QA 31. Dec 2011. Class system is off the rails

This was published in the Cape Times as “Time to make one class fit everyone on Metrorail and get rid of snobbery between coaches”, 5 December 2011. (Apologies to non-South Africans for local content. Will return to more universal matters in the new year. Promise!)

I’m glad I can use the train for my daily traveling. I enjoy not being in a car and all the hassles that go with that. I enjoy feeling so greenly virtuous.

I’ve almost always travelled third class on the train – sorry, I mean Metro class. It feels safer. In fact, the only time I’ve felt really nervous I was alone in a first class (oops, Metro Plus) carriage with one very edgy man. There are always more people in Metro class, more women, more mothers with children. It’s also half the price and – as I heard one man joke, watching people run up the platform – we all get to the station at the same time.

I also enjoy messing with the expectations of ticket agents. “Return to Cape Town, Metro class, please.” The eyebrows go up: “Metro?” “Yes, please,” I say, three fingers raised in confirmation. I like the atmosphere in third class. If there are first class people in the world, I’m pretty sure I’m not one of them. I’m also glad to spend time in mixed company. I live in a mostly white, English-speaking world and, in Africa, I think that’s just weird. I like to greet and be greeted. I like the currents of language swirling around me – Afrikaans, isiXhosa and others. I don’t understand the words but I start to feel my way into rhythms and tones, the musicality of speech. It feels surprisingly intimate.

In fact the only thing I hate about Metro class is the ranting preachers.

But a few months ago, I upgraded. The overcrowding had become inhuman, intolerable. All the carriages are full by Steenberg and packed from Retreat. People manage somehow – with shoving, screams and laughter. It’s part carnival, part hell realm. I figured getting out of there was the least I could do.

So now I’m riding Metro Plus. Conditions are better, especially with those nice padded seats that face forward instead of sideways. But how quickly I caught myself scrutinising fellow passengers for those who didn’t belong! Conductors pass through regularly, looking for chancers who haven’t paid the right fare. They generally do so with a light touch, but I have seen people pulled off the southbound train and penned in at Rondebosch station, presumably to be fined.

And it’s not right. People shouldn’t be made to feel like criminals for trying to get home from work in one piece. It isn’t right that some of us travel in a half-full carriage while the next one is packed to the rafters. (Metro Plus also gets very crowded, but it is never as bad and often markedly better.)

So I’m glad to see [trade union federation] Cosatu putting some pressure on Metrorail. The solution has to include more train sets and creative ways to lighten the peak-time loads. But shouldn’t we also talk about getting rid of this double standard in what is, after all, a public transit system?

Helen Douglas is a philosopher with a counselling practice in Kalk Bay

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4 responses to “QA 31. Dec 2011. Class system is off the rails

  1. Class systems and a multitude of discrimination categories abound worldwide, not just here. The underground/tube in the UK has 1 “class” only, but overland trains have 1st & 2nd. The question posed in this article isn’t so much about class however, and more to standards. South Africa’s poor standards on trains, buses and taxi’s – in terms of safety, cleanliness and space are appalling. By all means have varying price categories on public transport systems that offer differentiated services, BUT ensure that the basic service and lowest price category offer a guranteed seat with a clean and safe space and journey. Make sure the basics work – communication systems work, doors and windows open and close, bins are available, the disabled, elderly and moms & tots have special seats available and get preferences and so on. On this basis, I am happy to support Cosatu’s protests

  2. On behalf of Annemarie:
    Good stuff.
    When I last commuted (last year) only the old trains still had the
    seats that faced forward and back. Although the Plus seats were
    mildly padded in the new trains they also faced each other in
    rows. These are more uncomfortable than the Metro class seats of
    plastic only. My contribution would be to at the same time get rid
    of the discriminating standards that apply to people with
    disabilities, by making access and exit possible at all stations
    (this would help parents with pushchairs too) and in the name of
    green to have coaches for people who ride bikes when they’re not on
    the train, without paying double and feeling like freaks.

  3. On behalf of V:
    Helen,
    I saw your article and I have a very different view.
    If you want to wean the WaBenzi from their cars and get them to use the train to avoid congestion on the road, one needs to provide a premier service, such as Biggsy.
    Money is not a real consideration, so the WaBenzi will gladly pay royally for the privilege to have breakfast and a paper on the way to work. There is another group of people that will pay, not as much, for the privilege of not sitting with the great unwashed.
    This all goes to subsidising cattle class, who may travel for free or nearly so.
    As far as the socialisation goes, I’d prefer it to be optional, and not when I’m dealing with a blue Monday.
    The proselytising speakers, as far as I’m concerned, are not entitled to oxygen as they are interfering with my freedom of religion (or the lack thereof). They may do their ranting where there is an exit door and not to a captive audience.
    Without the differentiation in classes, the whole lot will degenerate to cattle class and you will simply lose the people (and their money) who have a choice.

  4. I like travelling with train but I would like to see them changing their service like letting us know the train stops now because of this that its not good to sit inside the train and not knowing if why the train stops and you get late to where you are going to please make a better service than you are

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