It is a dark and misty winter morning on Southfield station. Impatient passengers glance at their watches and anxiously look down the tracks for any sign of an oncoming train.
Eventually, dim lights appear in the distance and the train screeches into the station just past 7.30am. It is 20 minutes late. But delays and cancellations are all too common an experience for the passengers on the Cape Flats line that travels the route from Retreat to Cape Town.
Yolanda van Hollstein, an export clerk in the city, gets into third class. She has been taking the train for six years – and has been late many times. “That why they call it Metrofail,” she grumbles.
It is a nickname Metrorail has been given by disgruntled passengers on account of its poor service.
Hollstein says that, on a scale of one to 10, she would give the service a six.
“I have been mugged twice. I’ve missed out on days at work because of train cancellations. It’s pointless going in when you have missed half the day. We need better security and the service definitely needs to be stepped up.”
Sean Peters, a warehouse manager who travels from Retreat, says the service has deteriorated since 1995.
“To be honest with you, it was fantastic back then compared with what we are going through now.”
Forced to stand on a packed train, he leans against the wall inside the graffiti-covered coach. Some of the doors cannot close and windows are missing. “Look at what this train looks likes. This service is crumbling.”
The coaches get fuller as the train stops at platforms, forcing passengers to huddle together.
Lorraine McKinnon gets on at Crawford. She has been catching trains for 40 years.
“This train is late again. We are packed like sardines. At least my boss is understanding, but not all bosses are. If my son is late he gets wages deducted. The trains are not safe, especially for us women.”
But she says she prefers it to the taxis. “Then you don’t know if you will make it to work.”
In Pinelands, the Weekend Argus team move into first class.
The coach is packed and we just make it through the doors.
Waseem Allie, a hedge fund accountant, has been taking the train for more than six years from Ottery to Mowbray. He travels on from Ottery to Salt River on the Cape Flats line, then switches to the Simon’s Town line to get to Mowbray.
He says cancellations and delays have a knock-on effect – if a train is late or doesn’t arrive, the next one on the platform may be too full to board.
“A few weeks ago, a pregnant woman was forced to stand near the doors – she screamed at other passengers trying to board to stop pushing. She struggled to breathe and feared for her unborn child.”
He says there is a lack of security on the trains at night.
“Two weeks ago someone was beaten up by a gang and thrown out at Wetton station. We watched in disbelief. Luckily the security at the station stopped the train and nabbed the culprits before they escaped.”
Trains also stop randomly, he says, remaining stationary for 15 to 20 minutes before moving on again. “The general chaos is part of the ‘Metrofail’ experience.”
As we approach the end of our journey, nearing Cape Town station, a female passenger pulls a big box of chocolates from her bag. “Sweet tooth?” another passenger asks. “No,” comes the reply, “this is how I deal with train stress.”
The response is swift: “Well, I suppose ‘Metrofail’ is like a box of chocolates – you don’t know what you going to get.”