INDIA: Trains,Traffic, & Women

A few months ago I spent two weeks in India with my daughter. I can’t wait to go back, but it was my first Asian experince, and being an efficiency geek and a numbers geek there’s lots that catches my interest here.


The trains are packed. This is a city of 12-20 million people (depending on which source you look at). The trains run regularly, and on time… but they are PACKED. We bought first class tickets and got to ride in the “less crowded” first class trains… but I still didn’t have my whole body in the train when it was moving all the time.

The train we took most often has 12 cars. Each car divided into 2 compartments. When full our first class compartment had about 400 people. Each train has 3 women-only compartments and 1 handicap compartment, and a few (maybe 3?) first class compartments, leaving 17 second class compartments. Based on what I’ve seen the second class compartments seem more crowded than the first class, I imagine the handicap compartments are less crowded (possibly significantly s0) and I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to how crowded the women’s compartments are… as a glance when they pass by they seem *slightly* less crowded than first class… which means there are close to 10,000 people on EACH 12-car train.

We never once experienced a time where it was so crowded people waited “for the next train”, and riding on a full train felt roughly like being near the front of a silent rock concert (if such a things exist).

(I also want to point out the smell. As in there wasn’t really any. Sure when we went by people burning rubber, or passed over a polluted river or stream it stunk, but the odor I would expect from *that many* people crammed into a hot train compartment wasn’t there. I’m not going to name countries, but suffice it to say the odor was much less than public transportation on most European countries where there might be 10 or 15 other passengers total on the same car as you, never mind rush-hour. Once in 5 hours of traveling on trains did I smell body odor, and a few times I could smells spices.)

But back to the sheer numbers of people being moved.

So the systems thinker in me, the capitalist in me, wonders if this is efficent. I mean we LITERALLY have people hanging off the side of some VERY full trains. Couldn’t they add an extra car (which means extending at least a couple of the platforms (maybe at the 3 busiest stations so people going to and from a popular location would have their own car and they wouldn’t have to increase the size of EVERY station)? Or add more trains (they run pretty often, so I’m not sure how logistically possible that would be. I’ve never been to such a busy train or subway station before. Adding more tracks would be a decade-long project, there’s too much right next to the train tracks to fit more tracks in.

So are these super-full train cars really the most efficient way to transport 10,000 people at a time across Mumbai?

It might be…


Charlie and I were talking about if Christine would like it here in Mumbai. It’s loud and crowded. Charlie and I love it. We don’t mind the press of bodies. We stand out like the blue-eyed, white-skinned beacons in a sea of brown skin (I got my picture taken with someone’s family yesterday so they could show their family and friends the white-skin foreigner who visited the same attraction as them). There are horns from 5AM until 3AM. The cars smell like the 70’s to me, before catalytic converters and emission laws in the states. There’s luckily no smoking anywhere, but it’s loud and everyone drives on the wrong side of the street and no one seems to obey any sort of traffic laws.

Which is where I think Christine would LOVE Mumbai.

The cars just muscle their way in, horns blazing as if to say “get out of my way” or maybe just “Hey. Hey. Hey.” But we’ve not seen a single accident. When talking to our hosts about it they shared with us that Mumbai is the ONLY place they know of in India that actually obeys traffic laws (which is ironic because there are no lanes, or parking rules and street lights seem optional). They said “the best way to describe driving in India is “we drive like we walk. We see someone coming and they might be turning one way and we just go around them, like we would on the sidewalk. It doesn’t matter if we’re going the wrong way down the street any more than it would on a sidewalk”, which feels true to me and is why I know Christine would LOVE the experience of driving here.

Me? I’m happy to take a rickshaw or the train, which brings me to…


So back to the trains. 12 cars. 24 compartments. 1 handicap compartment. 3 women compartments. You’d expect there to be quite a number of women on the train, esp on the first class compartments, but no very few. I asked our AirBnB host about it and she said that most women, even if they’re traveling with men, would go on the women’s compartment because “a lot of shenanigans happen on trains, even first class which is a better class of people”. The only time I woman would travel outside of the women’s compartment is if she wasn’t used to trains and didn’t feel confident she could get off on the right stop alone, and she’d always be accompanied by a man… which seemed true. Yesterday I counted a total of 3 women other than Charlie on the 50 minute train ride in our first class compartment. Out of 10,000+ people (with people getting on and off) that means around 10 of the first class passengers would be woman, maybe with a few others in second class, and figure 1,000 total in the women’s compartments (again they appear much less crowded than first class) that’s about 1,010 out of 10,000+ people or 10% women, so where *are* all the women?

According to our host there’s a few reasons for this:

  1. Women aren’t as comfortable on the train.
  2. Infantcide and abortion of girls in many rural villages.
  3. Many men come to Mumbai from the villages to get work. They come in groups of 10 or so and may or may not bring one of their wives to do (what else) cooking an cleaning.  Things that don’t require a 50 minute train ride into the city. It also means that the actual population of Mumbai might actually be closer to 70% than 50% male, which seems right on based on places I’ve seen.

We’ve met a number of men in Mumbai and one on the airplane who live hours (and sometimes countries) away from their wives and children. They visit home for a month or so a year, but otherwise send back money to live on. One talked more often about his girlfriend than his wife. When we asked our hostess about this she said that was normal. Some men move away and have a wife in the US or UK and one in India. Usually the wives don’t know about each other, but sometimes they do. She said often they’ll have a girlfriend at the office too.

Which of course means that either many men don’t have ANY wife (or maybe the wives have just as many husbands, although it sounded like that wasn’t the case).

It seems like it would be a recipe for social disaster to me, but it seems normal to them.

But dispite this there are also some great stories of empowered women. The daughter of our hostess is a mountain climber who has summited Everest. She talks about empowerment and been to every continent with friends from around the world. Her climbing team includes a Chinese woman and a Pakistani woman. Major companies in India are running ads which focus on empowering women.