Testing Cape Town’s new EMU trains

A close up photo of the entrance to an EMU train, showing the gap between the station platform and the train

Transport is something that many of us take for granted, particularly those of us with our own private transport. The same cannot be said of those who rely on public transport, including persons with disabilities. Have you ever wondered how persons with disabilities travel from A to B, are they even able to access transport and what the associated challenges are?

We were part of an interesting train trip a while ago where a group of people with various disabilities (from the Western Cape Network on Disability) investigated the new blue Electrical Multiple Unit (EMU) trains, dubbed “The People’s Train” so far only available on the Southern line of Cape Town. The authorities had proudly announced that this new train was universally accessible, so of course, we had to put that to the test! It was clear from publicity photographs that the train was completely inaccessible from the platform for wheelchair users, and so we took our own portable ramps along.

We were able to reach Cape Town station fairly easily, although there were complaints that weren’t enough accessible parking bays in the vicinity. The first step was to purchase tickets and we were glad to see that the ticket counter had a lowered section which made it easy for wheelchair users to communicate with the ticket sellers. However, not only was the lighting poor, creating a dark atmosphere, the ticket sellers were behind a glass partition. The lack of sufficient light and the reflections of what little light there was on the glass, made communication extremely difficult for those with hearing impairments. In fact, all of us in the group struggled to hear what the ladies were saying, and most of us didn’t have a hearing impairment!

The time came to board the train and going through the access gates was easy enough. Once at the train, we needed to set up the portable ramps so somebody had to make sure the train driver knew this so that he didn’t suddenly pull away before we were all on board. Obviously, it is impractical for all wheelchair users to carry their own ramps with them, so this will have to be rectified by the authorities, as well as access to platforms at all other stations on the route.

The train door no longer has a steel pole in the middle which made it much easier for wheelchair users to enter and exit. The pole is now in the centre of the train carriage which made it difficult for larger wheelchairs to place themselves correctly for the ramps. Hopefully this won’t be an issue when the train and the platform are level with each other. There was plenty of room inside to move around, although this was in the middle of a weekday and we had the carriage to ourselves! There was a designated space for 2 wheelchairs to park, but no restraints or seatbelts.

There are now auditory announcements of the upcoming station as well as auditory signals when the doors open and close, making it easier for people who are blind or visually impaired to navigate their journey. For those with hearing impairments, an LED sign with the name of the upcoming station is clearly visible on both ends of the carriage. There is an emergency button situated near the wheelchair area but there is no indication whether it is accessible to those with hearing impairments.

The carriages no longer have doors at each end but are open so that it’s easier to move from one carriage to the next. Being able to see along the length of the train also provides additional security as nobody will be isolated in a carriage. Speaking of security, there was plenty of visible security on the platform at every stop.

Disembarking from the train was the most challenging. The ramps moved easily and we almost had someone fall out of his wheelchair, but thankfully the rest of us were able to prevent that from happening!

In closing, there have certainly been improvements on the new trains, but they are not yet anywhere near universally accessible.

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