COMMENT

Train skaam in SA

Andrew Donaldson on a movement unlikely to take off in our country

A FAMOUS GROUSE

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THE Passenger Rail Association of South Africa now has what it calls a “war room”. This development, launched on Thursday by the transport minister, Fikile Mbalula, does not surprise. 

As a politician, he is overly fond of clambering up on boxes and shouting at the problems du jour in the manner of a small demented corporal urging others to storm a heavily defended enemy position and bugger the consequences. 

As a sports minister, you may recall, Mbalula issued the following instructions to the Springboks ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup: “Moer hulle dood.” Before that, in 2009, when he was police minister, he urged cops to use maximum force in tackling crime: “Yes. Shoot the bastards. Hard-nut to crack, incorrigible bastards.”

A limited vocabulary, and one that perhaps that mirrors the limited success of his campaigns, but it’s an approach that Mbalula will stick with as he attempts to fix the trains, which, it hardly needs saying, are going to take some fixing.

In a nutshell, there are 157 Metrorail sets, and the country needs at least twice that number; half of our overcrowded suburban services can’t get commuters to work on time; and the entire rail network is unsafe as it’s old and falling apart.  

Besides that, the services are bedevilled by routine vandalism, sabotage and arson. In October last year, the BBC reported that, in the space of a few months, half of Cape Town’s entire stock of more than 80 suburban trains had been set on fire and taken out of action. The Beeb also noted the widespread suspicion that ANC supporters may have been responsible for the attacks as part of an organised campaign to portray the DA-run city and province as incompetent.

I mention all this because we have a while to go yet before we are in a position to be tagskryt, or “train boasting”. This is the movement started by Swedish green activists aimed at encouraging rail travel as an alternative to flying or driving when travelling long distances or vacationing in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. 

Part of our reluctance to pick up on this trend stems from the fact that, as outlined above, we would of course first need rail services worth boasting about. Very few of us can afford regular holidays on luxury services like the Blue Train or Rovos Rail, and the alternative is too shabby to contemplate.

It wasn’t always like this. I fondly recall the long nights in the lounge car on the old Trans-Karoo Express, a bottle of rough red at the elbow, and ploughing through a history of the 1922 miners’ revolt or some other arcane Africana. A rolling wood-panelled den away from one’s own wood-panelled den, as it were. Then, when the words begin to float off the page, a swaying toddle back to one’s compartment and the fresh linen of a turned-down bed. Bliss, and a sense that one had arrived, even if only in the process of arriving.

Nowadays we are lucky if we even arrive at all. Matters all went trucks-up, as it were, when they auctioned off the silver cutlery, did away with the leather cushions in second class and came up with that silly name, Shosholoza Meyl. It means, roughly, “long distance train taking men to slave in the mines”, which is hardly suggestive of the fabled romance of rail we all imaged when we were young and impressionable.

Another reason we will be tagskryt-averse, if I may, is that it is a European development and we are deeply suspicious, if not openly hostile of anything that smacks of being a trend or, worse still, signifies a change in lifestyle. Plus, we believe we do know better, and that’s that.

Tagskryt stems from flygskam, or “flight shame”. It may seem silly, but European governments and private rail companies are now considering investing in the return of long-distance night trains. 

France, for example, is considering a ban on all domestic flights to destinations that could be reached by train in less than five hours. It makes perfect sense in terms of environmental impact. A flight from Paris to Marseille, let’s say, emits almost 180 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger compared with just more than four kilograms for the same journey by train.

The train really is a no brainer, especially when you consider just how uncomfortable and awful modern air travel is. The entire process, from arriving at the airport to exiting at the other side, is designed to dehumanise passengers and strip them of all dignity; it is frankly surprising that, never mind the so-called mile high club, more couples don’t break up or murder one another mid-flight. 

Flygskam was first articulated in 2016, when Swedish opera singer Malena Ernmann gave up flying and drew the attention of other celebrities to the cause. By the summer of 2018, which brought record highs to Sweden along with devastating wildfires, Ernmann’s movement had sufficient national traction to warrant export to neighbouring countries. 

Her most famous celebrity disciple is her headstrong daughter, the 16-year-old activist, Greta Thunberg. 

Right now, there is no other child on this planet with as much power to drive reactionary middle-aged white men absolutely swivel-eyed bats to the extent that she has in recent weeks. They’re falling over themselves like Romans at on orgy to have a go at her. 

