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Ten minutes past eight, a bright September morning mercifully free of wind found me standing on the platform at Simon’s Town station with a Metro Plus ticket to Rondebosch. A commonplace scene, one familiar to thousands upon thousands of Capetonians yet generally underused and even slightly frightening to the vast majority of middle-class whites.
It’s true our trains are often unappetising, infested with graffiti, with opaque windows resistant to anything but the most violent application of force. There are enough reports of muggings to ensure I do not travel at night or with expensive equipment displayed, and my wife and I stick to Metro Plus. I’m never entirely at ease but, equally, after many trips both at quiet times or when packed with commuters, neither of us has ever been threatened or molested. The worst so far has been the occasional noisy band of teenagers.
This trip was nothing special except the train was much cleaner than usual, mostly graffiti-free and the windows were transparent and responsive to normal force. It was neither crowded nor empty; being the end of the line helped of course. No, this is not a Harry Potter fantasy: it did leave 10 minutes late to much clanking and eventually managed to prolong its journey to Rondebosch by at least 30 minutes. The delay did give me time to walk up the platform to where the railway lines run to ground in a nicely lawned little plot, marred somewhat by an accumulation of debris against the fence. A platoon of young sailors trotted past outside, grunting rhythmically to a military jogging tune. Some defence force personnel in camouflage uniforms and caps lounged around the bus stop opposite.
Eventually it left at 8.30, passing tidal pools, empty at that time of day save for the occasional cormorant catching the early morning sun on the rocks, and past sandy, white beaches firm and glistening in the slanting morning sunlight. The air was balmy and I began reading the book I brought along for the journey; the V.S. Naipaul classic “Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey”. I was on page 200 – halfway. Outside people were going about their normal business or catching some early morning coffee.
When I looked up again, we had already passed the seaside stations and the Muizenberg mountains and were beyond Lakeside and Retreat. The houses alongside the line were modest, neat working/middle class homes with clean streets and cared-for, open spaces here and there. Cape Town is a city of waterways and the occasional canal carrying running water cut through open spaces between the houses. The train was beginning to fill up: mostly with mothers with young children or teenagers, alone or in groups, chattering away or staring intently at their cell phones, often with headphones either draped around their necks or firmly fixed to their ears. White passengers were a small minority but the young man who took a seat beside me was young, white, thin, clean-shaven with a slightly pale, slightly pimply face.
Shortly after Heathfield station the train took an unearned 10 minute rest; its pace so far had been sedate at best. The suburbs outside were no longer quite as well-maintained and many of the plots were overgrown with weeds. Some of the surrounding walls were polluted with graffiti. A distinctly chilly breeze had sprung up and the parents of one family waiting at one of the stations looked underclothed in short pants, but they and their two children were well buttoned up around the chest and neck. The Constantia mountains had now made their appearance and the suburbs were becoming more up-market and leafy.
Rondebosch was only a few minutes away. I had reached the end of my chapter and couldn’t help glancing at the two quotes with which Naipaul opened the next section on Malaysia and Indonesia: one by Conrad, the other by Bertrand Russell. Russell’s caught my attention “…History makes one aware that there is no finality in human affairs; there is not a static perfection and an unimprovable wisdom to be achieved.”
Rondebosch station had been reached. I glanced at the young man next to me. To my surprise he was busy annotating a student’s paper in red ink; he seemed too young for such responsibility. As I stood up I asked him what subject he was teaching, to which he replied “I’m a final year BA student in the UCT Department of Philosophy”. I thought momentarily of showing him the quote from Bertrand Russell, but too late: the train had stopped and I disembarked feeling strangely energised.
There are worse ways of travel than our often shoddy, third-world train service along the Southern Line.
- For a potted brief history of The Southern Metro Line – see here. The Simon’s Townlinewas completed on 1 December 1890 and inaugurated by Cecil John Rhodes, no less.
PPS. Yes, “there are indeed worse ways of travel than our often shoddy, third-world train service along the Southern Line”, but it could be much improved. Here are a few suggestions for anyone who cares: Clean up the carriages and maintain them. Remember, people actually do like to look through the windows at our magnificent coastal and mountain scenery. (We’re not talking luxury, just transparency.) Provide credible but professional and unobtrusive security personnel who take their job seriously. Consider some specialised carriages providing a working environment for white collar types and refreshment stations on the train (of a decent standard please). It would make sense to provide different levels of comfort at appropriate ticket prices, but basic safety and cleanliness should be non-negotiable. Publicise the enhanced service and its advantages – and live up to the publicity. Try to stick to the times provided by the already excellent telephone enquiry service on 0800 65 64 63 (also available on-line).