It has taken close on a decade for the transport ministry to put out a tender for new metro coaches to ease the strained, ageing commuter train network. But new locomotive stock will only begin arriving in 2o15. In the meantime, commuters dice with death and security officials make sure journalists have no access. By MANDY DE WAAL.
“We are so angry about the trains. We hate Metrorail. We hate it, but I am so poor, what can I do?” Like the three million other commuters in Gauteng who can’t afford the luxury of personal transport or a taxi, Maria relies on Metrorail to take her to and from work every morning.
Maria rides the Pretoria line from Eersterust to Centurion, and says Metrorail’s service is appalling, but that as a person living on the breadline she has no choice but to take the train.
“It is bad. The trains are very, very late. Increasingly so. I hate to travel by train but I am poor. There are people always hanging outside the train because the train is too full. They hang on the door and then they die. There are at least two deaths every month.”
Crime on Metrorail is ever present, says Maria, who doesn’t want to offer her surname or have her photograph taken, for fear of being targeted. “The trains are so few and so overcrowded, we are pushed up on each other. And when we can’t move the people steal our money. They take our cellphones.”
Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa spokesman Lawrence Venkile doesn’t deny that over-congestion is a problem that threatens passenger safety. “We will be the first to admit that there is a challenge with regards to the availability of trains, and that this has led to the congestion of our environment,” says Venkile. “We do have day-to-day incidents in our environment, but I am not aware of people who die because the train is congested.”
Really? Where was Venkile when the South African Institute of Race Relations released a survey earlier this year that said local railway accidents resulted in five times more deaths over a two-year period than those lost to mine accidents?
The SAIRR said more than 160 people died in mining accidents in 2009 and 2010, but that close on 900 people lost their lives due to rail accidents between 2007/08 and 2008/09. The survey indicated that 81% of railway accident fatalities happened when “people were struck during train movements”.
Despite this, the government has employed a “sweat the assets” type attitude to Metrorail, the commuter rail service that serves South Africans who cannot afford any other class of transport.
If you can afford the Gautrain you ride in comfort with luxurious seats, and trains that run punctually, some 10 minutes apart during peak times.
If you’re unemployed, marginalised or can’t afford better, you take your chances with Metrorail, knowing that your odds of being late, robbed, crushed, injured or even killed are reasonably high. Silinganiso, 26, takes the train to work every day. “The train is not so expensive,” she says “but there are often delays. It makes me late, like today I was 45 minutes late for work and I got into trouble at work,” she says.
“The train is always full. People get dizzy and last week a woman collapsed on the train. People steal our bags and our phones, because there are no security offices on the trains,” says Silinganiso, speaking to Daily Maverick outside the Irene station in Centurion.
Prasa’s Venkile says overcrowding makes security a major headache for the government-owned company. “Because of the challenge of overcrowding it becomes more difficult for them (security officials) to move right across the train. We deploy our security on the trains and the station. Part of the challenge is to find innovative ways to try and enable them to police the train,” he says.
Venkile says about 1,500 security officers are contracted for Metrorail Gauteng, and a further 470 “internal protection officers” are employed full time. Venkile isn’t sure how security is split across stations, and says off-hand he isn’t sure how many stations there are in Gauteng.
“I am not sure if we deploy them (security) in all the trains. I would have to confirm that with our security officers. But I am sure in the capacity corridors you would find them deployed on the train,” he says.
Surely the congestion makes traversing the train impossible, so they are hardly effective? “Yes the congestion makes it extremely difficult, and then you will find that in a number of instances the security personnel are more present in the station precinct than in the trains.”
This was evident in Centurion when Daily Maverick visited Metrorail, and the security staff were huddled in a conversational cluster drinking tea and shooting the breeze.
But at the Irene station it appeared the security staff’s job was protecting Metrorail from pesky media workers. When I walked on to the platform to take photographs of trains and the commuter experience, burly security officers prohibited me from doing so. The security stated that they were not allowed to speak to the media, nor were they allowed to allow media entry on to the platform.
“My apologies for that,” says Prasa’s Venkile who explains that Metrorail has a rule that media who want to enter the “Metrorail environment” must get prior authorisation because “safety is an issue”.
