Independence you can trust
22 March 2018 23:31 (South Africa)
Opinionista Suné Payne

To Blade Nzimande from a commuter: Fix the trains

  • Suné Payne
    Suné Payne
Innocent working-class people suffer the indignity of travelling on poor public transport day after day, month after month, year after year while nothing gets done. As a daily commuter, I know about the daily suffering and inconvenience. Please Minister, do something – you can start by taking an 07:00 train yourself, from Khayelitsha to Cape Town.

Dear Minister Nzimande,

Congratulations on getting one of the most difficult and essential departments in the South African Cabinet. During an interview on radio within days of your appointment to this vital department, you said the situation at Prasa would be your first priority.

As a public transport commuter in Cape Town, I intend to hold you fully accountable to that commitment – there is nothing worse than having a politician who says he is for the working class, but when something as essential as trains need fixing, you cannot do the one thing you said you would look into.

In my community of Delft in Cape Town, most people walk to the Unibell and Pentech train stations in the next neighbourhood of Belhar every morning to get a train to work, especially to the Cape Town CBD. This often means a 10km walk. Compared to a single taxi ride that would cost R15, trains are cheaper – R7,50.

They are among 120,000 Capetonians who rely on the train to get to work.

I generally pay the extra cost for the convenience of the taxi. Since the trains on the Central Line were shut down by Metrorail following the killing of an on-duty security guard, train commuters had to find alternative – and often more expensive – sources of transport. This has meant longer queues at the taxi rank, so hours have been added to my already long travelling day.

The extra queues have placed an additional burden on the already mismanaged Delft/Cape Town Taxi Association.

If commuters leave their homes at 07:00, chances are likely they’ll only get into a taxi by 08:20 due to the long queues at the taxi rank. In the evenings it’s the same – if they leave work at 17:00, they stand in the long queue to catch a taxi home, and arrive two or three hours after – well after dark, and facing the danger of being a victim of crime. Often, if I get to the taxi rank at 18:00, by 19:30 I get frantic calls from my brother asking if I am in a taxi or close to home, since travelling alone after sunset is dangerous, especially for a woman.

And if your legs are sore from a long day’s work and you’ve been standing in a line for more than an hour, you ask the regulators when taxis will come, they look at you as if explaining to a naughty child that you need to be patient. It’s yet another slap in the face for commuters, who are accustomed to hearing that ominous voice drilled into their skulls while waiting for the train: Metrorail apologises for the inconvenience caused.

For two weeks in early 2017, while the Delft/Cape Town Taxi Association faced a violent route dispute, I had to take a train to Mitchells Plain on the Central Line, to then take another taxi home. It was terrible – people being pushed onto a moving train, tiny schoolchildren looking bewildered as they clung to their schoolbags, keeping your belongings safely guarded while commuters are screaming to close the door because certain stations are notorious for criminal activity.

Innocent working-class people have to suffer this indignity of travelling on a train day after day, month after month, year after year while nothing gets done.

During August and December 2017, I used to take the train from Rondebosch to Cape Town and Metrorail proved to be #Metrofail.

You get squashed into a cramped train carriage like thousands of sardines in a tin can, because the other trains are late; you fear being robbed or molested by men who stand within touching distance of your personal space. And all you hear is that ominous voice telling you that Metrorail apologises for the inconvenience caused. Well, Metrorail, it’s too late to apologise.

During February, I sat in during parliamentary transport portfolio committee meetings, with input from commuter organisations and public officials over the Metrorail situation. The nonchalant behaviour of the Prasa board angered me – even more than the Metrorail voice apologising over and over like a broken record.

While members of #UniteBehind and Rail Commuters Action Group delivered distressing stories such as the loss of jobs, dignity and even the loss of a child on trains, MPs were mute. The room was silent as Warren Johnson and Zoliswa Dlamini, commuters from different parts of Cape Town, described losing not only their jobs, but their dignity as a result of Metrorail trains constantly being late.

Even worse, the interim board appointed by the previous Transport minister Joe Maswanganyi sat stony-faced, not even trying to say “we apologise for the inconvenience caused”.

The committee heard how commuters relayed their lived experiences of losing jobs, losing sons and even a video by #UniteBehind had no apparent effect on the Prasa board members, who sat passively.

This disregard of commuters’ desperation by the Prasa board infuriated me. Sitting in the room made me frustrated as I thought about my daily commuting experience – the long overcrowded lines waiting for me as I travel between work and home.

Even as the trains on the Central Line have resumed for two weeks, queues at the taxi rank are still long and constantly people whisper that the train services have not improved and still face the same delays as reported in GroundUp in 2017.

Minister Nzimande, I beg you, even if you are unsure of whether or not your job will remain after the 2019 national elections, make sure you create a safe transport plan that gets implemented, that looks after commuter safety and most important, gets the trains running effectively.

But first, Minister Nzimande, please take a train from Khayelitsha to the Cape Town CBD at 07:00. Then you’ll have an idea of what it means to be a train commuter in Cape Town. Once you’re finished, please sit down and demand a proper and practical plan to get the trains running efficiently, even if it means getting in train engineers from Japan, where it was reported in 2017 that railway operators apologised for trains being a few seconds too early!

Imagine that ominous voice saying that your train is 20 seconds too early – most commuters would be shocked. Minister, then you must check up on the procurement process and status of any train set bought by Prasa within the last five years, and ensure that the simple things like the size and height are correct, which will help the burden on older train sets.

There is no reason for a working class person to wait unnecessarily for a train or taxi and regret going to and from work – it makes one so exhausted and can cause health problems for those who have to stand on their feet for an hour waiting for a taxi in the cold Cape Town mornings.

According to #UniteBehind, around 120,000 people in Cape Town use trains to get to work – these are working-class people who form the backbone of the economy. They are the ones who suffer the most when one is so corrupt and inept as to buy the incorrect size of train track.

Commuters are also the first to get blamed when carriages are burnt.

During the meeting in Parliament, I felt uncomfortable as I kept hearing from Prasa and members of the transport committee how “communities should tell their brothers and sisters not to burn the trains”. To add insult, deputy transport minister Sindi Chikunga said when she took the trains in the ‘70s, issues of vandalism and unsafe conditions were prevalent.

If this was a problem under an apartheid government, why 24 years into democracy are we still facing the same problem? Shouldn’t the government have worked out sustainable transport plans post-1994 and update them as often as possible; taking into consideration an expanding population and ageing infrastructure, and the advances in train technologies over 20 years?

I really hope you are genuine, Minister Nzimande, and come up with practical immediate solutions for the people you say you represent.

We need a practical and immediate solution to the train crisis, because how long can it be said, “we apologise for the inconvenience caused”? DM

  • Suné Payne
    Suné Payne

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