One such individual is the Welsh leader of the UK Independence Party, Neil Hamilton, who posted an image on Twitter of Thunberg on Twitter with her eyes photoshopped to look demonic with the caption: “Have you done anything this week that Greta might disapprove of?”

Underneath Hamilton had written: “It’s shaping up to be the hottest day of the year — please remember: X No electric fans X DEFINITELY no air conditioning Greta has spoken.#ClimateHoax #ExtinctionRebellion

This did not go down well at all, and the gist of the many outraged responses that followed is perhaps best summed up in this tweet: “You’re demonising an autistic child. WTF is wrong with you?”

Hamilton, a former Tory and a disgraced junior minister, is coincidentally a very South African sort of politician. 

He was implicated in the “cash-for-questions” scandal of the early 1990s, having received thousands of pounds for asking parliamentary questions on behalf of Mohamed Al Fayed’s Harrods group. Now he is an ardent Brexiteer and like many of his ilk probably stands to profit enormously by shorting the pound as the price of sterling continues to fall. But more of that perhaps at another time.

Thunberg’s most influential critic is the sclerotic liver spot Jeremy Clarkson, who last weekend greatly amused himself over her forthcoming appearances at United Nations climate summits in the US and Chile as part of a year-long sabbatical in the Americas.

As Clarkson wrote in his popular Sunday Times column: “She’s become the maypole around which all the eco-loonies now dance and, as a result, she’s been invited to speak at the United Nations. Because that makes sense, doesn’t it? The UN being advised by a 16-year-old schoolgirl.”

What particularly piqued Clarkson’s interest, though, was that, having forsworn air travel, Thunberg was crossing the Atlantic on the Malizia II, an 18-metre, high-speed yacht that was built for the 2016-17 single-handed, non-stop round-the-world Vendée Globe race.

The vessel is fitted with solar panels and underwater turbines to generate zero-carbon electricity. Greta will be accompanied on the voyage by Malizia II’s skipper Boris Hermann, her father Svante Thunberg, Pierre Casiraghi, the grandson of Monaco’s late Prince Rainier III and the actor Grace Kelly, and a film-maker.

“Naturally,” Clarkson wrote, “this has made all her disciples very happy, but hang on a minute. What’s the message? That the half a million people who fly every day from Europe to America should use a £15m yacht instead?

“It gets worse, because if you examine the yacht she’s using, it’s not as green as you might imagine. First of all, it is equipped with a diesel engine. Ha. You didn’t know that I knew that, but I do. And second, it’s made mostly from carbon fibre, which cannot be recycled effectively and which uses 14 times more energy to produce than steel. Which can be recycled very easily indeed.”

Look, I may not be the knowledgeable petrolhead that Clarkson is, but I too can be a facetious old fart. 

Firstly, this a yacht. The chief source of propulsion here is the wind. Those big white things? They’re sails. They “catch the wind”, and the boat moves in the water. Elementary Sea Scout stuff. The diesel engine, I’d hazard a guess, is just there to putter in and out of crowded marinas full of half-naked people with expensive drinks with little umbrellas in them.

As for “recycling” the yacht, well, dear God, whatever for? The thing costs about R280-million. At that price, I’d say there are not many like that about. In other words, it’s a keeper in the boat department. Why would you want to recycle it? 

Perhaps we should be wary of climate alarmists. But better alarm, I suppose, than the opposite, which is a flat-earthing climate change denialism. Clarkson doesn’t deny the science, admittedly, but he is one of those who argues we needn’t change our behaviour in this regard. Science, he reckons, has a knack of stepping in to save the day at the eleventh hour. 

“If you are sheltering from a nuclear winter and have a fridge full of food, you will not go outside to search for supplies until it is empty,” he said. “Likewise, we did not invent an electronic computer until we absolutely definitely had to crack those Nazi codes.

“It stands to reason, then, that we will not have solar-powered airliners and kids clamouring for some conkers until the wells and seams in the ground beneath our feet are empty. This means that to spur on the green revolution, we must use the coal and the gas and the oil as quickly as possible.”

It’s an interesting theory. But the attitude does remind me of the ANC government: in order to hasten on effective administration, they must persist in their inefficiency. That new dawn will eventually rise. One day. Maybe not tomorrow, but much, much later.

Put another way, for some sort of new democratic era to rise from the ashes, we should first have the ashes. Throw another carriage on the fire. Train roasting, then train boasting.

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