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Transport in SA: Going nowhere fast

There is little dignity for those at the mercy of poor rail services in South Africa. Affected by crime, lack of safety, endless delays and broken promises, the failing transportation system disproportionately affects the poor. Peter John Moses reflects on the situation that many of his fellow commuters are fed up with. 

The public transport system in South Africa is dying and the ministry in charge of it seems to be in a coma.” These are the words of a fed-up Felicity on an overcrowded late afternoon train from Cape Town to Strand. Bongi nods his head in agreement. “Those people only care about themselves and driving in their shiny cars. They don’t care about the worker who must travel far and don’t even know if they will make it home safely to their family.” A few people next to us nod and murmur that he is right. Squashed together like sardines in a can we have enough time to talk because the train is at a standstill between stations, for the third time on what was supposed to be a short journey for me. There is no communication between the passengers and the driver of the train as to the reason for the delays. It seems that commuters are expected to just sit quietly and be patient. Like children in a school or a creche.

This is the service in South Africa that paying customers are supposed to be happy with, especially within the government-run transport services. At train stations you might at least hear the pre-recorded message hailed over the public announcement system, about how sorry they are that they are causing you, as the commuter, this inconvenience. You will not get any real explanation as to what is going on. And forget trying to find assistance from the people who are paid to check your ticket or those who are there to sell you the ticket. You’ll be lucky to even get a shrug of the shoulders in reply to any of your queries. Even they are fed up and in the dark.

The Metrorail website is a wonderful piece fiction. With a vision that should lead us to “enhanced mobility as the gateway to accessible socio-economic opportunities and a shared future” and an equally lofty mission statement which declares the service is aimed at “sustainable transport solutions through service excellence, innovation and modal integration”. Between Metrorail, Prasa, the passenger services entity, and Transnet, the passengers are certainly not being taken forward; at times it feels as if we're going backwards.

This failure is unbelievably backed up by their own statistics published in their Myline newspaper which is distributed at all their train stations for free. They report that for the week of 30 November to 06 December, only 14% of trains on the Central line (Cape Town to Chris Hani) were on time in the mornings and one in three trains were on time in the evenings. A whopping 40% of scheduled trains on this line don’t even run at all. Metrorail blames cable theft and vandalism as reasons for this lack of service. This service was officially suspended on 8 January, leaving tens of thousands of people seeking alternative transport.

The passengers feel the train services should be blaming themselves for not beefing up their spending on security and for not delivering a better plan to combat crime along railway lines and train stations. Crime has always been high in many of the areas that the railway tracks run through and not investing in your security resources will always see criminals explore new opportunities that open up to them. Metrorail should just ask the management of the South African Police Services what happens when you don’t spend money the way you are supposed to.

Of course, the suspension of the line has resulted in a significant drop in revenue for Metrorail. This will be their next excuse for not spending on much-needed security.

Commuters like Felicity and Bongi are at the short end of the stick. They’re already struggling to cope with the unreliable service that Metrorail was providing (or not providing) and now they are forced to spend more of their meagre income to make alternative travel arrangements – in many cases they have the real fear of losing their jobs because they cannot guarantee their punctuality. Employers tend to not show much sympathy to the plight of the workers. Cape Town City Councillor Brett Herron was appalled by what he witnessed on a recent fact-finding exercise when he took the train from Nolungile station to Cape Town station. A journey that was supposed to take about an hour took more than two and a half.

“There is little dignity, concern, or respect shown towards rail commuters. The dysfunctional rail service is a crime against the poor to say the least. Residents who need to get to work on time are literally forced to make life or death decisions,” he said after his harrowing experience that most tackle daily. “Commuting can take anything between three and six hours, and it is dangerous – be it because there are windows without panes and open doors due to overcrowding, or criminals taking advantage of the desperate situation. The situation is dire, and the failure of rail affects us all.”

To commuters his words give little comfort as there seems to be no clear plan to find a sustainable solution. In the faces of the people in the carriage I only see despondency, not the smiling faces from the pics posted on the Metrorail website. We are going nowhere fast and everyone knows it.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Peter John Moses
Born and bred on the Cape Flats, Peter John is a social commentator, writer and a well known ultra runner in the Western Cape. He is a proud father to two boys.

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