I’ve always thought there’s something oddly soothing and romantic about trains. You see train rides documented in movies and they always seem like such ‘fun’. (With the possible exception of Harry Potter’s journey to Hogwarts in films number 3-7)
It’s that slow, carefree journey to a new destination or a riveting ride, which ends unexpectedly (think: The Chronicles of Narnia) but more often than not, it’s a clean, elegant and pleasant trip through picturesque countryside or taking perfectly spaced underground rides, which never show how we commuters squash up against each other or jostle for a free spot to stand, never mind sit.
My first train experience came after years of yearning when I finally boarded a train to head to the FIFA 2010 World Cup from Century City to the Cape Town Station. It wasn’t crammed and despite the unpleasant, wet weather, we all had a seat and there was plenty of cheer and colourfulness to go around, what with all the football fans and their paraphernalia. We were excited and at ease. There was a sense of celebration, as much as a sense of occasion.
Coming back from Cape Town station, our return journey was less… enjoyable. I remember being pressed up against a young guy who kept us all quietly amused with his dark jokes (which generally involved his commentary on the delightful carriage conditions and the crowdedness) and although the journey was a relatively short one, there was yet again a prevailing sense of safety and calm. I didn’t think to clutch more tightly at my bag than I usually do or worry about who would be boarding at our next stop.
Since then, I’ve had a few more train journeys on South Africa’s very own Metrorail… I’ve heard people call it ‘Metrofail’ with no small amount of frustration and barely concealed disgust and sometimes, this is indeed (sadly) the case – but I’m not going to focus on all of the negatives.
Because the truth is, even though every single time I board the train (which is at least twice daily now, morning and evening when it is dark out), I worry about my personal safety, I have already had a few good experiences and have met some kind, polite and generally good people.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say those people, people like you and I who hope we’re decent and respectable citizens, make up the majority and not the minority.
They’re people travelling to work, uni or school, people heading home at the end of a long day or else, travelling somewhere for the new day but whatever the case may be and wherever they may be heading, they’re not so different from you or me…
It’s something I’ve tried to remember when I have ended up on a train so full that people are hanging out the doors and we’re squashed like sardines (or something more sinister, perhaps) and sure, I’ve joked and said I think I need an anti-lice dip afterwards but honestly, I have begun to understand that the person crammed up against me doesn’t like it any more than I do.
They don’t want to board an overcrowded train but when trains get delayed or cancelled and they need to get home before nightfall or make it to work on time, then sure, they’ll squish and squash to fit onto that damn train.
I’ve learnt that myself this week as a result of the tragic and senseless shooting of a Metrorail driver (Seriously, what the hell does someone get out of shooting a train driver? There’s nothing even to steal… I just don’t understand) and the subsequent delays and cancellations since which have seen me forced to board trains choc-a-bloc with people because it means I’ll get home before 18:30 p.m. – even if it’s only by a few minutes at that.
I’ve also learned that the Metrorail trains might be painted with graffiti and signed by rival gangs inside and out and the seats might be dirty or spewing cushioning but someone sweeps the floors (I saw that today first-hand and he did a good job) – but they’re not quite as bad as I had envisioned from all the dread reports.
Sometimes, when I’m sitting in one now, I realise that even as I anxiously take note of who boards my train or carefully watch out the window as we jerk to a stop at each new station, that I’m beginning to understand more about Cape Town and the beauty and diversity of this city than I would ever have hoped to find in such a, well, an infamous thing and that is: train travel, which is indeed the lowest tier of public transport in South Africa.
There are things I can tell you about my city that I didn’t know little over a week ago. For example, by now I can judge the suburbs depending on the scenery and landmarks outside my grimy window. I see the brewery and know we’re at Newlands station or I look for the buildings and homes, which just have that ‘Obs’ feel to them or spy out the Mill outbuildings to which, I assume, Woodstock’s popular Old Biscuit Mill owes its name.
I know that you can slip underground through the subway at Claremont and head from one side to the other in the space of two minutes, saving yourself from crossing a lot of busy intersections – though, conveniently, usually the subway floods with water when you most need it to be open (the cold front last week was one such time).
I know, too, some of the faces of people who board the train at the same time as me and they feel like ‘friends’ now because they were kind enough to guide me in my first few, somewhat overwhelmingly train trips last week.
I’ve listened to some of the most intriguing conversations, music and gospel singing (though not necessarily by choice but there you go) and shared a quiet word or small smile with a fellow passenger from time-to-time.
I’ve watched the sun rise and set in my city, as these weary old trains rumble over well-worn tracks and I’ve stared with mixed wonder and calm at the forested slopes of Table Mountain from new perspective of the Southern Suburbs before slowly, finally or sometimes (if we’re lucky) even quickly, my part of the city, the place I now greet with a sense of familiarity and belonging, judders into view and I am reminded again of how beautiful and unique my city and its habitants truly are. Even at the worst of times.
I thought that Metrorail would be the end of my love affair with trains and in so many ways, perhaps it has taken away some of the magic of train rides but well, it’s teaching me new things too about human nature and decentness and how to suss out the dodgier folk from the decent… it’s teaching me how to be a responsible adult when all my life is changing and sometimes, these train trips are the times when I am best able to reflect, process and disengage.
Perhaps because of this reason alone, I can occasionally find a whole lot of good even in the midst of the bad – and more often than not these days, it’s oddly enough because of my Metrorail journeys.