The yellow train to nowhere

Andrew Donaldson writes on President Ramaphosa's recent PR disaster



THE railways are a bit rubbish at the moment and under some pressure to be more punctual. According to news reports, in the month to March 9, 97.4% of all commuter trains here rolled into stations within ten minutes of their scheduled arrival and 66.9 per cent managed to get there within 60 seconds of the stated time. 

Just not good enough.

From next month, all passenger services will be expected to reach each station on their line within a minute of their scheduled arrival. Failing to do so will mean they are “late” and thus in breach of franchise agreements between the government and train companies, and operators may then be liable for severe fines and penalties for persistent poor performance.

These, of course, are the train services on the mud island and, while I don’t mean to be come over all sneery, I do think that the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa could learn a bit from this lot. 

Rather than sending a tubby jailbird like Tony Yengeni off on a “fact-finding” mission to Venezuela, the failed mafia state, why not despatch Prasa engineers to Waterloo Station, let’s say? There, armed with rail passes and little notebooks, they may duly note, among other crucial observations, that locomotives that are of the correct size do not fall over on the curved sections of the line. 

Perhaps Cyril Ramaphosa, disappointed rail commuter and leader of a country that is placed 106th in the 2019 world happiness ratings, already has such a mission in mind.

As he told eNCA during his lengthy train delay outside Marabastad: “We are going to interact with [Prasa] at the highest level to make sure the board chair, the CEO, acting or otherwise, gets to fully understand the level of anger and frustration that is among the [passengers] here.”

Even if the board fail to fully understand the anger and frustration of long-suffering commuters, they may still be confronted with the full force of the Ramafury, if I may toss yet another portmanteau onto a dangerously overcrowded platform.

As Squirrel has threatened, Prasa must fix the situation forthwith, “otherwise heads will roll”.

The bowels of the nation’s ticket inspectors and signal operators must be churning with dread. It is they who will probably be punished for this fiasco, which is entirely in keeping with government’s best practice guidelines when dealing with incompetence and bad management: the more lowly and menial the scapegoat, the better.

Still, it was a good idea in theory, this ANC “station blitz election campaign”. 

But how different it all may have been had Ramaphosa and Gauteng premier David Makhura confined their blitz campaigning to the actual station itself and avoided the train altogether.

Regular commuters will know that one of the principal drawbacks of rail travel, whether in motion or not, is that there are invariably other people in the carriage, many of whom make it their business to annoy fellow passengers. 

This is certainly the experience of Cape Town’s commuters who are routinely bothered by, among others, Bible-thumpers, incontinent drunks, bad buskers, blind beggars, hawkers, vandals and, in recent years, arsonists. 

With much of the Western Cape’s rolling stock put to the torch, it was inevitable that suspicion would fall on the taxi associations. 

Others claimed it was ANC members wanting to render the city and province ungovernable. Besides, a broken rail service would really drive home to stranded commuters the inequities of apartheid spacial planning. 

Now the residents of Glencairn, De Grendel, Plumstead, Kuils River and other affected communities would all be suddenly wide awoke and cursing racist town planners who didn’t build their suburbs next door to their places of employment.

At the time, at the sorely-missed Mahogany Ridge, we had a theory of our own: the trains burnt so fiercely and so quickly because of the highly flammable glue used in the thousands of notices for penis extensions and same-day abortions that were plastered all over the carriages by traditional healers. (They advertised other services, too. Winning the lottery was one thing. But there were some doubts about former spouses returning.)

The fires and reduced services did however throw up exciting new opportunities in rail transport. Traditionally, passengers would either travel first or third class (later changed to MetroPlus and Metro) but now there’s a “middle class” option — that is, hanging on for dear life on the couplings between carriages.

But back to the president. Another source of irritation for commuters, as Ramaphosa has now discovered, is squaring off with an uncomfortably enthusiastic television reporter on the grub for “comment” on what is obviously a major public relations disaster, if not exactly a train smash.

With a microphone in the face, and nowhere to hide and no possible escape, Ramafuddle could only babble away mindlessly for the camera and hope for the best. 

It was painful to listen to, the sort of thing a failing rugby coach would say after his side has lost every game since the season started. Despite the waves of interminable defeat, there is always the chance of a favourable result somewhere, somehow, down the line:

“Well, we boarded at 7.30am, and … it’s getting to three hours now … and the levels of frustration is getting quite high. But the people, surprisingly, remain very patient. Patient because they are hoping that the ANC will see what’s happening and bring about changes and that is precisely what is inspiring me and the premier, that we must now take action and see how we can bring about these changes that our people so need.

“Because the way they are transported is not ideal. This is not how we want to see the working people transported. Some of them are students, some of them are jobseekers, and you really destroy their enthusiasm about getting into a public transportation system like this. So we will be paying good attention to this. I’m rather glad that I came. I’ve seen for myself. Our people deserve the best.”

To this end, Ramaphosa has directed the transport minister, Blade Nzimande, to look into the matter. Not exactly a move that will fill commuters with much confidence but, you know, the road to recovery starts at the bottom. And they don’t get any lower than Blade.

What’s more, there will soon be more trains which may or may not get stuck in the future. 

According to a statement released by his office, Ramphosa has welcomed the imminent introduction of two dozen new train sets in Gauteng which will augment the 18 new sets delivered last year. 

Much choo-choo juju, then. It’s perhaps not too cynical, however, to point out the obvious: that the trains do run on electricity. 

But again, Ramaphosa doesn’t appear to be too concerned about Eskom’s rolling power outages. This has nothing to do with the trains, though. Speaking to reporters in Delft on the Cape Flats, he said the load shedding will not cost the ANC votes in the coming election.

“No,” he said, “I am not worried, because South Africans are being given full information. We are being transparent and the challenges that Eskom faces emanated from our recent past. Many people are aware of the wrong things that were done in the past. While we are able to put the truth to the people of South Africa, they will decide, they will make their own choice.”

Sadly, he’s probably right. Many, many South Africans are aware of what’s happening in the country. They have the full information. They know exactly why Eskom is facing the challenges it does. They certainly are aware of the “wrong things” that were done. More importantly, they know exactly who is responsible for having made their lives a misery. 

And they will decide, they will make their own choice, and not much will be different after May 8.


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