South Africa

GroundUp: Train robberies – taking your life in your hands on Metrorail

By GroundUp 4 August 2015

The lack of security on trains in the Western Cape is a growing concern for commuters who are sitting ducks for criminals. Now the Congress of South African Trade Unions in the province has taken up the issue, threatening strike action if its concerns are not addressed. By ASHLEIGH FURLONG and GROUNDUP.

In the past year, 394 incidents of crime on trains were reported in the Western Cape, according to Metrorail. “We are losing lives on overcrowded and dangerous trains,” Congress of Southern African Trade Unions (Cosatu) Western Cape provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich said last week at the launch of the federation’s Section 77 application to the National Economic Development and Labour Council on train transport in the Western Cape.

A lack of security on trains is a key concern of the campaign. Cosatu has announced that its 220,000 Western Cape members will strike if its concerns are not addressed. The strike action will target Metrorail, the Passenger rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), the national government, the Western Cape government, the City of Cape Town, and the Cape Town Chamber of Business and Industry. Cosatu’s insistence that Prasa provide adequate security for commuters hinges on a 2004 Constitutional Court landmark case, Rail Commuters Action Group and others versus Metrorail and others.

In the case, Metrorail argued that the South African Police Service (SAPS) bears the primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of commuters, an argument the applicants strongly refuted. The court found that Metrorail, which was then a business within Transnet and is now a branch of Prasa, was in fact obliged to “ensure that reasonable measures are taken to provide for the security of rail commuters whilst they are making use of rail transport services”. In spite of the ruling, crime on trains is still rife, with an average of 33 crimes reported every month over the past year according to statistics provided by Metrorail to GroundUp. Many commuters have stories to tell about robberies and assaults on trains, sometimes involving guns and knives. These experiences appear to show Metrorail’s non-compliance with the 2004 ruling.

Inadequate security on trains came under the spotlight again after a gang of men wielding knives robbed a carriage full of commuters between the Retreat and Steenberg stations in Cape Town on July 22. Michael Weber was one of the commuters who were robbed. “I got onto the train from Cape Town to Fish Hoek at 6:15pm,” said Weber, “As usual I had my laptop out and was busy with work.” When the train arrived at Retreat station about six men boarded the train.

I immediately got the sense that these guys were trouble and started packing my laptop into my bag, when one of the guys came up to me with what looked like a large chef’s knife. My first reaction was to stand up, which must have taken him by surprise as he then swore at me and attacked me with the knife. I was able to bring my laptop bag up to my chest in time so that the knife went into the bag containing the laptop. He then took the bag and ran down the carriage aisle.”

Weber then moved to the next carriage to avoid further confrontation and when the train stopped at Steenberg station the robbers ran off. “There was no security on the train at any stage of the journey and also no one at the Retreat and Steenberg stations. I am aware that we unfortunately live in a country where this type of thing has become common place, but I do feel that commuters on Metrorail trains are sitting ducks as there is no escape once the train is moving,” said Weber.

Jasper Schoonraad, who is a crewing agent at Marine Crew Services SA, has witnessed and experienced numerous robberies and attempted robberies on trains in the Western Cape. One of the latest incidents was last month, when two men stole his phone and attempted to steal another woman’s computer tablet. Schoonraad chased after one of the robbers and punched him in the head, causing him to drop the stolen tablet. Despite this, the robbers still managed to get away with Schoonraad’s phone.

Schoonraad’s mother took to Facebook to vent her frustration. “Time for a petition and a commuters’ march,” she wrote. “Not everyone can afford to drive to work, and besides the roads can’t even handle the traffic load, not to mention the dearth of parking in the CBD. City of Cape Town, in the interests of the economy and environment, we demand reliable, clean and safe public transport!” Just two weeks ago, Schoonraad witnessed a handbag being snatched from a woman. “Her boyfriend and I ran after the guy and the train started leaving without us. We had to run after it and hop onto a moving train. There were security (guards) on the train as well as the platform. They didn’t even get the train to wait for us,” he said.

In a 2013 incident, Schoonraad prevented a man with a gun from robbing an elderly woman of her bag and wedding ring. Another commuter, Cailyn Shepherd, who takes the Southern line every day, said that two months ago someone with a gun climbed onto the carriage adjoining hers at Steenberg station and attempted to rob people. “Thank goodness I got off at the next stop,” she said. “I have only ever seen security twice on the trains in the last two years. And both times, it was in the morning and they were sleeping, taking up all the seats,” Shepherd told GroundUp. “We got told our price increases are going up to pay for more security. I have not seen one person since then. Metrorail is a joke and pathetic.”

Commuter Lusanda Mangale said passengers are complaining daily about the conditions on the trains. “There is no security. The trains are always running late and we pay a lot of money.” She said she didn’t mind paying increased train fares if the service was improved. The recent fare increase saw single tickets increasing by between 50 cents and R1, weeklies between R1 and R2, and monthlies between R2 and R38, depending on the travel zone and class. Mangale, who has been held up at gunpoint on the train, said what little security one may find on lines such as the Southern line does not exist in Khayelitsha. “We need some security or police (on the trains); at least some protection,” she said. Mangale’s sentiment was echoed by Ehrenreich. On Thursday, he said the railway police were being deployed by the SAPS to other areas. “The railway police must be reinstated,” he said.

Other improvements Ehrenreich called for were panic buttons on trains and for guards to be present in every carriage. The number of individuals who got onto trains without tickets and armed with weapons was also a matter of concern raised by Cosatu. Ehrenreich said that if a crime was committed on a train, there should be “nowhere a criminal can escape” once they disembarked. Many commuters have taken to Twitter to voice their anger at what they believe are substandard security measures on trains. DM

Photo: A train arrives at Harfield Station on the Southern line. (Photo by Ashleigh Furlong)


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