With commuters who used to pay R180 for a monthly train ticket now having to fork out R100 for daily taxi fares after railway lines were closed during the Covid-lockdown, the Roodepoort Record had a look at the state of their local train stations amid government promises that the Randfontein-Johannesburg line will be up and running by the end of the financial year.
Built to defy the clocks, 130 years of maintained service at Roodepoort’s railway stations have been reclaimed by the elements after commuter activity was brought to a halt as part of the government’s coordinated response to the global health panic of early 2020. Three years down the line, one of the most sophisticated rail networks on the African continent is now little more than a graveyard of economic aspirations.
In the weeks and months that followed the government-enforced isolation period, every piece of valuable metal and material was stripped from their fixtures. When the easing of government restrictions on movement came, there was little left of the rail infrastructure and as authorities let stations stand idle, the desperate and delinquent chipped away at the carcass.
In October 2020, the infrastructure was more than salvageable. Cable thieves may have removed the majority of the electrical wiring, but the brick structures required little more than a scrub.
Currently, ticket offices, administration rooms, bathrooms, and waiting areas are shells in a state of shame. Weeds, rats, and litter have overrun the platforms.
While all stations are mirrors of disgrace, these four are among the starkest examples of national degradation:
- The 130-year-old station was gutted by fire in 2021 hammering in what should have been the final nail in the grand structure’s lifespan.
- The months that followed would be the kicking of a corpse as the ruins became a haven for drug users, a home and sorting center for waste pickers, and a lavatory for pedestrians.
- Roodepoort ICE community policing patrol the structure daily to help weed out criminals using the station as a hideout and plans are in the pipeline to build a new station by the end of the decade.
- Servicing a residential neighbourhood that now overlooks a derelict field, Horizon station was an important stop for Johannesburg-bound commuters and incoming labourers working in factories and workshops less than one hundred metres from the station.
- Littered with waste, the building is almost unrecognisable while the service road acts as an easily undetectable spot to offload unwanted building rubble.
- Perhaps the only station in Roodepoort to have its name sculpted onto its façade, the Hamberg station building was once a quaint throwback to humble yet determined origins.
- With vegetation grown taller than an adult and having been stripped of the dignity it once proudly held, the station’s walls exist only as a canvas for amateur artists.
- A station that in late 2020 was almost untouched, the platform is still in good condition despite the abuse done to the buildings by vandals.
- Illegal economic activity still flourishes as a small community of prostitutes, drug users, and their suppliers loiter on the platform and its benches, using the station as their unofficial office.
- Outside, on Rail Street, a man offers car washes and sneaker cleaning alongside the small kiosk.
Railway lines now criminal hives
Florida Community Police Forum chairperson, Farhad Sardiwalla, describes the railway lines as a highway that criminals use to move large items on foot either in broad daylight or at night.
Due to the uncut grass that creates the necessary camouflage, the area between the pedestrian bridge around behind Florida Square and the station is a hive for criminal activity. Sardiwalla states that up to 90% of those robbed or assaulted along the railway lines are children walking to and from school. She urges parents to advise their children to avoid the area.
Florida police and the CPF have escalated the issues to the provincial branches and regular patrols are done along the railways but as Sardiwalla admits, a lack of resources prevents security forces from policing the area at all times
Lack of public access to train transport felt in the pocket of commuters
Audrey Rampou is a former train commuter who rode the train daily for over eight years to her current employer. The receptionist lives in Randfontein and before 2020 would wake up every morning at 4:00 to catch the 5:00 train on the Randfontein-Johannesburg line. The loss of service has forced Audrey to wake up at 3.30 to take multiple taxis to get to work three hours later in Craighall via Bree taxi rank.
Travel costs have escalated dramatically as Audrey’s monthly train pass cost R180 per month while now she spends just short of R100 per day to get to work and back via taxi. Metrorail states on its website that nationally they carried two million passengers daily, a commuter base absorbed by the taxi industry.
“The taxi fare is killing us. We are just working to earn transport money,” says Audrey, suggesting increased bus routes to mimic the train routes.
Apparent light at the end of the Prasa-owned tunnel
Despite the disastrous state of every inch of the rail network, Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (Prasa) are upbeat about having service resume soon.
“Prasa estimates to reopen the Randfontein-Johannesburg line in the last quarter of this current financial year 2023/2024, taking into account all various system integrity tests and regulatory compliance,” stated PRASA’s Metrorail Gauteng spokesperson, Lillian Mofokeng on March 7.
In December 2020, officials from Prasa and the Department of Transport stated in a video conference presentation that the rail infrastructure would be secured by the middle of 2021. Not only did that not materialise but the visible calamity has worsened with each passing month.
Explaining the entity’s stumbling blocks, Mofokeng said, “The challenges that come with projects include community disruptions and long lead time of critical components which could affect estimated timelines.”
The only trains visible on the lines are Transnet’s diesel freight locomotives, a testament to those who laid the parallel iron bars. The collective cost to commuters, businesses, and households is beyond calculation but Prasa has put an estimated R700m price tag on the restoration and repair of the infrastructure. Little urgency has been shown leaving commuters wondering if the promises of officials are onboard a train that is never coming.
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