a peak-hour ride on the insanely overcrowded Churchgate to Virar fast as a rite of passage towards becoming a real ‘Mumbaikar’. It took the death of 21-year-old Bhavesh Nakate, who was crushed under a train after slipping from its footboard, in November 2015, to wake everyone up. Nakate’s death was similar to hundreds of others that occur every year, but with one vital difference. A fellow commuter had captured his fall on his phone camera. And the video went viral.

A few weeks later, hearing a number of public interest litigations (PILs) on commuter safety and security, a Bombay High Court bench of Justices Naresh Patil and SB Shukre, came down heavily on the State government and the Indian Railways. “[In] no other country would so many deaths not be taken seriously, in India we just sit on the sidelines and watch on,” they observed, asking the authorities to list all measures taken towards addressing the issues of overcrowding and the rising accidents on local trains. “People are dying on the trains and the tracks every day and the authorities cannot continue to keep their eyes shut,” they added. “If you act now and succeed in saving even just one such life, your actions will make a large difference.”

“If this was happening in the US or UK, these officials would be in jail and the Railways would have to pay crores in compensation every day,” says Zaveri, who filed one of those PILs on commuter safety. Having lost both his legs in a railway accident in 1989, Zaveri is now committed to helping other victims. “But this is a country of poor people, so their lives have no value.”

“The root cause of the problem is overcrowding,” says veteran transport journalist Rajendra B Aklekar, who has written extensively on the Indian Railways, including Halt Station India, a book on its history. “When Mumbai got saturated we built townships in Kalyan, Dombivali, Thane. We kept on building new townships, but never built a sustainable transport system connecting those townships with Mumbai. So when those people wake up in the morning, they go to the same old stations. That leads to crowding, that leads to everything.”

Mumbai’s public transit system has failed to keep pace with its rapid population growth. Only 11 per cent of Mumbai’s land is used for roads, way below the global norm of 30 per cent. This poor road penetration, combined with the woeful state of the BEST bus system, means that for large parts of the city the only reliable and affordable way to get from point A to point B is the Mumbai local. As astronomical land prices and high rents forced residents to move into the northern suburbs, the lack of alternative transit options pushed them onto the already overcrowded trains. Local trains run on the same tracks as national trains and this compounds the problem, slowing down the locals and forcing unscheduled delays. As the frequency of trains drops, the crowd at the station continues to grow. As a result, a peak-hour Mumbai local carries 6,000 passengers, more than triple its seating capacity. That’s 16 people per square metre of usable space. They even had to come up with a special term for it — Super Dense Crush Load — though that fails to communicate the true nature of the experience. The Bombay HC’s description was more on the mark when last year, a bench headed by Justice VM Kanade said that “concentration camps are better than people in crowded trains.”

Railway officials say they are working to upgrade infrastructure and increase capacity. “We’ve added 72 new 12-car rakes and added new tracks and corridors under Mumbai Urban Transport Plan (MUTP) II,” says Prabhat Ranjan, chief operations manager of the Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation (MRVC). “Under MUTP III we’ll add even more of both.”

But in a city with limited land there’s only so much capacity that can be added. Delays caused by bureaucratic tangles and issues around land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation only add to the problem. By the time new capacity is added, it has been outpaced by the growth in the volume of passengers. “We need multi-modal transport instead of burdening only one,” says Ranjan. “If the load is shared across transport services, the situation wouldn’t be so dire.”

The lack of appropriate city planning and Mumbai’s unique topography is also behind another problem — trespassing — which caused 56 per cent of the deaths in 2016. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people jump off platforms or over boundary walls in order to cross the railway tracks that divide the eastern and western parts of the city. “We prosecute almost 20,000 people every year for illegally crossing the tracks,” says Sachin Balode, senior divisional security commissioner (RPF) of Mumbai Division of Central Railway (due to historical reasons, Mumbai’s four rail lines are run by the two separate administrative zones of Western and Central Railway). “But at the trespass point between Ravli Junction and Wadala, a study showed that 40,000 people trespass per day. That is how unprepared we are to tackle this issue,” says Balode.

The reason why so many people risk their lives to cross the tracks is the lack of east to west connectivity in the city. Going around the tracks would add kilometres — and traffic — to a commute that is already one of the longest in the world. In other cases, such as the stretch between Kalwa and Thane, the road connectivity is so bad that thousands of people would rather walk along the tracks to the station than brave the traffic jam. And in many areas with settlements on both sides of the track, the lack of proper civic planning often forces people to trespass. “At the Wadala Ravli point, there are slums on both sides but the schools are on one side,” explains Balode. “So all those students have to cross the tracks to go to school. If you could move one or two of those schools on to the other side, that would be a long-term solution. In the same way, every trespass location has its local reasons that force people to cross the tracks. Those need to be looked into.”

In recent years, Railways officials have ramped up efforts to try and stop people from trespassing. They have built foot overbridges at railway stations, fenced large sections of the tracks, and added green patches at the end of platforms to discourage people from crossing the tracks to change platforms. They have conducted awareness campaigns, commissioned studies, and even announced a mobile game to try and influence commuter behaviour. But as the numbers indicate, much more is needed.

“We need creative solutions and we need to implement them fast,” says Kamal Mishra, editor, Mumbai Mirror and a veteran transport journalist. He suggests the Railways control entry and exit points at the station to regulate the number of passengers waiting on platforms, and bring in closed door trains to stop people from falling off. This step, at least, is in the plans with the 47 proposed new trains under MUTP III.

Aklekar, on the other hand, believes that nothing the Railways can do will make a dent in the rate of accidents. “The only way is to get people out of the local system and give them other options,” he says. “They need to speed up the rate of metro construction and make sure there are no delays. Because if the metro work stops in the next couple of years, then everything will collapse. If it continues at the same pace, then we might see some change in five or six years.”

Till then, most Mumbaikars have no option but to risk death or injury every time they take the local train. “Right To Life is in the Constitution that the railway minister is sworn to uphold, but there’s no compliance,” says Zaveri. “They keep selling tickets, taking the money, and people keep dying.”