The Metrorail Jungle

Every festive season South Africa counts hundreds of people who die on the road and many campaigns are announced to reduce the deaths on South Africa’s road. Special centres are set up and newspaper headlines are full of details of roadblocs, drunked drives and speedtraps. On a daily basis South African commuters endure injuries and risk death, and robbery in one of the busiest transport modes in the country, the Metrorail train. In January the death of more than 21 passangers in a train crash in Kronstad made international headlines.

Metrorail trains are far from being an attractive, comfortable or fastest mode of transport. The upper and middle classes in South Africa have their own trains such as the Gautrain, the tourist Blue Train and Rovos Rail. The Gautrain and the Blue Train are costly and the passengers are well looked after. On the other hand the Metrorail is used by the majority of commuters. This train costs less, however, there are more serious costs and risks involved, including injury and death. These trains painstakingly illustrate the class and colour inequalities in South Africa.

The collision of trains is a regular occurrence on South Africa’s rail lines. 200 commuters were left with injuries as two trains collided in Geldenhuys, Johannesburg on 9 January this year. An oncoming train rear-ended a stationary one. Metrorail spokesperson, Lillian Mofokeng, could only say that they are investigating why the train bumped into the rear of a stationary one. In many of these investigations the public never gets to know what happened as the media loses interest in the matter. The problem is that this is not the first rear-end collision, and all of them disappear into “investigations”. The clear outcome is that Metrorail does not improve it’s systems. Perhaps it has to do with little value placed on this mode of transport and the value placed on the lives of the working class and poor, as virtually no other class uses this class of Metrorail?

If commuters escape a collision, they most likely will not get to work on time. The amount of time it can take to travel almost to any destination, is double that of a taxi, generally.  The daily reality is waiting for up to two hours at stations. Announcements about why a train has not come does not take away problems. In a country with high unemployment, Metrorail has to take responsibility for the loss of income of many breadwinners, as consistent latecoming has led to dismissals or to reduced income. Is it a surprise that no class action legal challenge has been initiated given the serial lateness of Metrorail services.

Entering a Gautrain, one is often greeted by security personnel, a clean environment, and minimal overcrowding if any. In a Metrorail, however, there are no security personnel deployed for safety of commuters. This is is a real case of “use at own risk”. Robberies and violence in trains are common. Subway stations are easy to access by anyone, virtually unidentified.  Ironically, the train is perhaps safest when it is too full, although the commuter has to sacrifice comfort, and for women sexual harassment and ‘groping’ by men. One wonders why is there a reluctance to invest in the safety of ordinary commuters as well as improve their commuting experience. What are the rail police for if they cannot be deployed towards the safety of users?

It is not uncommon to find commuters of different ages and sexes, arrested by officials for not having a ticket. This is despite the fact that the risk of a free ride means that there will be no compensation should there be a fatal incident as ‘mangobe’ riders are not compensated. What may explain the reluctance to buy tickets, even for as little as R7.50, lies in the service, or lack thereof, that is provided. Large sections of commuters countrywide are reluctant to buy tickets, and the question “Why should I pay for transport that gets me so late to work?” is often heard.

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