Shosholoza Meyl

Pictures from the 27-hour trip on the Shosholoza Meyl Trans-Karoo from Johannesburg to Cape Town:

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Janette Sadik-Khan in Cape Town

UCT’s African Centre for Cities and the Cape Town Partnership hosted a great talk by the transportation and planning commissioners of New York City. Their talk was part of a larger ITDP-organized visit to South Africa. I thoroughly enjoyed Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s remarks (an audio recording of which is available here). In spite of some vocal critics, her extensive implementation of bike and pedestrian improvements in New York has successfully improved traffic safety and Manhattan’s streetscape.

MyCiti – BRT Launched in Cape Town

The complete Phase 1A of Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus rapid transit system commenced operation in mid-May. It was originally planned to open in April 2010, but only the airport and stadium links were operational in time for last year’s World Cup. The BRT corridor and stations between Cape Town Civic Center and Table View were completed by this past January, but contentious negotiations with minibus taxi and bus operators led to a series of delays.

The political clashes and strikes leading up to MyCiTi’s implementation have their roots in historical difficulties regulating the informal minibus taxi industry:

In deregulating the minibus taxi sector in the late 1980s, and subsequently aiming to return to regulation through formally structured interventions such as the Taxi Recapitalisation Programme and the creation of a government-sanctioned representative structure (ie SANTACO), government has not created conditions conducive to the formalisation of minibus operating or business practices. Past interventions have, rather, contributed to the entrenchment of informal operating practices, the creation of ‘warlord’ figures fervently opposed to a loss of control of the sector; representative structures and operator associations well organised to violently disrupt the transport system and threaten public safety; and fluid loyalties within the industry. [Herrie Schalekamp, ACET Research Officer, in Mobility Magazine]

In one of the meetings I had with Herrie, he described the city as attempting to use BRT as an “infrastructural solution to a social issue.” Attempting to address transportation regulatory and governance issues by building dedicated rights of way and BRT stations would clearly lead to the “imbalance in work streams” characteristic of the project, with physical infrastructure delivered far earlier than operational and organizational structures. Further complicating the efforts to formalize and regulate the taxi industry (which receives no operating subsidies but generally pays no taxes) were unrealistic promises made by politicians and the lack of reliable data on existing operations.

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These two factors combined to confound the process of compensating existing minibus operators. At a national level, politicians promised that existing operators would not suffer any “legitimate loss of revenue” due to the implementation of BRT. Yet in most South African cities, revenue from legitimate minibus taxi operations is difficult to calculate accurately, especially considering the industry’s marginalized origins in the apartheid era. In Cape Town, transportation officials do not know accurately how many minibuses operate, or on what routes they operate, since so many minibuses are unlicensed. Given the promise to compensate existing operators for business taken by the BRT system, Cape Town officials must either offer jobs or monetary compensation to a growing list of (licensed and unlicensed) minibus owners whose routes will be affected. Officials agreed to compensate owners with unlimited permits for seven years of lost income, owners with limited permits for three years of lost income, and owners without licenses for one year of lost income. In agreeing to compensate unlicensed taxi drivers, they undermined earlier government attempts to negotiate only with legitimate taxi owners associations. The industry’s ongoing fragmentation has been a significant cause of delays to BRT implementation. As Herrie summed the situation up, “it’s a mess trying to regulate without the data.”

Cape Town’s private commuter bus operator, Golden Arrow, receives a R630 million subsidy annually, and has been another agent delaying MyCiTi’s inauguration. Golden Arrow was registering their concerns with BRT plans as early as 2008; in a 2010 speech at the South African Bus Owners Association Annual Conference, Golden Arrow’s General Manager FE Mayer objected:

The first and probably most important issue we have with BRT is that the concept was sold to Government on a false but convenient promise. The promise was that BRT will not need any operating subsidies. We say this is not possible and it will require more subsidy than current services require. In the recent past, Government has mainly held a negative view on the current bus subsidy system, and in most discussions it becomes evident they believe they are not getting good value for money. When they therefore heard that such a good system as BRT does not require subsidy, it was obviously an answer to their prayers. In itself it was enough for Treasury to buy into the concept.

