At least 23 dead in Mumbai station stampede.
At least 23 dead in Mumbai station stampede.

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    At least 23 dead in Mumbai station stampede.

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At least 23 dead in Mumbai station stampede. 00:51

Mumbai fights to fix its crowded, crumbling and deadly rail network

Updated 0405 GMT (1205 HKT) October 7, 2017

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Mumbai, India (CNN)It's a typical workday morning in Mumbai and commuters are rushing to get on and off trains at Prabhadevi station.

Every day in this city, seven and a half million people pack into commuter trains and steel themselves for the daily ordeal of traveling to and from work.
The veneer of Bollywood and billionaires may lend India's financial heart an aura of glamor, but the workers in the country's most densely packed city, from office staff to snack sellers, risk their lives every day while navigating a transport system meant to serve an earlier century.
Prabhadevi station during a typical morning commute.
At the center of the problem is the crumbling Mumbai local railway network -- the backbone of the city's transport infrastructure.
Statistics associated with the railway read like a war zone: Since 2007, according to Mumbai Railway Police data, nearly 38,000 people have died in train related accidents. That's more than 3,200 deaths every year and an average of nine deaths every day.
And now a fresh nightmare is seared in the minds of Mumbai's train commuters. Here -- where Mumbai's Prabhadevi and Parel stations are joined by a narrow footbridge -- 23 people were crushed to death on an exit stairwell on the morning of Friday September 29.
That morning there was a sudden heavy rain, and several trains had just arrived.
Exiting passengers had gathered on the overpass and near the stairways, waiting for the rains to subside. As more trains arrived, the usual crowding became extreme.
The result of an official inquiry into what triggered the stampede may take several weeks, but passengers offer theories: There were shouts about a roof collapse, screams about seeing sparks. Perhaps someone tripped. It doesn't take much to trigger panic when people are packed so tightly they can't raise an arm.
Commuters pause to look at photos of the stampede victims at Prabhadevi station, formerly known as Elphinstone station.

'Fear is always there'

On a sunny morning several days on from the stampede, passengers trudge down the same stairs where the tragedy took place. Some squeeze past the exiting passengers to head up the stairs with wide bundles on their heads.
"Every day, we face death while traveling," says a young woman whose friend died in the stampede. She nods angrily toward two nearby policemen. "Why are they here today, after it has all happened?"
Along the dilapidated walkway at the base of the staircase, commuters pause to look at two makeshift memorials -- posters displaying photos of the victims hang above tables covered in melted candles and fading flowers.
Since 2007, almost 38,000 people have died in train related accidents in Mumbai.
One poster shows the victims' photos taken when they were alive. Steps away, another poster shows the bruised and swollen faces of the dead.
Further down the path, commuters rush past the remnants of the stampede: A jumble of sandals and shoes, a bright blue scarf and a scattering of crushed marigolds. The flowers were being sold for a religious festival.
Shoes of Prabhadevi station stampede victims remain uncollected on the floor of the station, a constant reminder of the inherent risks of train travel in Mumbai.
Mumbai commuters have long complained online about the dangerous conditions at Prabhadevi station, which was formerly known as Elphinstone station, and other stations across the city. Posts on Twitter now seem prophetic.
Commuter Bandish Satra tweeted four times about this station's problems, starting in early February. In late August he wrote about a "serious risk of stampede and loss of lives." Many others had posted similar warnings tagging railway officials.
But in general, the deadly train system is accepted as a fact of life. As one young woman explains, "It's our daily routine. What can we do? Fear is always there." People are willing to take the risks because the trains are far faster and cheaper than the roads. And a job and a daily wage take priority over time spent filing complaints and lobbying officials.

The risks are known

The majority of Mumbai's train related deaths are caused by crossing train tracks and falling out of moving trains. People slip or are accidentally pushed as they cling to jam packed open doorways; frantic passengers grab on to a single pole in the doorway or grip the edges of the open doors.
The risks are known, but the desperation to get to work or home prevails. As one commuter explains, "People hang on to the doorways from outside of the train. They don't want to wait half an hour for the next train and they still might not get on."
And crossing train tracks is a common practice because there aren't enough pedestrian overpasses, or they are too crowded or because some, like the elderly, can't climb the many stairs. Or because, when numbed to the risks, it just seems more convenient.
Many passengers hanging from the doorways are killed when they smack against the signal posts and poles along the tracks.
An estimate by IndiaSpend -- a nonprofit research group -- found that Mumbai's local trains are packed on average to 2.6 times their capacity. That's 30% more than Tokyo's infamously crowded railway cars, according to IndiaSpend.
Commuters enter and exit the footbridge, now guarded by a security official, where the stampede occured at Prabhadevi station.

Dreams meet reality

The stampede may be jolting more to action.
It's drawn new anger against a state proposal for Mumbai to have world's largest statue. The proposed 210 meter (roughly 700 feet) tall memorial statue of Shivaji -- the 17th century warrior king for whom Mumbai's airport and a major city train station are already named -- would be built on a man-made island and visible from the city.
The estimated cost of this memorial: over half a billion US dollars. In the wake of the stampede, more than 29,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the money be diverted to improving train service.
    Citizens are also venting against the Central government's plan for a $17-billion bullet train -- India's first - which would run from the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat state into Mumbai.
    A train makes its way between Varsova and Ghatkopar stations, Mumbai, 2014.
    Mumbai based architect and urban planner Chandrashekhar Prabhu, a former president of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, says for a fraction of the cost of a bullet train, more than 7 million people in Mumbai could get relief from the deadly daily commute.
    "We like flamboyant themes and to keep people dreaming. We don't bother for solving the daily problems," he says bitterly.
    To solve the problem of the trains, Prabhu says, the city planners and the railway authority need to work together. Mumbai's overburdened trains and antiquated stations are the result of an "absolute disconnect" between the administration of the Railways and the City's urban planning, he explains. The location of the tragedy illustrates this dilemma.
    Commuters enter into Prabhadevi station. The area around the station has undergone rapid urban growth in recent years.
    The neighborhood where the stampede took place used to be filled with textile mills. Shift workers mostly walked to their jobs. When the mills began to close in the early 1980s, the area instantly became prime real estate -- a way for Mumbai to expand north from its congested south.
    "The mill lands are the lands which came up for indiscriminate urbanization, without any study, without any study of impact on transport," Prabhu says, "By a stroke of the pen, permissions were given where they ought not to have been given."
    So the gleaming office towers sprang up and drew tens of thousands of new workers who crammed the old streets and packed the train stations built for a bygone era.
    Indian authorities are moving to strip Mumbai's railway stations of their British names, as leaders seek to purge the city of remnants of its colonial past.

    The new normal

    The day after the stampede Railway Minister Piyush Goyal held an emergency meeting and ordered improvements.
    Mumbai Activist Samir Zaveri is skeptical. He's been fighting for change in the Mumbai railroads for 25 years: One rainy night when he was 17-years-old, Zaveri crossed railroad tracks on his way home because there was no other way to get from one side of the track to the other. "It was a heavy rain and I was holding an umbrella and I was running,"
      He slipped and fell and was hit by a train severing both his legs. "My body was outside the railway track and my legs were left on the track," he now describes matter of factly. Since then, he has taken railroad officials to court over corruption and wasteful spending, and successfully fought to get waiting ambulances and doctors mandated at stations.
        "The station was overcrowded. This is a fact that was ignored," Zaveri says, "So this is India, here this is normal. There is no priority for prevention. After the death of people, they will work. People get killed and then they do the work."