A survival guide to Mumbai trains

This post actually started out as a draft for the ‘7 series’ on Mumbai Metroblogging. It didn’t make the deadline then. Considering that Mumbai trains are in the news again, I think it is worth an airing anyway.

I’m relying on the fact that most of us in this city, live on little oases or islands of our own madness and know very little about the rest of the place. And for outsiders, the beehive is positively mind-boggling anyway. So here’s a special edition of how-to-survive Mumbai by a thoroughbred Mumbaiker.


I always think of the railway network as the central nervous system of this city. It is fairly impossible to get lost in this city. The minute you find yourself out of sorts, you just make your way to the nearest railway station and voila! You’re back on the Mumbai lifeline.

There are three train lines in Mumbai – the Western line, the Central line and the Harbour line. The Western line starts at Churchgate while the other two, both begin in Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Oh how I hate that name! It’ll always be V.T. to me). Central and Harbour run together for about 3 stations and then diverge. Central meets Western at Dadar. Harbour on the other hand, rather tricky, forms a ‘Y’, forking off at Wadala, with one arm ending at Andheri and the other moving on towards Panvel.

Since the city is essentially one long strip of islands going North-South, the train lines run that way. Every station has an East and a West side (barring the terminuses of course). Everything in this city is measured by this. Simple logic check: The sea is always on your right when traveling up to town.

Some of the stations on the three lines are designated ‘Fast’ due to their status as key points in the city. Slow trains stop at every station while fast trains stop only at ‘fast’ stations. The exceptions to the fast train rule (that I know of) are the Western line which stops at every station between Churchgate and Mumbai Central before picking up the ‘fast’ pace. If it is a Borivili local it also slows down, stopping at every station after Andheri on.

Each station has a designated 1 or 2 letter code. Careful with these though, ideally these should be standard considering that all 3 train lines are plugged into each other…but they are not.

A step-by-step how-to on making a local train journey in Mumbai:

a. Finding the stations: Figure out the best entry and exit stations. (This may be useful). These are not immediately obvious and I would not recommend relying on the postal address to tell you the best station. Sometimes the nearest station isn’t the one mentioned on the code or you may be closest to really maddening station and the next ‘slow’ one may be a far easier alternative. Ditto on the exit station too. If you are meeting someone at the other end, ask where you should get off. And if your friend doesn’t know either, ask someone who does know. Forget all you’ve heard about this city’s cold-heartendness, people are always willing to help. At worst case, ask the clerk who sells tickets at the counter or the shopkeepers at the station.

b. Buy a ticket: Most stations have a counter on the East and the West side each. A few have them on the overbridge (in addition or in isolation). By default there will be one at the entrance and if you don’t see it, ask someone. It is a fineable offence to travel without a ticket and the T.C. is not likely to be impressed by the story that you were looking for the counter. Please keep your ticket on you for the entire duration of the ride and do not discard until you are safely out of the station. (This may seem obvious but from friends who’ve gotten into trouble for throwing away the ticket after buying it, I know it isn’t) The rules are simple, you should know them and if you don’t, then ask. Of note, probably the one place you can get change is at the train ticket counters. I could be wrong but I’ve haggled with auto-rickshaw drivers, bus conductors and shopkeepers over the elusive 1 or 2 rupee coins but never with an attendant in the train booking counter.

c. Find the train you need to take: The major stations have indicators at the entrance showing the terminus points and departure time of trains leaving from each platform. The smaller stations will usually have them on the overbridges, one each positioned near the staircase going down to the relevant platform. If these two don’t exist, check the one on the platform though this can be a tedious job if you are on a multi-platform station and end up having to run up and down staircases.

d. The compartment: Once you figure out the platform, find out the compartment you have to get into. Mumbai trains have a first-class and a second-class. Most of the compartments are ‘general’ which means both men and women can travel in them but 2 (or 3 depending on which line you’re on) compartments on each train are for ‘ladies’ only. Of these one compartment turns into a ‘general’ after 21:00. Confused? Don’t be. The compartments are marked with red stripes for first-class general and green stripes for first-class ladies. Seasoned travelers know the exact spot on the platform that their compartment will stop at so you can assess from the crowd milling around where you should be. If all else fails, ask. This city may be busy but there will always be people willing to help you.

