Transport Minister promises to meet with rail activists and fix the trains

Rail activists disrupt Mbalula's public relations exercise in Khayelitsha today. Photo by Matthew Hirsch/UniteBehind

The transport minister and his deputy got stuck on a train in what looked like a public relations stunt.

Rail activists under the banner of #UniteBehind and the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) in the Western Cape handed a memorandum of demands to the Transport Minister, Fikile Mbalula, on Tuesday morning. Mbalula, accompanied by his deputy, Dikeledi Magadzi, and other officials from the department took a train ride from Khayelitsha and were supposed to get off at Langa station. Because of delays they got off at Philippi station and a shuttle took them to their destination.

As part of his security detail, the minister took the train accompanied by armed police, an injustice not lost on rail commuters who have been complaining about the issue of insecurity on the trains for years.

When Mbalula boarded the train at Chris Hani station, it was announced that the trains were running 60 minutes late. The train stopped at Philippi station, three stations before it reached Langa because, according to Riana Scott from Metrorail, the train in front of the one carrying the Minister had hit and killed two people who were trying to cross the tracks at Nyanga Station. “The line was immediately closed as EMS and SAPS were called to respond to the accident scene. Once they had concluded their on-site investigation, Metrorail were permitted to re-open the line for train traffic. Clearance was given at 11:16am,” said Scott.

Spokesperson for Metrorail, Scott told Elitsha that the main reasons for delays or cancellations on the central line, which caters for the province’s biggest townships of Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain, is “degraded assets, system obsolescence and aged infrastructure.” Vandalism and the theft of metal, she added, compounded problems of train punctuality and reliability.

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#UniteBehind handed over a memorandum of demands to the Minister who promised to have a meeting with “rail activists, train commuters and other stakeholders in the next two weeks.” #UniteBehind wants commuter rail services to be declared a national disaster and the establishment of a permanent board at the the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA). It is also demanding that a clear plan to bring back damaged coaches be set. The campaign is also demanding that those involved in corruption at the state-owned enterprise be charged and that commuters be reimbursed for train delays with weekly or monthly tickets.

Thet union SATAWU, on the other hand, called for the head of Western Cape regional head of PRASA, Richard Walker, to roll.

At Langa station, Fikile Mbalula told reporters that the department’s approach to the problems facing PRASA is to engage all stakeholders and make sure that everyone is part of the solution. “Our priority is not just modernisation which we have done through Gautrain but “we want those who are heavily affected which is the working class to feel the change in relation to the means of transportation,” said Mbalula.

The minister, as head of the ANC’s election campaign, was part of the entourage that got stuck on a train in Pretoria in April this year with President Ramaphosa. “I have come here not because I don’t know what rail passengers are faced with. I don’t want people to say that Mbalula is shocked. I know what is happening and I have come here to fix things and if I can’t fix things then my team and I must ship out,” he said.

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Mbalula promised to ensure stability at PRASA by appointing capable people to the board, and the filling of the director general vacancy at the state-owned enterprise. “We will bring stability to the boards of the companies, sustainability, knowledge and experience to the department,” he said.

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