When a train driver pulls the brakes, it takes about 280m (about two rugby fields) before the train comes to a stop. And if there’s someone on the tracks, all the driver can do is watch helplessly as tons of metal run over the helpless individual. Not many people survive a train smash.
Louis van Deventer, a train driver for 32 years, has hit 13 people as they crossed the tracks.
“There is no way to save anyone once they face an oncoming train,” says Van Deventer.
“I have no option but to knock the person,” he says, adding that when he hoots to warn them, the person just freezes on the track.
Van Deventer says most accidents happen close to where informal settlements encroach on the railway servitude.
I meet Van Deventer in his “office” – the cockpit of the grey-and-yellow train with gangster graffiti and artist’s tags on the inside.
It’s 6am, but Van Deventer has been at work for two hours and already delivered 2 000 people to their destinations. By the end of the day, he will have transported about 10 000 passengers.
It’s pitch dark and the wind howls. He’s ready for his second trip from Cape Town Station to the Chris Hani Station in Khayelitsha.
This is known as “crush hour”, and many of the passengers crammed into the carriages are on their way home after working the night shift.
As Van Deventer is about to pull out of Ysterplaat Station – about 10 minutes into the journey – something dashes in front of the train.
Van Deventer is good at making out people crossing the tracks in the dark, but he knows that no matter how good he is at spotting them, there is nothing he can do if they are in his path.
As the train approaches Bonteheuwel Station, a man tries to dart across the tracks. Security guards and railway police nab him and pull him back. They rough him up.
“Hey, stop that,” a passenger on the platform shouts at the guards.
“All they’re doing is saving the man’s life,” Van Deventer says as the train pushes on.
He keeps one eye on the tracks and the other on the dials that tell him about the air pressure and speed.
He monitors the lights on poles that signal when drivers need to slow down and stop, when there’s a train approaching, and when there’s danger ahead.
“Peak hour is no laughing matter,” says Van Deventer, pointing to a man crossing the tracks nonchalantly. Children in school clothes also cross the tracks.
“It is even harder knocking over a child,” Van Deventer says.
When a train strikes someone, the driver is pulled out of service and sent for trauma counselling.
Eddie Chinnappen, Metrorail’s strategic operations senior manager, says it takes about six months for a driver to be able to get into the cab again.
In his years in the cockpit, Van Deventer has witnessed people shoot each other and hurl rocks at the train – and he’s also seen animals crossing the tracks (he’s hit too many to count).
The driver’s cockpit is a small cubicle with a large window. Van Deventer points to a black mark on the window. Had it not been for the special polycarbonate material, a stone would have crashed through the window and he could have been killed.
People standing on the side of the tracks recently hurled stones, hitting a passenger on Van Deventer’s train. It was an act of random hooliganism.
Van Deventer says the man’s injuries were so severe that he thinks he died.
The stations whizz by – Philippi, Mandalay, Nolungile – people climb on and climb off.
Van Deventer, who’s retiring in the next two years, knows he has to slow down at stations like Bonteheuwel, Langa and Nyanga because that’s where people are likely to jump the tracks.
A train shoots by, heading to town. It’s jam-packed – people hang out the doors and sit in the spaces between the carriages.
“Just look at that,” says Van Deventer, shaking his head. “They have no idea how dangerous it is.”
The train reaches its last stop in Khayelitsha. It’s 7am. Hundreds of passengers spill out of the train. Van Deventer walks the length of the train to get to the cockpit on the other side to make the return journey back to the Cape Town Station. A security guard is assigned to him.
“I don’t need her,” he says. “The people on this train will protect me. They want to get to work.”