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Commuter classism

By Brendon Bosworth

I prefer riding the train to driving my car. It’s cheaper, and it forces me into a very public atmosphere, removing the sense of separation I get when sitting alone in the traffic, partitioned from other motorists. A busy train ride is a lesson in sharing space: people knock against each other, sweat together and show their different levels of patience for the hawkers who weave through the crowds, selling ID book covers, super glue and other non-essential items.

Public transport is a great leveler that bring strangers into close contact, temporarily removing social barriers that ordinarily separate them.

But the way that Metrorail continues to divide passengers by how much they pay for their tickets serves to entrench the classism that keeps South Africans from really reaching beyond their social comfort zones. Officially, the tickets that allow one to sit in the “better” carriages sell under the “Metro Plus” tag (and cost a few rand more) than the cheap tickets, which are just “Metro”. But listen to most people at the counters, sellers included: they more commonly use the terms “first” and “third class” when tickets exchange hands.

The difference between “first” and “third” class is marginal. For the trains that run the Simon’s Town to Cape Town line, a third-class ticket gets you a seat with no cushioning. In some carriages the first-class seats are more comfortable and arranged differently. In others the seats are arranged the same but just have a skimpy layer of cushioning. The real issue is that in a country working to overcome its sensitivity to past divisions and faced with massive economic inequality, this not so subtle segregation perpetuates a “them and us” mentality based on how much citizens can shell out for a ride. It does nothing to promote equality and reminds commuters that those who are less affluent get to travel in their own “third-class” section away from the better-offs. It’s a form of commuter elitism that seems to go largely unchallenged at the ticket booth.

Ride the subway in San Francisco, New York and other major cities. Passengers have no option for segregating themselves because they have a few more dollars to spare. A ticket gets you a ride, just the same as everyone else. Of course, that’s not to say those cities are pinnacles of equality.

But when it comes to public transport, at least, commuters are not split at the ticket counter and sent off to different ends of the train when it arrives at the station.

On a recent train trip, in a packed “third-class” carriage that grew increasingly swollen as we got closer to Cape Town, a man I was squashed against suggested that Metrorail start building double-decker trains to make more space for passengers. Before that happens, I’d want to see standardised, affordable tickets so that all fare-paying commuters ride together instead of being unnecessarily compartmentalised. If the double-deckers come first, I’ve got one guess for which class of commuter will be riding on the top level, enjoying the superior view.

Brendon Bosworth is a Cape Town based writer who drives when it’s not viable to catch the train or ride his skateboard. He is continually interested in South African society.

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  • Rail services still treat us like cattle
  • Government must get Metrorail back on track
  • The disaster that is Metrorail
    • Tired

      Oh please.

      Are you kidding me? First right through to third class tickets is not a ‘South African’ occurrence. This is a universally accepted, standardised classification for price brackets in travel.

      You have economy, business and first class plane tickets. You have star ratings for hotels and other forms of accommodation.

      If you earned enough to travel in comfort you do so, if you can’t afford it it’s simple. perhaps you would be better suited to a more socialist approach in this respect, in which case you might be better suited to commuting and residing in a country where the liberties of capitalism are not so easily accrued. Then again, where you to reside in said socialist state this platform for free thought would not exist and you would have no means of voicing your grievances in the first place.

      So take your pick: spew worthless drivel onto a site for lateral thought or ride in equally distasteful train carriages…

    • David J Smith

      In a country like SA where some people live in shacks and others live in camps bay, the train ticketing system is hardly an issue. We can save it for later down the track (sorry, bad pun), once we have solved the bigger stuff.

    • Momma Cyndi

      If being squished into cattle-class on a train or a plane is the only way you can associate with humanity then go for it. I wouldn’t, however, send my daughter with her laptop on that train – would you?

      Even in your most delightfully ‘equal’ communist countries, there is a class system. That is reality

    • J

      Thanks for the article Brendon. If more people like yourself discussed inequality, in all its forms, whether on trains, or in different suburbs, perhaps South Africa would not be one of the most unequal societies in the world.
      The disregard of inequality by some is unfathomable, still in this mind frame of black and white socialism vs capitalism as the answer to everything. Socialism is evil and capitalism is sent from God or vice versa…etc etc…really these analogies need to stay in the cinema with Lord of the Rings.

      To Mr Tired, it sounds like you are tired, not being able to put a reasonable argument together at this point. I think the point is “metro” is far from economy, and getting on a plane or staying at a hotel is hardly a worthy comparison to catching a metro commuter train. I doubt the metro class passengers would understand or agree if you told them they should not expect anything more than the overcrowded dangerous trains they catch simply because they cannot afford it. Very easy for some to say such things when they personally are not riding the metro.

    • Bert

      Brendon, there is a BIG difference between a subway and a train service. I have also ridden subways in many different countries, all single ‘class’. But, in the same countries, I was always offered a choice of ‘class’ when buying a ticket on a train. There is nothing ‘classist’ about this Brendon.

      Maybe you should suggest that Metrorail do what is done in the UK on some lines. You buy a cheap ticket and board the train. Once underway, the conductor will offer you an upgrade if there are seats available in the more expensive ‘classes’. Of course, you have to pay for this, but it works out to a discount of about 80% on what you would have paid.

