The Metrorail system in Johannesburg is criticised as dangerous, overcrowded and late. The transport provider says it wants to improve, but it faces a network of new challenges if it wants to turn the tide. By GREG NICOLSON & BHEKI C. SIMELANE.
On a Monday night in January the train was near Nancefield. According to the Sowetan, four men entered the carriage. They pulled out guns, demanding everyone place their phones and money on the floor. When they demanded everyone stand and be searched, one commuter drew his own gun. Shots were exchanged, leaving one person dead and two injured before the thieves fled.
“Crime we know as a country, but it’s once in a while someone is killed on a train. But once is too many,” says Lillian Mofokeng, spokesperson for Prasa, which runs Metrorail, while walking through Park Station a month later. Commuters hurry past her through the station hall and descend the stairs. On platform four, a yellow line stripes the grey concrete. A train draws to a stop and a bell rings while Mofokeng and her Prasa colleagues wait for a train heading to where the shootings occurred.
Across operations in four provinces, Metrorail transports 1.7 million people each weekday. In Johannesburg, the service has long been associated with the working class, an affordable transport option, a symbol of migrancy and economic exclusion that’s prey to instability and crime. Johannesburg’s Metrorail is a South African public transport system: underdeveloped yet crucial to the economy, at the mercy of thieves old and new, and unfamiliar to a wealthy minority while a crucial part of life to many.
The train pulls into platform four and a mosh pit of young men cram inside. A church group start singing. Other passengers play cards. The train isn’t full but men squeeze between the carriages, searching for hand and leg grips. Others hang out the open door as the grey and yellow train slides away.
Passengers commuting to work pray the trains are on time. The only people not concerned about time are the thugs. Last year Daily Maverick saw two men holding open a carriage door while a train was pulling out of Orlando Station. While it was moving, they ripped the gold earrings off a passenger, jumped onto the platform and left her bleeding from both ears.
“Men always take advantage of the crowding in the trains and have a way of sexually abusing female students,” says 18-year-old student Noncebo Magubane who often rides the Vereeniging line. “I have been sexually abused a few times myself. I just wish there was a way in which men and women wouldn’t share train coaches; then maybe the sexual abuse would stop.” She has been grabbed on the behind by men and it often happens to young women, she says.
According to the SAPS annual report, in 2013/14 almost 32,000 crimes were reported in the railway environment, which includes a wide range of offences related to the system, a decrease of 15 percent on the previous year, with arrests falling 20 percent. Gauteng saw the highest rail-related crimes and overall there was an increase in contact crime “attributed to service delivery strikes, labour disputes, damage to property such as trains and general theft of personal items such as cellular phones. In many cases, cellular phones are stolen from victims who are unacquainted with the surroundings and are less alert when on the trains or at the rail station concourse,” it said. According to a police survey, the public is happy with their services on trains and around stations, but want more visible policing.
Passenger Mmusi Thabiso, 40, a daily commuter, disagrees. “Security visibility should be maintained throughout the day to curb crime in trains and on train stations. Robbers have the tendency of monitoring and pouncing on trains with few people on board,” he says.
Grosvenor. Croesus. New Canada. The train heads towards Soweto. Through an open window the sun sets on a mine dump. Rows of RDP houses flicker past.
Mofokeng says Prasa has taken action to combat crime on the trains. She says every station has security guards (our trip featuring a special contingent). There are thousands of employed and contracted guards to monitor trains, stations and assets, and Prasa also meets weekly with police and community forums, leading to vastly reduced day-to-day crime on the trains. “It’s working,” she claims. But streets around stations can be a problem where there is a lack of lighting.
What’s frustrating her most is criminals targeting Prasa infrastructure and communities compromising the system. It relates to Metrorail’s service, often criticised for being late, having delays, and overcrowding.
Magubane has to catch a train to school because her family cannot afford the taxi fare. “Teachers in our school do not encourage us to use trains to school because of punctuality reasons. On Monday 16 February, I was turned back because I had arrived 45 minutes late,” she says. “The trains are always full, we get squashed and pushed around and by the time we arrive in school we battered and dirty.”
Other passengers on the Vereeniging line, which is particularly problematic, agree. Ntokozo Khumalo, 15 years old, uses the train to get to school. She says, “Prasa should provide us with enough trains because we pay for our travel tickets. Metrorail service has sucked for as long as – I don’t know when. They need to fix the situation promptly because our parents’ jobs and our education, our futures, our lives are being heartlessly put in jeopardy. It’s actually very dodgy for Prasa to keep collecting from us cash in ticket sales while their services remain dismal.”
Thabiso wants better communication. “For instance, when a train suddenly, randomly stops in the middle of nowhere while people run late for work, no one ever bothers to tell commuters when the train will depart again… People are losing their jobs for arriving at work late, but this does not seem to bother Metrorail whose only interest is collecting ticket fares in basket-fulls of money.”
Prasa says the commuters are important to the organisation but it faces constant challenges. Metrorail can’t protect its vast infrastructure from cable theft, which leads to regular delays. Thieves also steal parts of signalling devices for copper. Metrorail trains and stations have been targeted by protesters. People commit suicide by jumping in front of trains, others die or are injured travelling outside the train or between carriages.
“It talks to societal issues,” says Mofokeng on the challenges. “People lose jobs, people lose opportunities,” she admits. “They end up thinking we don’t care as Metrorail, but with an open system and without community support it’s very difficult.”
Metrorail is trying to get the community involved on issues of safety and take ownership for the train system. “If the community gets involved it will go a long way,” Mofokeng argues, encouraging the public to learn about safety and turn against cable thieves.
The train arrives, this time at least, uninterrupted. DM
Photo: Early morning light catches rainway carriages as they wait for the Monday morning rush hour at the Johannesburg station. (EPA)