Over the past three weeks I have spent anywhere from three to five hours per day commuting; every day like an Amazing Race challenge to get to work and get home.
I live in Fish Hoek and take the southern line into Cape Town, and in the 12 and a half years I’ve done so the "service" has deteriorated to the point of total collapse.
Take Monday, 16 April, for example, when the 0195 train left Cape Town station at the appointed time of 16:12 and proceeded swimmingly for all of five minutes, after which we stood between Woodstock and Salt River stations. And stood. And stood.
There is an onboard PA system on the newer trains, but it is never used to let passengers know what’s happening. At random times a disembodied, prerecorded female voice will tell us to always stand behind the yellow line, or not to smoke on the train, and that is the extent of the communication. A friend on our WhatsApp commuter group, waiting at Salt River, shared a pic of a southbound train standing just before the station, and told us it’s been there for at least 50 minutes. And we were queued behind it.
After waiting for 20 minutes with no movement, except for trains on the northern line whizzing past us, I decided to jump. The doors on my carriage wouldn’t open, so I walked through to the first Metro carriage and asked some guys hanging in the doorway to help me. I slinged my bag over my shoulder, sat down in the open doorway, grabbed hold of the metal handrail next to the door and swung myself out of the carriage, my full body weight supported by my arms. The height to ground depends on the track – anywhere from 1.8 to 2 metres. My arms straining, toes reaching, I let go and landed with relative ease on the camber of rough-cut granite stones beside the track. Heart racing, I assessed my situation.
Ahead of me in the distance was the stationary train outside the station. To my left stretched eight or more tracks and junctions. I gingerly picked my way to the right, over the sharp granite stones, in between tufts of Dr Seuss-like grass, until I drew level with the driver’s cabin.
"Hey, driver," I hailed him. "What’s going on?"
"Signals," he shrugged.
"That train," I pointed, "has been standing there for 50 minutes. Why did they let us leave Cape Town station if they knew we wouldn’t be able to pass through?"
He shrugged again.
"OK," I said. "I’m going to cross in front of your train now, so please don’t knock me over."
He laughed and waved.
I crossed over two tracks and followed a rough beaten path parallel to them. This is a dangerous stretch, where indigent people live in makeshift shelters under bushes, piles of rubble and waste banked along the way, and groups of men on the far side of the tracks were huddled together, smoking tik. I took out my phone to tell my WA group I’ve bailed from the train, and one of the tik smokers called out to me: "Hey sista, put that away!"
That’s when I realised the danger I’ve placed myself in, and I started walking a little faster. A number of men had jumped off the train too, but they were young and fit and jogged along the tracks at a fast clip. I also realised that I misjudged the distance to the station, and it seemed to be a good two kays. I heard running behind me, coming up fast, and stepped to the side. The man ran past, and I saw another man behind him, walking at a leisurely pace. I slowed down a bit until he drew level, then struck up a conversation, asking where he’s headed, and walking with him until we reached the station.
From there it was almost another kay up to Victoria Road, a busy double-lane carriage way gridlocked with buses, cars and taxis. I dodged the traffic and crossed to the middle man, where I hailed a passing taxi with 'Wynberg' displayed in its window, and I even scored the front seat. The driver was a middle-aged man who sang along to Dionne Warwick-like songs (‘Walk On By’), and after hearing my tale of woe commented that his signals are working – all of them.
At a cost of R12, it took more than an hour to get to Wynberg in the traffic jam, despite our driver’s smart shortcuts and manoeuvres, from where I had to take another taxi to Fish Hoek, for R10. The gaartjie was a young girl, the driver maybe her father, and the vibes were gospel, with a rousing version of 'Khumbaya' and some reverend preaching over it, calling out the country’s leaders for the moral decay in South Africa.
I was finally home just after 19:00, more than three hours after I left the office – and from my WA group, which had been keeping up jokes and a running commentary about everyone’s various positions, I found out that I still beat the 0195 train to Fish Hoek. The morning commute took two hours – I bailed at Claremont, which took 90 minute to reach instead of the usual 40, and then taxied to town.
This is not an isolated incident – it’s the new normal for Metrorail commuters, and we try to cope by sharing info, jokes and the pain of trying to get to work and home every day. I’m one of the more fortunate ones who can still afford to jump the train and take a taxi, but for thousands of commuters who buy a monthly ticket that’s not an option.
The mandate of public transport around the globe is to provide a safe and reliable service. It is a key economic driver, getting workers to their jobs, and learners and students to schools and colleges. The elderly rely on the service to get them to hospitals and clinics, and collect their social grants. In the Western Cape, which is heavily reliant on tourism, an efficient railway service is of cardinal importance. Factor in the benefits of reducing traffic congestion and CO2 emissions, and it’s really a no-brainer that an efficient public railway service is paramount.
The "service" to Simon’s Town has been out of commission for more than two years, due to ‘sand on the tracks’, and the interim bus service suspended, with commuters advised to "use their own alternative transport". The track was laid more than 100 years ago, and there has always been sand, so how did they deal with it back then?
I suspect the solution was as simple as two men with yard brooms, sweeping the tracks all day. Last weekend it took four excavators to move the dune that had formed over the tracks and platform – and will most likely require extensive work to repair the damage caused by erosion and lack of maintenance. As a naval base, and therefore a key national point, one would think that keeping the service to Simon’s Town operational would be a key priority for PRASA.
New Transport Minister Blade Nzimande has fired the interim PRASA board and appointed a new one, promising that they are experienced personnel with engineering qualifications, and that every effort will be made to recoup the R24 billion – can I say that again: R24 BILLION – lost to corruption.
Ex-PRASA head Lucky Montana, under whose watch the rot set in, is still a free man, and the R50 billion spent on tenders for new rolling stock more than seven years ago has yet to materialise, except for the catastrophic Spanish train and Chinese locomotives.
In the meantime, every day we’re shuffling.