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Train of hope gets community health on track

Nicholas Chetty examines Sebenzile Vumase’s eyes at a Stanger station. PICTURE: BONGANI MBATHA/ ANA

Nicholas Chetty examines Sebenzile Vumase’s eyes at a Stanger station. PICTURE: BONGANI MBATHA/ ANA

Published Feb 22, 2018


Rural communities across South Africa are getting health services delivered to their doorsteps, thanks to a pair of travelling hospital trains that pull into local train stations.

Transnet’s Phelophepa Train provides disadvantaged rural people with access to health services whenever one of its trains arrives in town.

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The Phelophepa train is a collaborative effort between several government departments, local and international partners and social and medical organisations.

The Mercury visited one of the hospital trains when it was stationed in Stanger for just over a week recently, and witnessed just how well serviced it was.

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The train coaches had special awnings running along the sides to shelter health workers and patients from the elements. The platform near the station was lined with chairs and bustling with young moms and children. 

Phelophepa Train manager Lynette Flusk said the train provided much-needed primary health care.

Flusk joined the Phelophepa Train as a student in 2010.

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“I got so much fulfilment from helping people who really need our care and expertise. Seeing the patients’ gratitude at getting the service, is just so fulfilling. It’s what has kept me on this train for so long,” she said.

Flusk said most patients serviced were the elderly who needed to visit the eye clinic. 

But the train offered a wide range of services and many outreach programmes.

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Patients on the station platform in Stanger wait to be attended to. PICTURE: KHUMBUZILE MBUQE

“We have five clinics on board including nursing, psychology, dentistry, optometry and pharmacy services and they are equally busy. 

“But what we have found that patients appreciate most about our clinic is that we offer a same-day service. For example, the eye test is done today and the patient can go home with their spectacles on the day,” Flusk said.

The train has 19 coaches, with seven used for the clinic, and sees an average of 525 patients a day. It stays a maximum of two weeks in one area at a time, depending on local demand and the size of the community.

The Phelophepa Train rotates between station stops on a roster reaching different communities every year.

Before the train’s arrival, Phelophepa hires social mobilisers – local unemployed people – who spread the word in the community about the coming clinic and its services. Radio adverts and loud hailers are also used to spread the message. 


Despite the scorching sun, on the day of our visit, the 
clinic was filled to capacity, with patients ranging from toddlers and their mothers to the 
elderly. At the eye clinic, a group of elderly women were waiting to collect their glasses after completing their eye tests. They had paid R30 for them.

Ntombifikile Ngwane, 62, travelled from Illovo, on the South Coast, to get her glasses.

“I woke up at about 2.30am so that I could make it to the clinic on time. I heard on the radio that it would be stationed here. I missed it last year when it was in Winklespruit,” she said.

Ngwane said that despite it being quite a distance, it was worthwhile travelling to Stanger for the prompt service because she had been to a government hospital in April, July and in September last year, but still had not been able to see an optician.

“Some of my friends have been lucky and have done their eye tests, but have been waiting for more than six months. 

“They will be shocked to see me wearing my glasses to church,” Ngema said.

Thandekile Maphumulo, a local resident, said the clinic service had been prompt and well organised.

“What we love about this hospital is that the staff are patient with us and they don’t shout at or scold us. 

“There’s also an abundance of staff. 

“When they’ve reached their limit for the day, they tell us, so you can go home and carry on with your chores, and arrange to come back the 
next morning,” Maphumulo said.

As early as 11am, there was already a crowd gathering and settling in to prepare to spend the night sleeping next to the train to ensure that they would be the first patients to be seen the next morning.

A high police presence and Transnet’s own security services were there to keep a watchful eye on this special train and its waiting patients overnight. 

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