Commuters rebel as Metrorail fails

Power failure brings Cape Town trains to a halt across the city

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Photo of burning train
A train on Cape Town station burns on Monday evening. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Commuters at Cape Town’s central train station toyi-toyed, destroyed two cell phone shops, smashed glass, stoned a bus and burnt trains in frustration on Monday evening. In the afternoon trains across the city stopped running. 

The atmosphere was angry and tense at the station. There were periodic flare-ups, unstoppable despite several police cars and a private security contingent inside the station.

At about 9pm a woman we spoke to said she’d waited from about 3pm for her train to arrive. She had children waiting for her at home.

A man walked forlornly around the station holding his child; he’d also been waiting since the afternoon.

We encountered two schoolchildren stranded on the station. One, nine years old and in school uniform, was crying; he’d been on the station since 3pm. He had an exam the next day, he said. He needed to get to Khayelitsha, while the other child, a girl, needed to get to Gugulethu. (A GroundUp reporter drove them to a nearby police station.)

The Vodacom shop on the station was ransacked. So was an MTN shop. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Commuters were stranded with their weekly and monthly tickets, many without sufficient cash to use alternative transport. Metrorail had struck a deal with the Golden Arrow Bus Company that Metrorail tickets could be used on the buses. While GroundUp reporters were there, two buses pulled up to transport passengers, but there were long queues for them and clearly not enough buses. Some commuters stoned one of the buses and it left without passengers. 

James Gudumede had been waiting since 5pm. He was heading to Gugulethu. “This happens on a daily basis,” he said angrily. Because of the late trains, “people lose their jobs. Prasa [the parastatal that owns Metrorail] does not listen. We are being robbed. We buy tickets.”

A GroundUp reporter who usually uses the trains, left work at 3pm, only to arrive home at 7:30pm to her four children, after negotiating buses instead. The mother of another GroundUp reporter was on a train that travelled from Cape Town station to Mutual earlier in the day, then without explanation the train turned back to Cape Town (she was trying to get to Khayelitsha). She spent hours stranded trying to get from one place to another. Late at night she got stuck in Site C, Khayelitsha — unsafe after dark — while trying to get to home to Site B (she eventually got home by taxi). Thousands more commuters across the city no doubt had similar stories. 

All this took place while it was a raining and cold in Cape Town. 

Firefighters attempt to put out the blaze. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Metrorail published a statement explaining that electrical power feeds were responsible for the problems. The company said that it usually has four 11kv power feeds available, but two failed today and the remaining two became overloaded, tripping electricity and halting trains across the network.

Metrorail’s regional manager Richard Walker apologised to commuters. He condemned the destruction of property by irate commuters and said that surveillance footage would be studied with the intention of filing malicious damage to property charges.

Angry comments were posted on the Metrorail website. For example, one anonymous person wrote: “It is late. Can’t remember when last trains were on time. Late for work as a result. Your service is pathetic, trains are dirty and vandalised. Why do you not protect your assets? If you do that there will be less delays.”  

At the time of writing and publishing the situation remained tense on Cape Town station, and commuters continued to be stranded.

Shattered glass was strewn across the station turnstiles, while the station filled with smoke from the burning train. Photos: Ashraf Hendricks

Video: Ashraf Hendricks


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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

I would be surprised if anyone was present/arrived early to inform frustrated commuters the reasons for the cancellations, indicate when trains would be available or advise commuters on alternative methods of travel.

When we are stressed and kept in the dark (after paying for monthly tickets) people need honest and timely information. It would go a long way to calm frustrations and anger and help with the feeling of being disrespected and ignored. Disrespect causes anger.

Can authorities explain what was communicated by who and exactly when?

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