Siiiiinging in the (t)rain!

Siiiiinging in the (t)rain!

A week spent monitoring commuter rail in Durban led to some interesting observations

I haven’t seen too many objections to the decision to spend R51 billion on new electric trains, with the prospect of another R60 billion after that. If people are happy with this they should be equally happy with spending some money on electric trolleybuses; which represent far better value for money in many areas and, together with light rail/trams, can replace heavy rail on several routes in South Africa. Light rail could even be extended into the streets of our cities.

So let’s stay with rail, especially after a Monday trip in early April on train 0083, the 16:54 train from Pinetown to Durban. I bought a third-class ticket, knowing that the first-class section would be occupied by third-class passengers anyway, and got into a third-class coach, which already had 100 standing passengers. As the little seven-coach set jerked away from Pinetown, (only one minute late – well done Prasa), the church service began …

For the next 45 minutes we sang, read the bible, prayed and heard a stirring sermon from an earnest young preacher. My knowledge of Zulu is regrettably poor, so I hoped that I closed and opened my eyes at the right time for the prayers. The passengers had their Bibles open at first Corinthians 14.

The church service ended at 17:40 exactly, as we pulled into Rossburgh where at least 300 passengers got out of the train in order to transfer to the Umlazi line. An overcrowded 9402 bound for Umlazi was already in the station, which resulted in an all-too-familiar scramble through the subway.

So I decided to spend the rest of the week checking out the Umlazi-KwaMashu line, which is on the Prasa “A” list and is widely regarded as the “backbone” line in Durban.

Some backbone! During a 50-minute survey (16:20 to 17:10) at Umbilo Station the next afternoon, only two Umlazi trains came through; the first at 16:53 and the second at 17:00. Both were packed, so no-one would have been able to get on further along the line.

There were four other trains going to different destinations, two of which – the Wests and Crossmoor trains – were empty enough to have been worked by buses instead, thereby releasing coaches for use on the Umlazi line.

The next three afternoons were spent at Umgeni station on the KwaMashu line, which has a common timetable with Umlazi, meaning that long gaps in one direction knock on to the other.

On the Wednesday, there was a 30-minute gap (17:20 to 17:50) between KwaMashu trains. I wondered why so many people were waiting on the footbridge. It turned out that there are other trains to Stanger (KwaDukuza), which can take them to Duffs Road, from where they can continue by taxi to KwaMashu. But the Stanger trains leave from another platform so these passengers have to wait on the bridge to avoid another mad scramble. Oh, the joys of train travel!

On Thursday, the story at Umgeni was the same – a 28-minute gap from 17:12 to 17:40 – but the first train (9377) was only an eight-coach set, instead of the normal twelve, thereby leaving many people to wait for an overloaded 9385 (showing 9383 on the front).

Friday was far better, with trains every 15 minutes on average. The only problem was that now they were only half full.

So, South Africa, you can spend all you want on new heavy-rail coaches, but a culture of mediocrity has set in and it is going to be almost impossible to break. We also aren’t developing new managers among our youth who will have the ability to deal with the problem.  

I don’t know whether the preacher spent much time on verse 20 of Corinthians 14, which reads: “brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children”. I’m not sure whether Prasa hands out money to the preachers to keep the passengers’ minds off the sheer wretchedness of their travel experience. But, one thing is certain, in the sphere of public transport we are a “dumbed down” and childish society – from the humble rail passengers singing in the train to the overpaid upper classes, with too many cars.

Vusi “you gotta’ raise your IQ” Mona, of Sanral, would not approve. |


Vaughan Mostert is a senior lecturer in the Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management at the University of Johannesburg. He developed a love for public transport early in life, which led to a lifelong academic interest in the subject. Through Hopping Off, Mostert leaves readers with some parting food for thought as he continues his push for change in the local public transport industry.

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