Lerato Sithole* is proud of the job she does: getting Johannesburg’s commuters to work and back home again.
But when she first started driving trains for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) she wasn’t prepared for the threats she would receive from commuters fed up with the country’s ailing rail system.
Amid Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula’s efforts to fix the South Africa’s trains, Sithole and her colleagues are calling for the safety of women train drivers to be put on the agenda of the minister’s recently launched “war room” at Prasa.
“As a train driver, and being a woman as well, it becomes a challenge because the kind of passengers we transport — it feels to us like they believe that a woman only belongs in the kitchen,” Sithole says, her brightly painted fingernails making her hand gestures even more expressive.
“When the train is faulty, it has nothing to do with you or with you being a woman: it is a mechanical fact. But they will attack you.”
Sithole says Prasa’s 293 women drivers are left exposed when trains break down. Not a week goes by during which train drivers do not have to contend with the challenges that accompany driving faulty trains, she says.
Last week, Mbalula announced that the work of the ministerial war room on Prasa had begun.
According to a statement from his department, the war room has three focus areas: “service recovery, safety management and accelerated implementation of the modernisation programme”.
Prasa has been beset with operational challenges in recent years, with reports of widespread cable theft and vandalism.
According to the rail agency’s annual report for the last financial year, more than 13% of scheduled trains were cancelled during the year and 26% of trains operated were delayed. There were also 97 safety-related incidents that year.
Last year, a woman train driver was stripped naked, hit with a brick and dragged into the bushes along the rail line in Pretoria. The attack was part of a series of protests on the rail line between Pienaarspoort and Pretoria.
Sithole says that when a train breaks down, a driver “cannot just stand there” because they are expected to conduct first-line maintenance.
This category of maintenance applies to minor faults — electrical trips, problems with the motor alternator set and vacuum exhauster — that can be rectified without the technical experts being called out. But conducting first-line maintenance often requires drivers to leave the relative safety of the drivers’ cab.
“But the question is now: how do you get to do that when there are people there busy screaming at you and calling you all these names?” Sithole says.
She recalls one day when she had to leave the cab to move the train on to a different track…
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