Golden Arrow was clearly reluctant to give up their monopoly on subsidized road transport in the Western Cape. After two years of negotiations, they were able to pressure the City of Cape Town into letting them remain an independent operating company within the MyCiTi setup, instead of integrating with minibus operators to form a joint operating company as was originally planned. The Cape Times reported on the taxi industry’s displeasure at the city’s February capitulation to Golden Arrow:

This plan has annoyed TransPeninsula Investments [run by minibus leaders], which provided post-World Cup IRT services for the city. The company has already earned R1.5 million and R42.3m in two separate deviations from the city for the service. A senior executive of TransPeninsula said taxi operators concur about a third operator. “This will become evident soon. They want to give Golden Arrow their own company even though they’ve been having a monopoly for the last 150 years,” said the executive, who asked not to be named.

Transpeninsula threatened litigation, leading to further delays. Their recalcitrance is explained partly by the benefits they received from delays. As the provisional World Cup operator, Transpeninsula only was supposed to have contract for airport shuttle and special event operations (such as shuttles for the Cape Argus Cycle Tour) until October. Delays to BRT implementation meant extensions of their contract.

As late as April, officials were not confident that negotiations would be complete by May. The persistent effort of local and national government leaders eventually achieved success, and contracts were signed one day before the beginning of a phased rollout. The system has received generally positive publicity. With so many regulation and negotiation hurdles cleared, the implementation of future phases will likely be much easier.

Minibus Taxi Strike

A fleet of about 7,500 minibuses transports 332,000 passengers in Cape Town every day. In March, the minibus associations decided to strike as a protest against the government’s impounding of illegal vehicles and the soon-to-open MyCiti BRT system. A number of the 6,300 taxi owners opposed the two-day strike (the Mitchells Plain Taxi Forum did not participate), but for the most part, owners followed the directives of the powerful taxi associations. Violence during the strike supported Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin’s assessment that the industry is “riddled with warlordism.”

Strike-supporters stoned dozens Golden Arrow buses (which are heavily subsidized and, when the minibuses are running, often nearly empty), forcing them to unload on the N2 freeway instead of entering Nyanga and Khayelitsha. Strikers also attacked school transport, injuring special needs students. Thousands of school children who rely on minibuses for their trip to school were stranded. At Trafalgar Secondary, 60% of students were absent during the first day of the strike. The Cape Times went on to report:

“In addition to these and many other incidents of violence, there has been massive intimidation of the bulk of the industry who are opposing the strike,” [MEC Transport] Carlisle said. “As we speak, pro-strike elements are moving into Mitchells Plain where taxis are still operating. There can be no question that their intentions are violent.”

I stayed clear of the bricks and rubber bullets and snapped a couple pictures of some empty taxi ranks, comparing them with similar shots on a normal day:

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"First Class Treasures"

When I would board Cape Town’s Metrorail, the ticket agents would usually sell me, a white-looking person, a first class ticket. One time, out of curiosity, I asked for a second-class ticket instead. The agent looked at me as if I were crazy and curtly informed me that there are only first and third class tickets. I found the omission of second class nonsensical until I reminded myself that South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries (with a Gini coefficient second only to Namibia’s). Given South Africa’s history, its separation of train service into first and third classes, without designating a second class, makes sense.

Cape Town Station embodies this apartheid legacy of inequality and segregation:

The first station developments on the site date back to the mid 1800s when rail began playing an important role in the history of the early settlement at the Cape, the Boer War, the Apartheid Era and the Resistance of 1980’s on. The existing station development dates back to the early 1960s when the Victorian structure on Adderley Street was demolished to make way for a modern building that embodied the policy of apartheid, through the introduction of separate concourses and entrances for people of different population groups… The challenge of the present is to re-interpret the station as a profound symbol of the city and to determine how it will influence what happens at its edges, what effect it will have on the city, what potentials it can realise and what it will represent to the people of Cape Town, South Africa and the rest of the World.

(From PRASA’s Xchange Project).

Most passengers today use the First Class entrances and waiting areas, since the station areas are no longer segregated. The station’s design obscures the Third Class areas, its “back doors,” from passengers using the First Class facilities. To get an insight into these “back doors” that non-whites were forced to use during apartheid, I participated in a tour called “First Class Treasures,” part of Cape Town’s Infecting the City public art festival.

Using spoken word, music, and video, the tour was an “unusual and illuminating journey through the old and new parts of the Cape Town City Station.” Jethro Louw, “the godfather of the spoken word in Cape Town,” provided powerful insights into how the evolution of the railroad and the station heightened social tensions, beginning with South Africa’s first steam locomotives and trains. The tour ended in the Third Class suburban concourse, a neglected hallway with more pigeons than passengers.