When I explain to Venkile that the media should be able to do its job unhindered and to freely serve the public interest, he changes his tune. “Absolutely,” Venkile says. “The security should have allowed you to do your work. I am not saying that you need a sanction to do your work. When you get to the station our security ought to have understood that if you are a journalist they should only have ensured that you understand the safety rules.”
But journalists who frequently cover stories that involve Metrorail say this is not the case. “Every time you try to operate, there is almost a standing order that security will intervene,” says Eyewitness News’ Barry Bateman. “Even being on the reserve Metrorail shits themselves and tries to get you away.”
Bateman tells the story of a Mabopane crash site where he and the mayor of Tshwane, whom he was trying to interview at the time, were harassed by Metrorail security.
“I remember a Pretoria News photographer who was once wrestled to the ground when he tried to stop a (Metrorail) security guy from putting his hands in front of his lens. The security guy actually grabbed the photographer and forced him to the ground. This was at an accident site in Soshanguve, where someone tried to commit suicide and there was a car that was damaged by the train.”
Bateman says the impasse between journalists and Metrorail is widely known and accepted by media who cover the beat, and that journalists just try work round it.
Security aside, Metrorail passengers have a major problem with trains being unreliable. Commuters canvassed in Centurion said the Metrorail service threatened their job security.
Frans uses the Pretoria line from Irene to Mabopane daily and says the trains are invariably unreliable. “They are always late, even though they are cheaper than taxis. The government must upgrade Metrorail. There are much more commuters than there are trains, and we must stand from Irene to Mabopane, which can be one hour and 45 minutes,” he says.
Venkile says Metrorail Gauteng is not operating at full capacity in terms of the number of trains required, and that the trains themselves are so old that they break down. “The ‘locomotives’ are about 14 years old, and that is why we are buying new trains because the old trains break down more frequently,” he says.
“You must realise that decisions that are made about investment are decisions that are made at government level,” Venkile says. “We have been making pleas to Parliament, to the department of national transport and the treasury. Finally after many years the government has heard our call and they are investing billions to buy new trains over the next 20 years,” he says.
Last month the transport ministry invited rolling stock manufacturers to submit bids for building metro coaches, in a tender bid that’s estimated at R123-billion. Prasa estimates that 7,224 Metrorail coaches must be built nationally to meet the passenger demand over the next 20 years. However, the first new coaches only arrive in 2015. Until then the big crush continues.
Why is it taking so long to upgrade this service? Venkile says building trains takes time and, although there’s been a capacity problem for a while, it has only escalated during recent years. “Our patronage has been increasing. We carry about 2.4 million passengers on Metrorail,” says Venkile. “Really,” I say. “I heard the figures were much closer to three million.”
“Yes,” says Venkile. “It is approximately three million at this stage. The 2.4 million I was talking about were last year’s figures. We always count the figures at the end of the financial year.”
If you go on to Google and research Metrorail’s woes, the press has been bemoaning the state of Metrorail trains failing apart as far back as 2004.
When thinking about the problem of Metrorail’s near-obsolete trains, one can’t help but recall Maria Ramos and the legacy she left after being paid a reported R10-million a month to turn Transnet around. Under her watch Ramos effected a skills drain and didn’t invest in new rolling stock, a strategy that looked good on the balance sheet but which has had disastrous consequences for commuters.
It is another three years before those three million people that Metrorail serves in Gauteng get a reprieve from the crush, the crime and the danger that is the daily rail commute.
“Please. You must do something to help us,” Maria the commuter implores at the Irene station. “On the trains the tsotsis (thugs) cut our bags and steal our money and take our phones. It is terrible to ride on these trains – it is too, too dangerous.”
Another person tells the story of how a woman lost her legs in a Metrorail accident, and how people can die in overcrowded trains. The gaggle of women that surround Maria tell stories of despair. Then Maria turns around and runs toward the station to catch the next Metrorail train that is pulling in. DM
Photo: Railway tracks are seen near Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban. (REUTERS/Rogan Ward)
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas