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You don’t want to be a commuter today

You don’t want to be a commuter in Cape Town if you can help it.

A Khayelitsha resident summed up the problem thus: “You never know what time the train is coming. All you do is wait and hope that it comes.”

Richard Walker, regional manager of Prasa, would pull his hair out if he still had any.

Even if it does come, you have no idea when it will deliver you to your destination, if at all. It stops between stations for indefinite periods, and no one tells you why or for how long it will leave you in limbo.

If you are lucky no one will rob you while you wait. If you are lucky you may have a seat beside a window that is not broken. If you are lucky no one will set fire to the carriage while you are still in it.

And don’t expect the railway bosses to solve your problem soon. Prasa regional manager Richard Walker would pull his hair out if he still had any.

Referring to the central line between Bonteheuwel and Philippi, he wailed: “Everything has been stolen. The Bonteheu­wel substation is empty. All the cables have been removed . . . our people are being robbed and shot at while they patrol the area.”

T’was not always so. A hundred years ago the suburban railway line was the quickest and safest way to go to work.

On one of the first rail trips from Cape Town to Wynberg, a newspaper at the time reported that the two conductors were 'most active, sometimes having to scold people who stood on the platform with one foot and on the carriage with the other'.

Expresses could get you from the city to Kalk Bay in half an hour, enabling some business types who lived there to go home for lunch, albeit a swiftly consumed one.

Most professional men commuted by train, including the then judge president of the Cape, Sir Malcolm Searle, who had the misfortune to be in the second-last coach of the 05:02 pm express to Claremont on June 9, 1926. It detached from the train and smashed into the Salt River bridge, killing him and 16 other passengers.

There wasn’t another major crash on the suburban network until April 1957, when 18 passengers died in a collision near Woodstock. So yes, you could get killed but, if it was any consolation, train muggings were virtually unheard of, and if you weren’t one of those killed at thirty-year intervals, your trains were almost always on time.

As a boy I remember a uniformed railway policeman on every station. He never seemed to have anything to do but stand around looking smart.

There was a recorded incident of vandalism in the early days. In 1866 the cushions of a first-class carriage on the Wynberg line were found to be badly slashed. The culprit turned out to be a schoolmaster at Bishops. The railways dropped the case when the headmaster offered to pay for the damage.

But back to the Khayelitsha commuter. He could of course go by bus, except that buses get burned as well, and every now and then, when too many are incinerated or the drivers are attacked, buses are withdrawn from the area.

That leaves him with taxis, if they are not too full and he doesn’t mind the excitement of illegal lane switching at speed and ducking when occasional shots are fired at the driver.

In case you get the wrong idea, some train travellers in the olden days did get a bit out of hand.

On one of the first rail trips from Cape Town to Wynberg, a newspaper at the time reported that the two conductors were “most active, sometimes having to scold people who stood on the platform with one foot and on the carriage with the other”.

Alas, a good scolding might not be enough to save our public commuter system from disintegration today.

  • johnvscott@mweb.co.za
Meer oor:  John Scott
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