HOW TO: Ride A Train In India Without Losing A Leg

Meeti Shroff Shah
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You’re walking through downtown Mumbai and the streets are packed. You need to get somewhere, so you think about taking a double-decker bus, an auto-rickshaw, or a taxi. But then you size up the crowded streets and decide to head for the train station.

The next thing you know, you’re surrounded by cacophonous chaos. People on the platform are bumping into you, tugging at you, and crushing your toes. You want to hop on a train, but that seems like the quickest way to end up inside a casualty ward.

In general, trains are the quickest and most efficient way to get around Mumbai. But, in a city where hundreds of limbs are lost each year in train accidents, there are some things you need to know. This helpful guide will save you time, frustration… and maybe even your legs.

Rethink your concept of "personal space"

In the United States, the notion of personal space is sacred. In India, it’s mythical, especially in a perennially crammed city like Mumbai. At peak riding hours, space on the trains is truly at a premium—trains often operate at twice their capacity. If you’ve grown up on a steady diet of "please" and "excuse-me," you may find all the pulling and pushing a bit of a shock. But adjust your frame of mind and you’ll soon get used to it.

Pack a backpack

Before you head to the station, pack all your valuables in a backpack or a shoulder bag. This way, you can use your arms to wade through the crowds and get on the train.

Never cross the tracks

Never cross the tracks to get to a different platform, even if you see the locals do it. According to statistics published by the Mumbai Railway Police Commission, there were 1,181 deaths and 444 injuries in Mumbai from January to July 2006 from train track crossings alone. If you add other train-related deaths and injuries, like falling off running trains, the numbers rise to 2,251 and 2,174 respectively.

Choose the right car

As the train approaches, note the location of the ladies' cars. They’re usually found at the front, back, and middle of a 12-coach train, or the front and back of a nine-coach train. They typically have green stripes and a "LADIES" sign in English. Each train also has a couple of first-class compartments, painted with red stripes for men or green stripes for women. The seats in the first-class cars are cushier and, since it is about five times more expensive to travel first class, less crowded.

Grab on to whatever you can

As you make your move, take a deep breath, invoke the name of your favorite god, and make a dash for it. Then, as you step onto the car, prepare to grab the train’s metal hand bar. If you can’t reach it, latch on to somebody’s shirt, bag, or belt. You’ll be pulled and pushed in every direction, so be ready to pull and push right back.

Enjoy the people-watching

Now that you’re on board, you can relax and enjoy your company. Men will discuss politics, cricket, and the Sensex (the Indian stock index). Some may have their briefcases balanced on their knees, carefully playing a game of Rummy or Teen Patti, a game similar to Poker, while at the same time evaluating how Dhoni, the current captain of India’s cricket team, is faring. Others may be glued to their mobile phones, talking loudly over the sound of the train and wind.

Women, meanwhile, will gossip about their in-laws or neighbors and shop for knick-knacks from vendors who trudge through the crowd. Others chant mantras from small portable books of scriptures, while others yet have newspapers spread across their laps, cutting and cleaning vegetables in preparation for the evening meal.

Give change to the beggars

Expect to see some beggars. Half-naked children will ask for roti (a type of Indian flat bread); eunuchs will shower blessings in exchange for coins; blind men will sing old Hindi film songs. All will hop on and off the train at will. They will tug at your sleeves and touch your arms, legs, or hair to get your attention, so carry some loose change and give them a few coins if you don’t want to be pestered.

Meet your neighbors

Despite the crowded conditions, the atmosphere on most trains is amiable, especially if you disregard the occasional fight that erupts over a seat or elbowroom. As a regular commuter, I have made friends with an old Parsee schoolteacher and a young flower girl. I have picked up colorful swear words by watching a fight between two fisherwomen. And I have learned a beautiful prayer song from a blind beggar.

A train ride in Mumbai can take you many places besides your destination, if only you are willing to try.


Posted on 11/11/2009 by

JF Black

JF Black

great advice! i especially agree with the personal space section. going to keep this in mind next time i'm there. JFB

Posted on 11/13/2009 by

Sabera Kapasi

Sabera Kapasi

Meeti, your post brought back some of the fondest memories of our beloved Mumbai, while making me laugh out loud at my seat. Thankyou for reminding me of home. :-) Keep writing!

Posted on 11/24/2009 by

john rame

john rame

funny advice, looks pathetic to travel in mumbai trains, not sure if these trains are meant for human beings or live stock. We should make our living betterwith suggestions, suggestions should be aimed at improving the situations, not comprimising.

Posted on 12/07/2009 by

Michelle Saltis

Michelle Saltis

Good advice! While we travel it is easy to forget that other cultures are very different from ours, with no way being the correct way. The best thing to do is forget the cultural standards of one's own country and embrace the new one in order to have the best time, and you really captured that essence here. I will definitely keep this in mind when I visit India!

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