e. Getting in: This is the biggie, isn’t it? The crowds are intimidating for any new traveler (and hell, some of the old ones too!) Local travelers usually have their little tips and tricks on how to but for the bulk of it, it is simply about gearing up and getting ready to fight for that brief few seconds. Please make sure to stand at least 2 feet away from the edge of the platform….even if you see other people standing closer. Falling incidents, getting run over are common enough. Besides, when the train arrives, you’ll see people hanging on 3-deep and a lot of them have the nasty habit of reaching out and slapping the bystanders. Don’t ask me why, that’s how it is and you just learn to find a way around it.

You are also advised to tie off/put away any loose ends. Flying dupattas, saree palluvs, scarves, stoles and bag straps can becomes nooses when you are caught in the crunch. Preferably keep both hands empty and nothing in a pocket that can be easily accessed. If you are carrying a handbag, wear it the wrong way with the flap pointing towards your body to avoid pickpockets. And finally, wear sensible shoes.

The worst way to get in is go barging right into the center and getting knocked down by the bar in the middle…or worse still…stuck with limbs of each side getting pulled in either direction. I’m not exaggerating, it is fairly painful, not to mention immensely dangerous if this happens as you run the risk of getting stampeded, fractured or falling off when the train starts moving.

Getting in from the very corner seems to be the easiest way but this is a trick mastered by very experienced travelers since you have to not just where the compartment arrives but the exact spot of its corner. Then you have to ensure you are far away enough to avoid the slappers, hang back to avoid being carried along in the current of people getting off and rush forward just at the right time to be able to get in. Not recommended…you don’t have to be the first to get in. Getting in last isn’t a good idea either since you’ll end up standing on the sideboard, feeling pushed outward everytime someone breathes. The middle is the best option.

f. Staying in: I cannot stress how dangerous (and uncomfortable) it is to hang off or even stand on the footboard. Besides the obvious dangers of falling off, you will also be bombarded by a volley of abuses by people inside the train who are being suffocated and resent that you at least have some breathing air. Then you will also be flattened by the new wave of entrants at every station. You are not likely to get a seat unless you are at the terminus point, at least 10 minutes ahead of departure time and that only on a Sunday or holiday.

The seat running from window to window up against the wall can seat 8 Mumbaikers peaceably (and I still resent overweight people when I travel by train…it may not be their fault, but what the hell, in a space-starved compartment, even a few inches extra, inconvenience everyone else). The other seats facing them can seat 3 and a half each. What’s 3 and a half? Of, that means 3 people crammed in tightly while the fourth jams into the 2-inch space left, sitting sideways with legs in passage. About 6 or 7 people can stand in the space between these two rows of seats. It is a common practice when you get into a compartment where all seats are taken, to check where everyone is getting off and ‘reserve’ the seat from there on by telling them. The seatee will in turn help you get the seat when they get up and stand by you if there is any dispute on the seat. Does that sound funny? Try standing in a sardine-packed train for a 40-minute journey, survive one of the frequent fights that erupt and you’ll be more than willing to bargain for a chance to park your butt for 5 minutes. These rules are taken as the law among train-travellers.

g. Getting off: Prepare at least 2 stations in advance. Of note, some trains have a list of the stations stuck to the inside of the compartment just above the entrance. If not, once again, ASK. If you are sitting, stand up, collect your baggage and start the process of moving out towards the central passage.

Do not try to reach the exit since this is neither fruitful nor good Mumbai manners. People will be getting in and out in the interim stations and besides risking being carried off into the wrong station, it is a severe inconvenience for people trying to get in or out. As you near your station, do check if the people ahead of you are getting off as well or whether they are part of the ‘interim/ at the next station’ crowd. If they are, it is perfectly permissible to yell the station that you are getting off at and try to get some leeway to move forward.

