• Indian Sikh devotees gather at the railway station at Attari, some 35kms from Amritsar on November 12, 2016 as they prepare to leave on a Pakistani train. (Getty)Source: Getty
Think you know about crowded peak-hour trains? Think again. Five key ingredients to get your head around Mumbai’s super-sized public transport system.
By
Christopher Hollow

18 Nov 2016 - 1:12 PM  UPDATED 18 Nov 2016 - 3:20 PM

It’s train travel, but not as you can imagine it. One thing we pride ourselves on when it comes to public transport is personal space. In India's megalopolis, Mumbai, you don’t have that luxury. With around six million train travelers daily, platforms and trains are constantly in the midst of some kind of organised meltdown where the heat, the smell, and overcrowding is overwhelming.

Over four parts, World’s Busiest Railway uses Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus as a prism through which to view the broader India. Sprawling, frenzied, with a beautiful sense of controlled chaos.

Hosts Dan Snow, Anita Rani, Robert Llewellyn and John Sergeant reveal Mumbai’s crack engineering, stunning architecture and the resilient people responsible for making this epic transport system work.

Crush Hour

Think you’ve been squished into a train carriage at peak hour? Think again. In Mumbai, there’s as many as 5,000 people on a train – it equates to 14 people squished into a square metre. There’s one rule when getting on: push or be pushed. Passengers cram every nook and cranny. The locals have a special name for Mumbai’s rush hour mayhem: SUPER DENSE CRUSH LOAD!

Why do they do it? The roads are just as congested, with an average speed of 9kms per hour.

Lunch on the run

It’s a century-old delivery service that defies belief. Known as dabbawalas (one who carries the box), they’re basically a crack unit of more than 5,000 white-garbed couriers who each day ferry around 200,000 home-cooked lunches to offices across Mumbai via bicycles and train roofs whilst balancing trays of hot food. As most dabbawalas can’t read, they use a coding system of colours, numbers and letters. It’s said there’s less than one error per one million transactions making it the world’s best-managed supply chain.

Precious Payloads


Darjeeling is considered the ‘champagne of teas’. But it would never have reached the rest of the world without a steam engine known as the ‘Toy Train’ of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. This magnificent feat of engineering runs 78kms long, and rises up a steep 2,000 metre gradient using a narrow 2ft track gauge. The closest we have to a similar type of train is Puffin’ Billy in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges.

Silver saviour service

The Mumbai rail system is a mix of new technology and old know-how. The congested city network is run by a complex signal system that is nothing short of an engineering marvel. Out in the Mumbai suburbs, it’s a different story. On the Kariat-Lonavala line only one train can run at a time. To ensure there’s never two engines running headlong into each other, an age-old system utilising a simple silver ball is involved. Never have so many thousands of lives depended on such a humble device.

Train travel as a life and death decision

Mumbai is the most complex and densely loaded rail system in the world. However, while the trains are considered extremely safe – the city has one of the best safety records in India – the commuters pay a high price. An average of nine people die each day, usually falling from trains or crossing tracks. Not surprisingly, it represents the city’s biggest challenge: to make travel safer for passengers. 

World’s Busiest Railway airs on SBS Wednesdays at 7:30pm. Watch the first episode on SBS On Demand:

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