Make the Footpath by Walking
Hyderabad’s MMTS commuter rail system is apparently of at least two minds when it comes to people crossing from platform to platform by walking on the rails themselves. The official line, as conveyed by the sign hanging at the Lingampally station (pictured after the jump), is that it is highly dangerous, and highly illegal. But this stance is pretty much honored only in the breach.
I have never seen the official stance banning crossing on the tracks being enforced, even when police officers have been present on the platforms.
The warnings are there, strongly worded and quite graphic. The Lingampally sign not only warns of fines and jail time for crossing on the tracks, but has illustrations of cartoon figures being splattered, crushed, and even cut in half by an oncoming train.
The combination of a photograph of an actual train pulling into the station with cartoon characters being mauled by it is interesting in itself. The photograph includes people crossing over the station footbridge but also a man successfully making it out of the train’s path. All of the death and injuries come to cartoon characters in a cartoonish way. Might this undermine the sign’s message by visually implying that getting hit by trains doesn’t happen to real people, that it is about as abstract a danger as getting hit on the head by a falling ACME anvil?
Taking a different tack, screens at the HITEC City station often play a looped video depicting the dangers of crossing on the tracks, in which an older man struggling across with luggage is struck by a train in front of the eyes of his horrified wife. (Here, the actual impact is made using classic Eisensteinian methods of montage, and rather than see a mangled body we see one of the items he was carrying, now ownerless, tumble across the screen.)
But despite these messages, people routinely cross on the tracks. Sometimes people will simply cross wherever they happen to reach the edge of the platform. Other times, people seem to have collectively carved out a particular pathway, maybe to a spot where a platform is easier to climb up to. Or as in the case of the photo above, where a small concrete bridge has been built over a ditch. Watching this, the weakness of government authority in the face of pedestrian intransigence becomes apparent. Maybe this weakness comes at least in part from a simple unwillingness to tackle a practice that has seemed like a natural tradition for as long as railways have plied Hyderabad.
But what I find especially interesting about the photo at top is that not only do railway authorities not enforce rules about against crossing on the tracks, but someone has actually inscribed pedestrian intransigence right into the infrastructure of the station. While footpaths leading down from one set of railway tracks to the other have clearly been etched informally into the dirt by countless pairs of feet, someone has laid down white-painted rocks to outline the one path that leads across a bridge over a ditch. They have also painted a pair of railway ties to match.
Whatever the original intent (it is, of course, possible this outline was made for the benefit of railway workers), the white outline seems to codify pedestrian intransigence. There are no signs warning people away from using that specifically-marked path, and so it might be natural to assume that, at least at this station, crossing between platforms on the tracks has been granted a sort of official blessing. It can be seen as a case of some railway authority recognizing the unconscious, invisible paths created by De Certeau’s pedestrians and writing them explicitly onto the landscape.