Six reasons a heatwave can screw up your evening commute

Well, that's one way to cool down. Image: Getty.

Did you already have sweat patches 15cm in diameter by 9 this morning? Have you pledged allegiance to Satan, if only he’ll let you enter hell after your death, rather than introducing it to the Northern line as an art installation? Does the thought of getting on the bus home this afternoon leave you screaming like the goat in Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”?

If so, you may be a long-suffering commuter currently enduring what we in the UK call “a heatwave”, or what our friends in Australia call “Tuesday”.

Sure, it’s hot. But why should a little bit of heat so often lead to transport chaos? Why do trains get cancelled because of the heat, when they have air conditioning installed on them?

Here are just a few reasons why everything goes up in a puff of smoke at the first hint of sun.

Because wires

The heatwave of the early bit of last summer was, for those with a short memory, pretty intense. Wednesday 1 July was the hottest July day ever recorded in the UK, with temperatures around London coming in at 36.7°C (98°F).

As a result, Greater Anglia was forced to implement speed restrictions on its rail services in Essex. That led to severe delays and cancellations, as trains weren’t able to run to their usual schedule.

The problem? The tracks in the areas around Shenfield and Southend, both in Essex, are dominated by very old overhead wires which supply the electricity for the line. When these heat up, they start to sag: that means they can get in the way of the train, or even break altogether.

Whilst a project to replace 1950s-vintage tech across the Greater Anglia network was underway, the service still suffered as the veteran wires struggled with the high-30s heat.

Because tar is not for walking on

The launch of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, was an event on a national scale. Ronald Reagan, then a celebrated actor and later to become a sort-of celebrated president, was part of the official opening ceremony, and viewing figures for the event’s televised coverage reached around 70m.

The weather of that July day in 1955 had other plans. As temperatures climbed to over 100°F (around 38°C), the brand new asphalt on Main Street, USA, started to melt. According to accounts of the event, women’s high heels became stuck in what essentially turned into sticky tar.

Asphalt in Lyon starts to melt in a heatwave in 2006. Image: Getty.

Because when the sun suns a lot it gets really sunny

You might think that January is the one time of the year where the pounding intensity of the sun wouldn’t get in your way of a day’s commute. You’d be wrong. In January of this year, Southeastern services in South East London saw long delays and cancellations because of – yes, really – “strong sunlight”.

With an awareness of the seeming ridiculousness of the situation, a Southeastern spokesman said: “We know that sometimes it seems that if it is not leaves on the line or snow on the track then it is some other weather issue. But actually the glare this morning made it impossible for some drivers to see the full length of their train in their mirrors before leaving mirrors.”

Whilst this has an air of “no, honestly, Mum, I don’t know how the china got broken”, it seems the issue was genuinely a problem in two different ways. Firstly, getting out of the train every time you stop, to see if everyone has got onto the train safely before you shut the doors, is obviously a right faff. Trains get delayed, and eventually some trains – like, the literal vehicles – will be unable get to a place in time and services get cancelled.

Secondly, drivers couldn’t see their dispatch monitors clearly because of the glare. That in turn means they can’t read signals effectively, and thus don’t quite know when to start or stop, and so go for stop because it’s safer.

Because delays are better than deaths

Great Western Railway (GWR) has today cancelled all its direct trains between London Paddington and Oxford. Why? So that they can run other bits of their network more slowly. Passengers trying to go through will have to change at Didcot Parkway (as a local: I’m so, so, sorry) for the time being.

Whilst this all seems an unnecessary hassle just to run a few trains more slowly, it does make sense. James Davis from GWR said: “With temperatures in London set to exceed 30°C, the effect can bring the temperature of the rails to over 50°C, and we have been asked by Network Rail to drive more slowly as a result”. At that point, physics kicks in: as the metal rails get hotter, they naturally expand, which causes extreme compression of the joints. As the pressure builds up eventually something gives, and the track can buckle.

Although this only happens very rarely, the pressure is increased by heavy trains full of passengers and goods hurtling along at break-neck speed. And if a bit of track does buckle, then that’s it: any train that goes over it will derail, and – crash. That’s what probably happened in Sydney in 2003, when nine people died and 39 were injured. It might be annoying to be delayed, but I’d imagine most of us would rather be a bit miffed than dead.

Because if it’s hot on the surface it can be really, really hot underground

As we reported back in 2015, some parts of the London Underground can reach staggering temperatures in the heat. While “sub-surface lines” – those closer to the surface such as the Circle, Hammersmith & City, and Metropolitan lines – are generally cooler, and run through larger tunnels meaning the trains have space for air-conditioning, the deep lines have no such luck.

Parts of the underground can reach temperatures beyond the limit at which it is legal to transport cattle, and the mercury on the Central Line last night was well into the mid-thirties. Following much the same logic as with the GWR lines to the West, speed restrictions have been imposed today on several underground lines.

On a more pleasant note, though, TfL are also handing out 250,000 bottles of water today to commuters in the hope that it’ll keep them cool and encourage better travelling habits. So that’s nice.

Old-fashioned modes of transport can be rather easier to keep cool. Vienna, 2003. Image: AFP/Getty.

Because things will literally melt

In August of last year, a British holidaymaker in Italy spotted something rather unusual. In a car park by the beach in the town of Caorle, near Venice, a car literally started to melt.

In temperatures of 37°C, the lights, wing mirrors, and window fittings of a Renault Megane started dripping onto the road. John Westbrooke, from Kent, said; “We just couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Even bits of the bumper were melted and the wing mirrors were starting to buckle.

“I guess the moral of the story is don’t trust French cars.”

Something something, Brexit.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.