Metrorail woes - a first hand-account

Tog bag in hand, I stumble into Cape Town Station late on a Sunday evening. My train to Lakeside departs in 20 minutes - the final ride of the day.

I crouch under a lowered security gate leading to Metrorail's ticket office. A disgruntled security guard warns me that the office is closed. Hesitant at first, I half-run towards the access gates to the train platform.

Agitated, I tell the ticket handler that I don't have a ticket. She holds out her hand, demanding R5 to gain entrance. I stammer, "I'd like a ticket, because if I'm caught on the train without a ticket, the guards will lock me up and force me to pay a fine."

The clock is ticking and my train's engine roars into life.

The yellow bib-wearing official points to a small booth inside the station, telling me to get a ticket there, but this office too is closed. Another official tells me to take the train and pay for the ticket once I reach my destination. It's a practice that's not unheard of.

I reluctantly climb into a first-class carriage, feeling guilty that I haven't paid for this trip. On board, some Capetonians chat, others sleep or read and a few move through the carriage, begging for money. I take a seat and listen to music to pass the time.

It is halfway through my journey when I'm violently awoken from my musical slumber. A hooded teenager is desperately trying to rip my tog bag from my right shoulder. I resist and it soon turns into a game of tug-of-war, but I manage to wrestle the bag away from him.

A nearby commuter warns me to keep my distance. I see why - the teen is hiding a knife in his right hand. He quickly makes off and I spot him hassling a couple, a few rows ahead.

A few concerned commuters huddle around me, "Are you alright?"

"I saw him stalking you for that bag!" one says.

Another says, "Did you see he had a knife?"

Later after I got home, I wondered whether Metrorail knew that this was happening, but I soon realised the stupidity of that thought. The rail operator is fully aware of its problems. A few weeks ago, Metrorail Regional Manager Mthuthuzeli Swartz showed me their 'grand plan' to turn the tide. When Metrorail launched the late night trains on the Southern Line in 2011, it promised to deploy security guards on all coaches. I did not see a single guard on the train during my ordeal.

I am a regular train traveller, but this was the first time that a criminal had tried to target me. I have however reported on the issue several times. Crime is but one of the problems plaguing a service responsible for ferrying more than 50 percent of Capetonians who rely on public transport to and from work daily.

Eyewitness News and the Cape Argus launched the Metrorail Diaries last month in a bid to put a face to the blanket term 'commuters'. We tweeted, we travelled, we saw and we exposed what many commuters have to endure daily, including late trains, dirty carriages and of course the worst problem, crime.

As phase one of our initiative drew to a close, the true extent of those problems were laid bare. It was the end of that week and Metrorail was brought to its knees by bad weather. Lightning interfered with the signalling systems, leaving many trains cancelled and several others hours late.

Metrorail fixed the problem and apologised but Western Cape Transport MEC Robin Carlisle begged the question - will commuters have to endure this all winter long?

I've always tried to look at Cape Town's public transport from all angles - the positives and the negatives. To be honest, during my participation in the Metrorail Diaries, I often noted that my train was on time and my travelling experience was reasonably good.

That changed on Sunday, when I nearly became a victim of crime. Ironically, I too was guilty of a crime - taking the train free of charge. I admit I still haven't paid for that ticket, as Lakeside Station was closed.

The following day when I boarded the train to work it had already slipped my mind.

But whose fault is that - the commuter or Metrorail?