Globally, strengthening public transport systems, so that they are integrated and accessible to all, is seen as the sustainable solution to transport problems. India has had a hit-or-miss record on this front, with those who can afford it turning to ownership of private vehicles to get around.
Given the lack in foresight and planning of road networks, the result is traffic chaos in metros and even small towns. In this context, it must be noted that the Chennai public transport system is relatively efficient and reliable, with a strong network of buses, suburban trains and metro services, although these services have not been integrated as well as they should have been. However, the biggest disincentive for citizens in using public transport is that it tends to be unreliable, uncomfortable and unsafe (more so for women). All three were on display last week when five people were killed and many injured in a suburban train mishap. As many as 11 lakh people use the suburban train systems in the city every day, across four sections. But the trains can barely keep up with the demand.
On that fateful day, an earlier service was delayed leading to overcrowding. Lack of doors left people travelling on footboards. Those killed or injured were among those footboard travellers. Passengers have demanded that the trains be fitted with doors, but the Railways, which points out that it sees fewer accidents than the road networks, says it is not feasible. An increase in services also seems unlikely, and crowd management has been poor on part of the Railways which claims it is understaffed.
Where does this leave citizens? People travel long distances for education, livelihood and healthcare. If India is serious about seeking sustainable solutions, it ought to take the concerns of those using public transport most seriously. While global metros, including London and New York, have train services that commuters criticise as slow, the services are rarely, if ever, criticised as unsafe. The question is why does the Indian state take the safety—and lives—of its citizens for granted?