Special Report

A nightmare ride through desolation

10 February 2019 - 00:00 By ARON HYMAN and ANTHONY MOLYNEAUX


Hundreds of people twist and turn in an effort to find space to stand, a breath of air. More climb in through windows that once, in distant memory, contained Perspex. As the train starts moving, stragglers leap aboard between carriages then climb on the roof.
No-one can afford to miss the 4pm train into town, because they have no idea if or when there will be another. In any case, standing alone after dark at Philippi station is the surest way to get robbed, or worse.
This is the central line, the busiest and most beleaguered of Cape Town's three rail arteries.
Metrorail briefly shut the line to Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha and Bellville in December 2017 after months of vandalism and attacks on infrastructure and staff. It was shut again the following month - this time for several weeks - after a security guard was shot dead.
Today it is working, after a fashion, and peering out of a gutted coach are crowds of night-shift commuters on their way to work as security guards, kitchen staff and cleaners.
"When it rains you get wet in the train even before you get off," said a young barman on his way to work at a V&A Waterfront hotel.
One of the security guards, James Khobeni, is already late for work but it's the next morning he is really worried about.
"I'm a married man, I have kids. I'm scared in the morning when I come back from work because it's more dangerous then."
Cape Town's economy is suffering as a result of the perennial lateness of its workforce, but for the workers themselves the stress is personal.
"They give us warnings at our jobs when we're late," said Khobeni.
His commute means running a gauntlet of hazards.
If the criminals are not robbing them on trains, they are waiting for them on platforms. Recently, Khobeni was robbed at gunpoint with several other people at Belhar station.
"We were waiting for the train there, it was late, around 5pm, so these three guys they came to us. They robbed us with a gun," he said.
A chilling and relentless westerly wind blows right through the train. Plastic bags cling to the dry grass alongside the tracks. The remains of signalling equipment, now stripped of the copper wire inside, are being absorbed into a squatter camp growing quickly alongside and between the tracks.
Then the train stops. Electrical wires used to operate the points have been stolen and signal lights have been stripped of their bulbs and copper wire.
The driver needs to wait for the points to be changed manually, and signalling has been replaced by orders relayed by walkie-talkie or cellphone.
"We are very vulnerable now," said a Metrorail guard. "This is when criminals get onto the train and rob people."
Unmolested, the train moves again. Under every bridge, drug addicts sift through smouldering rubber. The remains of sleeves which housed 10cm-thick copper cable lie discarded. But the worst is still to come.
Netreg, between the neighbourhoods of Bonteheuwel and Valhalla Park, is "the most dangerous station in Cape Town", according to former Passenger Rail Agency of SA board member William Steenkamp.
Train driver Pieter Botha was killed here in July 2016 when gangsters shot him twice in the head while he was waiting for a train to take him home. Not far away, in the same week, a Metrorail guard was shot and killed while patrolling the railway service road.
According to an affidavit by United National Transport Union general secretary Steve Harris, there were 10 more incidents affecting train drivers in the seven months after those shootings.
When the train approaches the station, people sitting near the windows become restless. Teenagers and children living in shacks alongside the line often try to hit a hapless passenger with a well-aimed rock.
Everywhere there are signs of creeping decay that has left most of the central line looking like a bomb site.

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