The seams in Mumbai’s suburban train system

The emptiest Mumbai train I’ve ever seen. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Saying that commuting in Mumbai is stressful, is an understatement. But if there’s one thing I miss about India, it’s my two hour long daily commute by train. I lived in Bandra, a western suburb and worked in the industrial (northern-central) suburb of Vikhroli. This meant that I had to walk for 5 minutes to catch a bus to the train station, then get on the Western line train to the central hub of Dadar, get onto a Central line train, then wait in line for a shared autorickshaw, then walk for 10 minutes to get to work. And follow the same route back home in the evening. It’s a ‘multi-infrastructural achievement’ (1) if there ever was one. Perhaps it’s not as obviously STS-oriented but I think that examining the technological seams and workarounds of this particular infrastructure explains the culture and people of Mumbai.

A train pulls into each station every two minutes. But whether you can or want to get onto a particular train depends many things — where it’s coming from, where it’s going to and how many stops it’s going to stop at, what time of day it is (whether it’s peak hour or not), how many coaches it has (that determines whether you can run from the bridge to the platform in time). Of course for a regular commuter, there is technology involved. While you’re waiting for the bus, you analyze the app for the next best train. It’s a little bit more reliable than the Pittsburgh Transit app so you hope you can make it in time for your chosen train. Meanwhile, you can grumble about it to whoever’s sitting next to you on the bus and they’ll probably recommend waiting for the next train because even if you are four minutes late, you’ll be able to get off at Dadar station in relative comfort.

There are multiple ticketing systems as well — you can stand in queue for the standard tickets, jump the queue for first-class tickets, get a coupon booklet which you can get electronically stamped, or use a ‘smart’ card at the Automatic Ticket Vending Machine (ATVM). You may have to use old-fashioned ink stamps if the electronic stamp doesn’t work and I’ve often seen a person sitting on a bar stool in front of a defunct ATVM and handing out tickets. If you’re in a real hurry, you can stand in the shorter ATVM queue instead of the regular and pay (in cash) the smart-card carrying person in front of you to buy you a ticket from the machine/person. It’s a responsive, adaptive and efficient system. All this happens before you even get onto a train. Then there’s the crowd that you need to wiggle through on the platform and foot-over-bridge, all the while keeping an eye on the digital train indicators while doing calculations and negotiations in your head before just taking a deep breath and running toward a train, finding a seat (or standing space) and enjoying the adrenaline rush of reaching work ten minutes earlier than yesterday. All this might lead to some “multi-infrastructural torque” initially but over time, the torque becomes comforting. The Mumbai suburban train system runs on a blueprint that was built in 1853, when the British ruled India. Today, it carries up to three million passengers every day. Any Mumbaikar would agree with Thomas Hughes that technological systems are ‘both socially constructed and society-shaping’ (2). Today, people live and work depending on how convenient train travel is (my journey to and from work was considered to be one of relative comfort). It takes years to move the bureaucracy, to build new stations in a city where the infrastructure is crumbling under the pressure of its citizens.

I think when it comes to public infrastructure in a city, the solution is never as easy as ‘fixing’ it. Perhaps a ‘jugaad’ (an innovative fix or a simple work-around) approach is better. You can build transit apps and ticketing systems that make the transfer across seams (or omni-channel design in user experience terms) less painful. Or you could turn the disadvantages into advantages — it’s surprising how nice and kind people are inside trains. It well known that many men and women make acquaintances, business partners, impromptu singing partners and life partners on Mumbai’s local trains. Vertesi says that ‘The infrastructures at play here are neither stable, not routinized, nor singular. As multiple, nonaligned systems of power, norms, ways of doing, standards, and idententies, they are each negotiated, established and re-established through the work of alignment at the micro scale.’ (1)
Imagine travelling by train, four times a day, every working day and being inspired every time — by the people and the technology and infrastructure that supports them.

As surreal as this seems, it happens all the time


(1) Janet Vertesi, “Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction,” Science, Technology and Human Values 39.2: 264–284.

(2) Thomas P. Hughes, ‘The Evolution of Large Technological Systems’, in Bijker, Hughes & Pinch (eds.), The Social Construction of Technological Systems (MIT Press, 1987) pp. 51–82.

Interaction & Service Design Concepts: Principles, Perspectives & Practices

Graduate Seminar 1, Fall 2015, Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Collection of the Seminar’s Work

Shruti Aditya Chowdhury

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Designer | Pragmatic Idealist | INFJ

Interaction & Service Design Concepts: Principles, Perspectives & Practices

Graduate Seminar 1, Fall 2015, Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Collection of the Seminar’s Work

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