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Tunnel trauma in rush-hour Metro

A brake malfunction stalled a non-AC Metro rake in the tunnel between Maidan and Park Street stations on Monday morning, trapping rush-hour commuters for up to an hour in packed coaches resonating with screams of panic and suffocation.

People banged on doors, shouted for help whenever a train from the opposite direction passed by and tried smashing the glass panes until evacuation was carried out through the driver’s cabin around 12.10pm, 45 minutes after the north-bound train had stalled at 11.25am.

“There was a jerk and the train came to a halt so suddenly that many of us who were standing lost our balance and fell on others,” recounted Tamal Chatterjee.

Being inured to disruptions in service every few days, regular commuters didn’t think much of the rake stopping around 100 metres before Park Street station until the lights went off around 15 minutes later. Panic set in as the minutes ticked by and breathing became difficult inside the stuffy coaches.

“I felt scared when the lights and fans went off without warning. A kid seated beside me started crying. As the breathlessness increased, I began screaming for help,” said university student Piyali Singha, who had boarded the train at Masterda Surya Sen station (Bansdroni).

Fellow commuter Tamal was convinced something had gone seriously wrong when the lights wouldn’t come on. “Some passengers started banging the doors and a few walked to the first coach and tried to get the driver’s attention. But there was no response from the cabin,” he said.

Mobile phone torches kept the coaches partially illuminated where emergency lights didn’t work, but it became increasingly difficult to breathe in the absence of ventilation. “A colleague complained of difficulty in breathing and slumped to the ground. She has asthma and needed medication. I felt so helpless,” said Tamal, who was headed for Chandni Chowk.

The first and only announcement over the train’s public address system — it runs on emergency batteries — came around 11.50am, more than 20 minutes after the rake had stopped in its tracks. Commuters were informed that a snag had been detected and asked not to panic.

Sources in Metro Railway blamed lack of coordination between the control room and the driver’s cabin for power supply being switched off much before making the announcement.

“We usually make arrangements for evacuation by setting the ladder and then ask the control room to switch off power supply to the third rail to prevent electrocution when people are walking through the tunnel towards a station. In this case, lights and fans went off long before evacuation started. What added to the panic is that there was no announcement for a long time,” a source said.

Even after the announcement was made, another 15 minutes were allegedly wasted before the motorman in the rear cabin and another employee walked through the coaches, asking commuters to move single file towards the driver’s cabin.

“We finally came out of the train after an hour of being trapped and walked along the tracks for around three minutes to reach the Park Street platform,” said Piyali.

Back at the station, some passengers demanded an explanation for the delay in evacuation and asked to be allowed into the station superintendent’s office. But RPF guards asked them to immediately vacate the platform. “There was none at the station to offer a bottle of water to us. Worse, the Metro personnel were rude,” Piyali said.

The stalled rake, which sources in Metro Railway said was 15 years old, remained in the tunnel for almost two hours before being towed away to Noapara for repairs. Metro services were limited to the stretch from New Garia to Rabindra Sadan in the south and Noapara to Girish Park in the north for that duration.

Metro commuters didn’t just have to contend with the stretch between MG Road and Park Street being out of bounds, they also had to combat chaos on the roads. Twin rallies by the BJP and the Trinamul Congress — the first to condemn attacks on BJP workers in Bengal and the second to protest the rail fare hike — choked traffic movement in the heart of the city for several hours from 1.30pm.

“It was around 1.10pm when a guard outside the Tollygunge station told me that the Metro wouldn’t go till Esplanade. He couldn’t say when the service would be restored. I took a taxi to reach my office on Ganesh Chandra Avenue, only to get stuck in a traffic snarl at Esplanade for more than 20 minutes,” said Soumyadeep Mukherjee, a resident of Sodepur.

Taxis, never short of reasons to fleece the commuter, made the most of the Metro and rally disruptions and charged almost three times the normal fares to various destinations. Some started operating as shared taxis with the police looking the other way, as usual.

“The driver of a taxi waiting outside Masterda Surya Sen station said he would not go by the fare meter. He took me and four other passengers to Esplanade for Rs 80 each,” said Susmit Chowdhury, a resident of Naktala.

Metro trains had been stranded in tunnels long enough to necessitate evacuation on three occasions before.

On September 19, 2012, a fire alert forced the Metro Railway control room to switch off power supply to the third rail that powers the rake. A New Garia-bound rake got stuck in the tunnel for 30 minutes between Chandni Chowk and Esplanade stations, after which passengers had to be evacuated through the driver’s gate. Four passengers were hospitalised.

On October 12, 2010, a trainload of passengers walked through the tunnel till Sovabazar from near Girish Park after a snag in the power-supply system. Eight days later, two coaches jumped rails in the tunnel between Central and MG Road stations. Many of the passengers were taken ill and the impact of the disruption on Metro services lasted 11 hours.

Metro had reported last week that the city’s transport lifeline is aiming to squeeze two more years out of its seven oldest rakes — each 30 years old — after failing to place an order for replacements until a few weeks ago.

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Suchita Ghosh, an MA student at Rabindra Bharati University, was among the hundreds of commuters trapped inside the rake that was stranded in the tunnel between Maidan and Park Street stations on Monday morning. The 23-year-old recounts to Metro the horror of spending 45 minutes inside a packed, dark and claustrophobic coach with little information of what was happening.

I had never felt more helpless. Stranded in the dark tunnel with no electricity and ventilation inside the coach, we kept screaming for help as trains going in the opposite direction passed by. We didn’t have a clue why the train had halted and how long it would be before it moved or we were evacuated. Worse, we didn’t have mobile phone connectivity, cutting us off completely.

I had boarded the fifth compartment of the non-AC train at Bansdroni station around 11.05am and taken a seat in the ladies’ section. My friends Riya Banik and Piyali Singha were accompanying me to our university campus in Shyambazar to submit our second-semester examination forms.

As the train left Maidan towards Park Street, it started slowing down rather than picking up speed. The train came to a halt within a minute of leaving the station.

Our patience was tested as the minutes ticked by and we kept hoping the driver would make some sort of an announcement to explain why we weren’t moving. Fifteen minutes went by without word from the Metro authorities and just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, the lights and fans went out as well.

My fears were coming true. This wasn’t a routine problem. Around five minutes later, a voice crackled on the PA system (which works even without electricity). The person said a snag had stalled the Metro and that we shouldn’t panic. By then, many of my co-passengers had started voicing their anger. A few around me slumped to the floor and had to be given water. All of us were sweating profusely.

As one train after another kept passing us, I climbed my seat and shouted “Help! Help!” in the hope that someone would come to our rescue. I wasn’t the only one panicking. Some tried to break the glass on the doors in desperation. The suffocation increased rapidly after around half an hour, each minute of our struggle to breathe in that stuffy coach seeming like eternity.

More than 45 minutes had passed before the motorman in the rear engine and a mechanic walked through the coaches, asking us to proceed towards the driver’s cabin and get off from there. We got off one by one into the tunnel with our mobile phones as the only source of light and walked along the tracks.

For around five minutes, we trod through the darkness before reaching Park Street station, where no Metro official was waiting to enquire how we were or offer some water to drink. Forget an apology, the only thing we heard was an order to exit the station quickly: “Ekhane bhirh korben na (Don’t form a crowd here)!”

WHAT WENT WRONG