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End of the line? Noooooo … Please don’t abandon the trains

Take a trip with Lorenzo Davids @UrbanLo as he tracks a most pleasant train ride into Cape Town and implores fellow South Africans not to abandon public transport.

Twitter train diaries, January 11, 2022

6:53am: It’s a beautiful Tuesday morning in Cape Town. I’m on the station. Hope to catch the 7:02am train, or something like that.

The station is deserted. Even the birds have left.

The ticket custodian cuts a lone figure in his booth. He throws my ticket at me with the last bit of John Travolta he has in him.

6:56am: Cape Town’s weather could be a ‘coolish’ low of 17 and a high of 21. That means Capetonians will start unpacking their winter clothes; today it’s scarves and jerseys again. One dark cloud in the sky and Capetonians rush for vests, jerseys and long-johns.

7:01am: The train arrives; not sure which one this is. It looks like it is train number 101, but only the 01 is visible.  Maybe this is the only train. Only two passengers get on the train. It’s quiet in the carriage. No noise. No gospel preachers and no snack sellers.

7:04am: The train is spotlessly clean and there is no graffiti inside the carriage, but the seats are vandalised. The difference in passenger numbers is shocking. 8 years ago, even 3 years ago, this train was packed to the rafters. Now it’s empty. I’m urging South Africans to reclaim public transport. Don’t abandon it.

7:06am: At Wynberg station there’s a crowd of people waiting. The driver does not open the doors immediately. Almost like he’s ‘aspris’[1]. (Haven’t used that word in a while!). The people pull the doors and shout: “Maak oep!” He relents and opens up. They storm into the carriage.

7:08am: This train ride is a gentle ride. The driver is not in a hurry. Books and phones are open. No one looks up or at anyone.

7:11am: We leave Kenilworth Station like we are on a country trip: Slowly. I look at the opening where the window is supposed to be to see if anyone is waving at us, like we used to do at Cape Town Station. Alas, all I see is a man running to catch the train, but he’s too late.

7:13am: After Kenilworth the driver picks up speed. I think the Kenilworth people might have complained to Metrorail about speeding trains in the morning. That’s why he drove so slowly past their area. Now he’s on a gallop. He brakes for just 2 seconds at Claremont and he’s off again.

7:16am: Rondebosch is deserted. So is Newlands. No one gets on. No one.

Unless the middle class reclaims public transport and fights for a dignified service for all commuters, instead of abandoning it, it will be only the poor who use this service and government will ignore their rights to dignified public transport.

7:18am: I am now virtually alone in the carriage. I remember my earlier years as a student travelling from Mitchell’s Plain to UWC/Unibell Station and being robbed on the trains. Nightmare stuff. It was scary back then. Very scary. The trains are safer today.

7:21am: As we leave my home suburb station of the 90s, Observatory, I savour fond memories of working for government and using the train into town every day. A short ride, but so much fun.

7:24am: Public transport is a right. Safe and decent public transport is a value within that right. We need both. We need a government who understands that public transport is the great leveller is society. It’s where citizens of all cultures, class and orientations come face to face with each other daily.

Every great society has a decent public transport system. 

7:27am: As I look at the broken, dirty and empty seat opposite me I see a country at a crossroads. We can either allow others to destroy the rest of the seats, or we can say “not in my name and not on my watch” and work to protect and fill these seats with people. It’s up to us.

7:30am: As we approach Salt River the weather becomes overcast. Salt River is the windy suburb of Cape Town.

Here’s a tip: always call someone living in Salt River to find out what the weather is like for the day. The Salt River weather is the true weather for the day.

7:33am: This train driver is taking his time getting us to Cape Town. The old lady in the seat across from me has begun to sing funeral hymns. I’m not sure what to make of that. Softly and melodiously she sings: “Nearer my God to thee.”

I’m getting scared. Does she know something we don’t know.  We arrive at Woodstock. Definitely nearer to Cape Town. Not sure about nearer to God.

7:34am: The train creaks and moans and shrieks and jerks as we leave Woodstock. As if it doesn’t ‘lus[2]’ for Cape Town Station. The driver yanks it into 1st gear, and we’re off.

7:36am: We race another train into Cape Town Station, like drivers looking for a parking spot at Cavendish Square. We lose the race. Our train stops. The other train goes on into the open platform. It’s a junk feeling to lose a parking spot you saw first.

7:39am: We walk out the doors of a clean train and a most pleasant train ride. It’s time to reclaim public transport. It belongs to all of us.

Lorenzo Davids @UrbanLo

[1] aspris: doing it on purpose

[2] lus: desire/fancy 

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