It’s not a Cyril train ride without a few bumps along the way
After the previous fiasco with Metrorail, the president risked getting on a train, but this one was very different
Cape Town and eThekwini metros are expected to receive the first two batches of 35 modern locally built trains, but as President Cyril Ramaphosa found out on Tuesday, the ride will be bumpy.
The average Cape Town train commuter has never seen a modern train, such as the Gautrain, in real life.
Those who witnessed one of the brand-new blue trains whizzing by at 120 km/h on Tuesday would have been just as surprised to see the president walking through the aisles – as they would have been to see the train had windows.
Since 2015, Cape Town’s Metrorail trains have been in a state of disrepair, lacking windows, doors and seats. Arson attacks, said to be linked to a dispute between Passenger Rail Agency for South Africa’s (Prasa) and the unions representing rail workers, reduced the fleet from 90 trains to 44 after the last fire in October.
Some trains were built nearly 60 years ago, such as the one Ramaphosa tried to take from Mabopane to Pretoria three weeks ago. The commute, which should have taken 45 minutes, took the president three hours after the train broke down between stations.
But the new trains have features that can address many of the current problems:
The new trains come complete with cameras in every coach with live feeds to the driver. There is no gap between coaches and the windows can’t open, making it extremely difficult to get onto the roof.
The trains are much less likely to catch fire, as there are no easily combustible materials inside. Instead of sponge seats, which in Cape Town are used to hide knives, or as fuel to start a fire, there are solid plastic seats built into the coach.
The interior is heated and cooled with an air-conditioning system.
The train cannot move if one of the doors is open.
An emergency lever in each coach will alert the driver who can see on a live feed what the problem is. If the driver does not respond, the train will stop and the doors will open.
Ramaphosa told Times Select the train ride on Tuesday was “most exciting”.
“I’m riding on the train, and it’s smooth if it’s not shaking and shaking, but it’s been good, I’m enjoying it,” he said.
The train will not carry any commuters while it is being tested in Cape Town for the next few months.
“We want to see infrastructural improvement, and I am really delighted with the team that is now focusing on improving our rail rollout. The ministry, Prasa, everyone is now committed. I’m really delighted – this is really good!” he said.
But, Western Cape premier Helen Zille, who cautiously made her way down the train with an assistant to anchor to her handrail, gave a sober insight into what lay ahead before the new trains could carry any passengers.
“The infrastructure needs a lot of upgrading before we can run these trains. These trains go very fast, so we’ve got to be absolutely sure that the railway lines are all fenced, and of course that is Prasa’s responsibility,” she said.
“You’ve got to make sure that the signalling is working, that the tracks are well-functioning, because at the speed these trains go, if you have a crash, it’s a very serious matter,” said Zille.
But, she said, once they start operating, “it will be a new era for South Africa”.
However, outside the station, civic organisation Unite Behind came with a threat.
Unite Behind coordinator Tony Ehrenreich and a group of protesters laid their bodies in front of the path where Ramaphosa’s motorcade was supposed to drive to get him to his next event in the Cape Winelands.
They handed out clever flyers depicting a wanted list with the names of former Prasa CEOs and board members with the words, “their greed, our suffering”, in an apparent reference to ongoing graft investigations against former Prasa officials...