When the railways become waterways

Photo by Shreyans Bhansali https://www.flikr.com/photos/thebigdurian/890971203

Almost all of Mumbai was stranded recently due to a heavy downpour. Roads were clogged up, people waded through knee deep and waist deep water, and all means of transport had come to a standstill. Trains, the lifeline of Mumbai, that carried thousands of passengers over considerable distances, were stuck at various places for hours together with tracks inundated with water.

Yet, the Central Railway spokesperson seemed quite happy as he beamed confidently, “We are now fully prepared for Mumbai’s unpredictable showers.”

“You said the same thing before monsoon and one day of heavy rains was enough to totally disrupt your services.”

“This time it is different. You can see for yourself.”

He took me inside a rake that had curved sides, no windows and looked suspiciously like a boat. “This is our latest custom built rake. The wheels can be folded in and it can move on water just like a boat’.

“Who will drive it?”

“I am sure you have heard of the famous boat race in Kerala where long snake boat races are held every year. We have recruited last year’s champions and given them training in negotiating Mumbai’s waterways. We have placed oars inside the train which will be used to row it at great speed whenever there is a heavy downpour and the tracks are flooded. However, the passengers will have to co-operate with the oarsmen.”

“I hope they don’t have to take turns at the oars.”

“Of course not. If they do, there is no saying what might happen. A Thane bound local may end up at Chembur or Worli. Actually, what they have to do is sing.”

“Sing?”

“We have found that a prime driving force for the oarsmen is lusty singing and cheering by the crowds in unison. A crowd of glum, silent passengers wondering when they would reach office would make most oarsmen give up their oars.”

“But then, how will the passengers know what to sing?”

“At every station, the songs will be played on the loudspeakers besides the usual request for minding the gap between the platform and the train.” He paused, “maybe we can drop that request as there is unlikely to be a gap between water and platform. Even without the announcement, they can sing whatever comes to their mind with the condition that it should be loud enough and they should remember to interrupt frequently with cries of ‘Haiya ho’.”

“Will there be a first class section?”

“No, instead we will have the economy class and the executive class. Come, I’ll show you”.

He took me to a portion where there were no seats but plenty of hand supports on top.

“This is our Economy class where, as in our second class, we expect to accommodate the maximum number of human beings in a given area.”

Next, he took me to a section with paneled walls, long reclining chairs, video and piped music.

“We have made this Executive class for the hurried businessman whose chauffer driven cars are unlikely to be on the roads in such days. We take him to his destination in comfort. Water hostesses will serve them hot bhajia and tea. He can relax watching a movie or settle down to work.”

“What will the drivers and guards do?”

“The oarsmen will be busy concentrating on rowing and so the driver will stand right in front. Whenever he sights a platform, he will shout “Platform ahoy” and this will be a signal for them to slow down and stop. The guard will supply tablets for sea sickness and also take care of the oars.”

“It is nice to learn that passengers can now go to office even on days of heavy rain.”

“Oh, we have got encouraging feelers from many quarters. When the Tourism department heard of our plans, they showed interest in hiring our boat trains. They want to offer a package deal, “Mumbai in the rains”. They expect one of the major attractions to be long rows of stranded trains and crowds splashing their way to work.”

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