Lying on India’s Konkan Coast, Mumbai is the most populous city in the country. For those who live there, it’s the city that never sleeps, brimming with hope and opportunity. For those of us who don’t, it’s an urban jungle of buildings, noise and unbridled chaos that seems to only make sense to its inhabitants. And at the centre of it all is its lifeline, the Mumbai locals or the local trains. Spanning over 465km and ferrying more than 7.5 million commuters every day, Mumbai’s Suburban Railway System is one of the busiest commuter railway systems in the world. For an outsider or a newcomer to the city, the train system can be confusing and sometimes positively overwhelming. So, here’s a handy little guide that may help you hack the system:

The Routes

The train system in Mumbai is divided into three main lines – Western (terminates at Churchgate), Central (runs from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) and Harbour (from CSMT to the neighbourhoods along the eastern dock area).  For the sake of convenience, we will be focussing on the Western line since most tourists and newbies use this service.

A handy tip: Do a little research on the closest local station and your end point before heading out.

Rush Hour

Considering that the rail system is mostly used by the working people of the city, 8.00–10.30am and 6.00–8.30pm usually see the most traffic. If you’re a tourist, it’s best if you avoid these timings. The rule of thumb is that you should avoid going to the south (Churchgate) in the mornings, since many Mumbaikars work there, and avoid going to the north in the evening (Borivali), when people are going back home.

How to buy tickets

The ticket counters at the station are fairly easy to spot – look for a snaking line of people. Each ticket window is supposed to have two queues – one for first class tickets and the other for second class tickets. As you can imagine, the former are more expensive and, usually, there isn’t a queue for them at all. This ostensibly means that you can push yourself all the way to the front and ask for a first class ticket, and people won’t mind. You can buy a one-way ticket or one for a return journey – you will have to specify this at the counter.

For those planning to stay put in Bombay, there are annual passes or season tickets that you can buy. Concessions are available for students as well.  Just ask at the ticket booth.

 You will also find Automatic Ticket Vending Machines, which you can use to print your ticket. If you have a reliable Internet connection, you can also book tickets using an app available on Play Store called UTS.

Simon/Pixabay
Travelling on the locals is definitely an experience
Travelling on the Mumbai locals is definitely an experience

First class or second class

We won’t just recommend a first class ticket because you won’t find a queue at the counter. First class carriages are also relatively less crowded and you may not need to jostle for space. However, if you mind the price and not the crowd, the second class ticket is almost as good and far cheaper. There is also a separate compartment for differently-abled people.

An interesting factoid: There is a ‘ladies special’ train that runs on the Western line between Virar and Churchgate, which completed 25 years in operation last year. Otherwise, the ladies coaches, which have both first class and second class options, are a good bet.

Where’s the platform

You might find yourself in quite the Hogwarts Express situation. The platforms are a bit difficult to find, and the electronic signboards above them aren’t helpful to tourists. Here is an example of one: ‘12C 08:48 S00’

For a tourist, this is utter gibberish, but for a hardened local user, this is all the information they need. Here, ‘12C’ means a train with 12 coaches heading towards Churchgate, which is the end station; 08:48 is the time of arrival; S is a slow train and 00 is the wait time. Not that hard now, is it?

Usually, trains heading north will stop at Platform 1. If you are still confused and unable to figure your way around, you can always ask a passer-by for help. Despite their hurried pace, most Mumbaikars will point you in the right direction with a smile.

Slow or Fast

Deciding between a slow and fast train is easy, and no, it does not depend on the actual speed of the train. Slow locals halt at every station, while the fast ones only halt at the important stations. If you are travelling a long distance, it would be wise to take the fast local, however, make sure that your destination station falls under its purview. If not, you will have to change trains.

Get on the train

Trains halt at every station only for a few seconds. No, that was not a typo. It would be wise for you to stand near a coach door before the train arrives. Usually, there are signs overhead that tell you where your coach will be. However, if you are still unsure, do as Mumbaikars do and just follow their lead. If you are travelling in the ladies coach, for instance, just stand where most of the women have congregated. Better yet, ask someone for assistance. The pillars on the platform are also colour-coded: first class coaches halt at pillars marked red with yellow or white stripes; ladies coaches halt by the pillars marked green with yellow or white stripes.

Now, it’s important that you rush into the coach, lest the train starts moving when you’ve only managed to get one leg in. However, also remember to not push and shove your way in aggressively. Let people disembark first. If you do miss your train because you couldn’t get on, don’t worry, there will be another one coming, usually within five minutes time.

The journey

It is most likely that you will find no place to sit and you might have to spend the entire journey on your feet. There is also a chance that passengers will be packed into the coach like sardines, especially if you’re travelling during rush hour. There is usually no concept of personal space, so you should leave your prim and proper sensibilities at the door.

There are no ticket collectors inside the train, and travelling is based more on the honour code. However, remember that if you get caught without a ticket, you will have to pay a penalty, which is obviously much steeper if you’re travelling in the first class compartment.

Get off the train

Usually, there is a route map inside every coach and there are announcements over the speaker. However, you can get extremely unlucky and land up inside a coach with a map only in Marathi and one that has no announcements. In that case, you should keep an eye out for the platforms you are crossing or stopping at. The signs are hard to miss. You could always Google the station that comes just before yours so you are well-prepared to disembark.

It’s important that you reach the coach door before the train is set to arrive at your station. It’s also important to know which side the platform will be (there are no announcements for this). In general, you will not have the time to gauge which side of the train to get off from when you have reached the station. As we mentioned before, the train only stops at the station for a few seconds and it can get very very crowded. Simply ask a fellow passenger.

Now, you must be in the queue that’s disembarking. It’s not necessary that you will be able to disembark if you’re simply standing at the door. It’s important that you ask the person ahead of you if he/she is disembarking as well. If they aren’t, you can move ahead of them. If you are not prepared to disembark with the other passengers, chances are that you will not be able to get off the train at all as there is a rush of people boarding the train! If you do not want to be swept out of the train with the crowd at a random station, avoid standing near the door.

Out of the station

It’s important that you choose the correct exit gate. For instance, if you need to go to Andheri East and you have reached the station, make your way to the east gate.

A Savin/Wiki Commons
A view of a local train coming into a Mumbai station
A view of a local train coming into a Mumbai station

Some other important tips and tricks:

  • Avoid standing near the train door. There have been several instances where people have been accidentally pushed out.
  • It’s a good idea to wear your backpack around the front if the train is crowded. Also keep your wallet in the front pocket. Pickpocketing is very common.
  • If you’re going to any station before Borivali, do not board a Virar local.

Phew! You are now (probably) ready to tackle Mumbai local trains.  Do you have other tips and tricks that helped you travel on the local trains?