Cape Town - The nightmare was set to continue for commuters on Metrorail’s central line on Friday as services in the area were still shut down. Trains in Khayelitsha, Philippi, Mitchells Plain and Nyanga were brought to a grinding halt on Wednesday morning after vandals cut signal cables in 25 places along the railway.
As a result commuters were left stranded on Thursday, jostling for space among thousands of others for seats on some of the few trains that were still running. Fifteen trains were cancelled.
But vandalism could go further than just a few lost hours as many companies are now disciplining and even firing workers for coming in late, or failing to show up at all.
“The workforce is suffering badly,” said labour lawyer Michael Bagraim.
Bagraim, who is now a DA deputy spokesman for labour, said workers were receiving notices to attend disciplinary hearings. Small businesses on the books of his old law firm, of which he is now a consultant, have been told not to take any action just yet.
But he admitted the situation was problematic in terms of labour law.
Businesses were reporting a huge dip in productivity and many were failing to complete orders for local and international companies.
These stranded commuters “are the backbone of the workforce. This is much worse than a strike because it is not sector specific”, said Bagraim. “Many of the smaller businesses close to bankruptcy could be pushed over the edge.
“What these vandals did is an act of terrorism.”
Metrorail spokeswoman Riana Scott said the cost to replace the damaged and stolen cables and signal boxes would be about R2.5 million. But this was just the tip of the iceberg, with the money spent on labour and alternative transport turning this into another massive financial blow for a company that had been battling vandalism over the past three years.
Vandalism and theft account for roughly 10 percent of delays on the operator’s ailing railway tracks. It has cost the company around R382m in that period.
The company’s regional manager, Richard Walker, said vandals hit several areas in quick succession, starting at 2am on Wednesday. When Metrorail Protection Services officers gave chase, they were shot at.
Scott added that the company was satisfied with the progress police had made in the investigation into the sabotage of their services. She said she could not divulge whether the vandals had been identified.
Desperate attempts to repair the damaged infrastructure on Thursday morning were thwarted as maintenance crews were threatened by people in the affected areas, said Scott.
Scott told the Cape Argus that an optimistic estimate would see services restored by Friday afternoon, but realistically trains would only be back on the tracks on Monday morning, giving maintenance crews a whole weekend to test the new equipment.
“We need to make sure the whole system is safe.”
Until then, commuters in the affected areas will have to find alternative transport.
Golden Arrow has deployed extra buses to ferry stranded commuters into town, but access to these buses will be limited to weekly or monthly train ticket cardholders to curb overcrowding, leaving hundreds of frustrated Metrorail commuters standing in long queues at Nyanga station.
Trains on the Kapteinsklip and Khayelitsha lines could go no further than Nyanga because of damage to signal cables caused by vandals.
As commuters rushed out of trains, security guards directed them to buses. Commuters jostled for places in the queues.
Nomthandazo Cewu, 65, said her knees were swollen after she had fallen in the commotion at the platforms on Thursday.
“Last night I got home at 9pm because of these long queues and shortage of buses. Metrorail has to make a plan because not so long ago they hiked the ticket prices, for what? Even the conditions of the trains are not up to standard.”
Awonke Cuba, 23, a student at Northlink College, said the train delays were affecting his studies.
“As students we arrive late at home and we have assignments to do.”
Cuba said at the Nyanga Station on Wednesday commuters were robbed by opportunists taking advantage of the chaos.
“They were firing gun shots and targeting us in these lines.”
On Thursday, Metrorail regional head of security Ernest Hendricks said the damage to trains would take time to fix.
“There are still a lot of disruptions and for now we are just trying to direct people to their buses to avoid confusion.”
Fourteen Autopax buses and five Golden Arrow buses were assigned to the Khayelitsha route, and six Autopax buses and 15 Golden Arrow were assigned to the Kapteinsklip route.
Hendricks warned that the bus transportation was only for commuters with weekly and monthly tickets.
He said tickets would be checked at the doors.
Since the Nyanga railway line divided Gugulethu from Manenberg, Metrorail placed the buses on either side of the tracks.
Meanwhile, the City of Cape Town has extended the window on its free handout of myconnect cards in the Cape Flats by another month. Mayco member for transport Brett Herron urged commuters to pick up a card which would allow them to travel on the MyCiTi N2 Express service, which was launched at the beginning of July.
“We are acutely aware of the fact that some (commuters) have already spent a significant proportion of their income on train tickets and do not have the resources to buy a myconnect card. We believe these free cards will go a long way towards giving more residents access to the MyCiTi service,” he said.
Metrorail’s parent company, the Passenger Rail Agency of SA, said it was still considering shutting down train services on the central line in the city for up to six months to complete repairs and upgrades.