I admit it. I have always been frightened of taking the train in South Africa.
Judge me if you like. Call me ignorant, call me a typical negative privileged South African, but up until recently, the thought of commuting to and from work by train would have been unthinkable.
From as early as I can remember, I have always been told that the trains are terrible. Scary. Dangerous.
And this wasn’t unfounded – even if certain fears were probably over emphasised. For years the crime on trains, and getting to and from stations, has been a genuine cause for concern.
However, since 2006, Metrorail has made a couple of decisions that have made a difference. Like the introduction of the railway police and in Cape Town, the complete overhaul of the railway station. ( It has all the familiar trimmings and trappings of any international station). And according to an article with Prasa in the Financial Mail, they have seen reduced crime figures year on year.
But, just the other day – on Monday the 7th July in fact – a Zimbabwean man, Reason Wandi, told the media that he was thrown from a Cape Town train in what is thought to be a xenophobic attack.
This very bad news seems completely overshadowed by the hordes of triumphant train trumpeters – a category which I have also fallen into with abandon! Hundreds of foreign tourists and locals have been having a party on the World Cup train routes. They can’t stop singing the praises of the train.
I chose to commute to and from Cape Town rather than risk getting into a car accident while commuting for 2-3 hours a day on crowded highways populated by impatient hooligans driving up your bum.
The decision was further prompted by experiences of travelling in India. Seeing that billions of Indians commute by train and millions of South Africans commute by train – chances are most of them just want to get to work. The odds of meeting a mugger/attacker/thief are not really that high. Especially during rush hour . While the chances are certainly higher on deserted trains and at empty train stations, the alternative isn’t too peachy either.
Muggings or car accidents? Which one will it be?
Nonetheless, I made the decision to “train” and was pleasantly surprised. I have been loving it – as much as you can love a commute. What us car owning folk tend to forget, is that traffic jams are a luxury. Having the funds available to afford your own personal transportation device is a privilege.
It was nice to feel like I was in touch with other South Africans. It seems that the people on the local train circuit become a little travelling community. Sitting together, chatting or reading. (Quite unlike the staid and isolated train journeys in Europe!)
And while the choice of reading material of my fellow travellers left much to be desired ( Medical Romances, Afrikaans large print romance, You, Drum and the autobiography of Steve Hofmeyer.) It’s been lekker. Especially being able to close my eyes for 40 winks along the way.
But, it would be naive, and possibly very dangerous, to ignore the ugly bits of train travelling in SA. There may be a sense of euphoria in the wake of the World Cup, but it is unfortunately not going to erase the hard issues we face.
That said. Take the train. It’s fun. Just keep your wits about you.