      Finally, please provide concrete examples of this country ‘working’ to overcome past divisions. I certainly struggle to find them, but examples of Government creating new divides are everywhere.
      Do you have the same objection to the different ‘classes’ on aeroplanes? You should start lobbying the airlines? But wait, if you succeed in your quest for a ‘classless’ world, every time you buy a ticket it will be more expensive, because those who bought the more expensive option are actually subsidising you.

    • Tired

      Dear J.

      It just so happens that I take the Southern Line from Wynberg twice a day. The argument is perfectly valid, in fact, in light of what you and Brendon are complaining about.

      Equality cannot be effected by making everyone ride a single class just it cannot be helped by giving away the luxuries of some just so others can enjoy them too. Perhaps you should read animal farm again and take a good long look at what it is we should be working towards.

      If you remove the extra funds garnered by more expensive tickets then you’d have no new carriages, not new seats, central heating or even enough money to pay those driving the trains.

      So you see my dear, quasi-liberal, socialist J, without those that pay more, the rest would suffer for it and well, we’ll just drive to work.

    • Zeph

      Class is everywhere. Try getting into a first class carriage with a second class ticket in Germany. I had four Polizei glaring at me a tapping their batons within half a minute…
      Brendon, where do you live? What car do you have? What booze do you drink? What school did you go to and how do you speak? If you don’t like it then don’t use it and take the egalitarian option.
      Personally after a bothersome day I do not want to be squashed…call me a snob!

    • HLM

      It is clearly stated in the article that there is not large level of increased comfort across the train carriages – from my experience of CT trains the only real difference between them is the fullness. In actual fact the metro carriages are so full in the busy hours that if they just standardised the whole train the system would probably be able to better cater for demand and not really lose any money. The existence of these classes, as the article indicates is not to dramatically increase comfort if you have the option. They serve no real purpose so the author makes a valid point.

    • Jen Thorpe

      I always wonder why they don’t just add more carriages onto all trains and make them one ‘class’.

      For a start they could have spent the money they spent on televisions at the central station on ensuring that the windows open, and that there are sufficient trains to meet the needs of commuters.

    • Nigel

      We visit Kalk Bay quite often from Johannesburg, getting a lift to the Gautrain, flying to Cape Town, taking the shuttle bus to the city centre and then the Simonstown train to Kalk Bay where we walk across the road to our accommodation. The variety of forms of transport is fascinating and the costs per kilometre vary widely. But the hour’s train ride to Kalk Bay costs just R11 for Metro Plus and we believe that paying more for very similar seating actually subsidises the cost of the “Third Class” tickets. So we are, in fact, helping people with little in the way of funds to travel the same route we do, but for less.

    • Lennon

      I’ve been doing the Metrorail (or as some like to joke, MetroFail) run along both the Maitland and Century City lines for the last 13 years.

      During peak hours, the difference between Metro and Metro Plus is indistinguishable unless you’re lucky enough to grab a seat which is seldom possible at Bellville Station between 7 and 8 am. It’s still a sardine tin until you pass Old Mutual (if you’re on the Maitland line).

      The newer (relatively speaking) trains on the Century City line only have the newer (crappier) blue seats – some of which have those thin cushions and even then they’re randomly dotted around two of the carriages in any given train. The only issue with the blue seats is that it’s pretty easy to slide off them whereas the yellow seats in the Metro carriages on the older trains are much more comfortable.

      The best seats, oddly enough, can be found in those ancient coaches which make up the Malmesbury Express. I’m not sure how many of the carriages they’re in, obviously barring the first which (I think) used to be a dining car since it has tables in it.

      Of course there’s the ultra-laanie Boland Express with its coffee, muffins and wi-fi, but it’s far too pricey. Perhaps Metrorail should can this as well as the Blue Train.

    • Po

      In England the trains have first and third class. I commuted every day, an hour each way. I also have a back problem and cannot stand for more than 5 minutes without pain. There were almost never seats in the morning in the normal third class areas. The first class carriage would essentially be empty but I had to squat on the floor or stand in pain, usually with my back pressed up to the first class carriage. And the first class tickets cost a LOT more, they were not affordable to me, actually the third class ones were barely affordable. It really sucked.

    • Enough Said


      “So you see my dear, quasi-liberal, socialist J”

      What I have found is people who rely on name calling and steriotype rhetoric ususally lack a persuasive argument and factual data.

      What was the point you were trying to make? Sorry, I generally dismiss people who trot out labels to try and imply others are inferior to them.

      Have you seen the research that shows that liberals are more intelligent than conservatives. Check it out.


      Thanks I enjoyed reading your article. There are some comment above that are definately worth taking cognisance of, others are just empty barrels trying to make some noise.

    • Mark Kerruish

      In the last two years I’ve been on the Shanghai subway system many times. This includes travelling during rush hour. There is no “premium” or “lower” rate. The fare is the fare. Even during the height of rush hour I’ve never experienced overcrowding like that which I previously experienced on Metrorail in the Western Cape (Bellville and Simonstown lines) in both Metro and Metro Plus carriages.

      This is in a single city that has about half the population of South Africa – 25 000 000.

      If I convert currencies, I have never paid more than R8 for a trip clear across the city either.