Under no circumstances should you get off a train that is moving, even if at a speed slower than your walk. You may be a superb athlete and/or in great condition. If you want to keep things that way just don’t get off a moving train. For starters, speed is not the only thing. There will be (as is the case everywhere in Mumbai) people around. The crowd trying to get in will not appreciate an overeager traveler jumping off into their arms, the crowd inside will cluck in disapproval thinking of the trouble they’ll have trying to get off over your body since it is assumed that you will only fall flat. As a reverse of the getting in, the middle is the best place to be. That way you aren’t pushed out too early and you won’t get swept back in with the current of the incoming crowd. The key to surviving Mumbai’s crowds is to know the current.

And finally my 7 quick survival tips for Mumbai trains:

1. Practise holding your breath at long intervals. Preferably in hot, smelly conditions. Consider carrying an oxygen cylinder, fitted to your cap.
2. Lose as much weight as possible. You are never too thin for a Mumbai train
3. Do stretching exercises. You can also never be too tall for a Mumbai train. But do learn how to duck the holders on the ceiling. Of note, the ones on the Central and Harbour line trains are set lower than the ones on the Western line. Are Western liners just taller?
4. All loose ends must be tucked in, wrapped, knotted. No flying dupattas, palluvs, stoles, bag-straps.
5. Wear closed shoes. Preferably with thick soles and pointed toes to edge your way in
6. Carry a bag that doesn’t bulge too much, doesn’t open easily, will not separate from its handle/strap on pressure and can fit comfortably under your armpit.
7. Wear chest-pads. Elbow-guards too, with spikes if possible.

Bon voyage!

21 thoughts on “A survival guide to Mumbai trains

  1. Great post for the newbie to mumbai trains, who otherwise had to learn only by experience. Btw, you should mention that it is important to know which side to get off as you near a station, especially if you are new to the route.

  2. everytime i come to mumbai, i think of going for a ride on the great local trains that i’ve always heard of .. but everytime i tell my mumbai colleagues about this, everybody give me only one suggestion .. “stay away dude” !!!

    and now reading this .. i can imagine why they say so 🙂

    but i think i’ll take my chances next time i’m there !!

    btw .. nice change to the new domain .. congratulations

  3. @ tgfi: 😀

    @ Surinder: And also drop me a note the next time you’re in town. It really is good to hear from you after all these years!

    @ rishi: Mucho gracias. I was glad to be of help.

  4. Next week I would make my first trip to Mumbai. Those overcrowded trains have intimidated me even on TV and your post kinda scared me. I will still travel in the local train at least once . Its part of the Mumbai experience after all, isn’t it? 🙂

  5. Great post..just stumbled on your blog!! I spent 9 months living in Mumbai..me a true blue Madrasi girl..came to Mumbai and found a place in Vashi(wasn’t exactly getting anything in Colaba) and my workplace was in Nariman Point! I was completely written off by the hard core Bombayites who were very sure I wouldnt be able to cope..but yeah I did..and pretty well!! So I guess I have that perverse fascination and liking to the Mumbai locals!!
    Will be back for more stuff on your blog!!

  6. Do not get into a “Virar” Fast Local if you want to get off at Bombay Central / Dadar / Andheri ! The regular travellers wont let you get off…

  7. @ Raj: It sure is! All the very best on your maiden voyage, though, and I hope the experience is…umm…interesting!

    @ GDS: Welcome to the Idea-smithy then!And yes, I guess once you learn to cope with the grind, you can pick up the pace pretty quickly here.

    @ Isk: 😀 I ought to have included that!

  8. wow! that’s really very elaborate. there’s so much abt mumbai local trains, we just can’t write enough. i have an entire blog dedicated to local trains!

  9. I left the city more than two years back and miss it every single day! 🙁 Relived all my good times and crazy ones (got on to a Virar Fast when I had to get off at Andheri… CRIMINAL!) through this post. I will keep coming back to your blog!

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