It was in the Third Class concourse that I saw a billboard for the Xchange Project, promising investment and renovation for the station. In the project’s Basic Information Document, PRASA outlines four goals:

  • Reframe the role of Cape Town Station to become a vibrant, operationally efficient and dignified public transport hub at the heart of Cape Town
  • Re-organise spatial and functional arrangements that facilitate operational efficiencies, economic progression while driving spatial and social integration
  • Revitalise and re-energise the station as a sustainable destination/gateway to Metropol and hinterland
  • Renew public confidence in rail travel

Tellingly, this document also lists the first role of Cape Town Station as “Social and Governance” (ahead of Railway Operations, Transport, Spatial, Economy, and Environment). The stated goal of station renovation seems to be working against the station’s apartheid design principles. Yet in practice, the First Class part of the station received a World Cup face-lift, while the Third Class concourse has been basically untouched. The shops there are mostly shuttered, and only a few passengers transferring from the minibus taxi rank on the station’s roof still use the old, unattractive Third Class concourse. It seems that, so far, work on the Cape Town station has only increased the inequality between the two spaces and further marginalized the Third Class concourse.

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The Cape of Good Hope

Along with a friend from Swarthmore who was taking a vacation from her Peace Corps work in Rwanda, I rented a car in Cape Town for a drive to the Cape of Good Hope. When I wasn’t focused on staying on the left side of the road and shifting gears with my left hand, I got to enjoy some excellent views. The penguins near Simon’s Town were a fun addition, and a sunset drive on Chapman’s Peak Drive was stunning.

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Robben Island

A small island in Table Bay, windswept Robben Island has some fun wildlife and scenic views. It was also home to one of South Africa’s most infamous jails, where the apartheid government held Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years of his imprisonment. He and hundreds of other political prisoners lived under harsh conditions, but visits today, led by former political prisoners, are imbued with a tone of optimism about their ability to triumph over such conditions.

Prisoners were forced to complete menial tasks in a small limestone quarry on the island. The glare was so bright that many suffered permanent eye damage (for this reason, nobody is allowed to take flash pictures of Nelson Mandela). They dubbed the quarry “The University”, and while they worked there, the future leaders of South Africa debated various political theories. Prisoners made a concerted effort to educate their guards about the injustices of oppression; guards had to be changed often because so many came to agree with the arguments of their prisoners.

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Metrorail

Metrorail Cape Town

Cape Town's Metrorail Stations (by Wwwdigi (Own work) (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons)

Cape Town has historically relied on extensive commuter rail infrastructure to meet commuters’ demands.  The 118 Metrorail stations across the region serve 151 million passengers annually. Of Cape Town commuters who use public transport, 56% rely on Metrorail. Gauteng (Johannesburg and Pretoria), KwaZulu-Natal (Durban), and the Eastern Cape (Port Elizabeth and East London) also have Metrorail commuter rail service. Despite the historical importance of rail, the last few decades have seen continued bureaucratic restructuring, chronic underfunding, overcrowding, and severe delays that threaten the viability of commuter rail service in South Africa.

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At a national level, South Africa has a well-developed rail system, with the 10th most trackage of any country in the world. Commuter service began operating in 1890, with a train between Braamfontein and Boksburg. Twenty years later, South African Railways and Harbours (SAR&H) was created as the governmental agency to oversee this growing logistics network and manage the growing passenger demand. Ridership continued to increase through the first half of the 20th Century. The implementation of the Group Areas Act (apartheid) in 1952 “exacerbated the situation immediately, since it forced the Black working class population further onto the periphery of the urban areas, and further from their places of work” (From The People Shall Move). National demand peaked at the end of the 1970s, with nearly 500 million passengers being transported annually at a R250 million annual loss. In an attempt to reduce the amount of subsidies required, SAR&H was reorganized and renamed South African Transport Services (SATS).

In 1990, SATS was reorganized again; Metrorail (a subsidiary of freight operator Transnet) was contracted for operations in Cape Town and Johannesburg, while management was transferred to the newly formed South African Rail Commuter Corporation (SARCC). In the decade that followed, train usage declined dramatically, due to the 1989 deregulation of the taxi industry and its subsequent expansion, as well as an epidemic of political violence on trains. As ridership decreased, operational subsidies boomed, reaching R600 million per year by the mid 1990s. Capital expenditures were largely neglected in the preceding decade by the security-focused apartheid government. Except for a rolling stock refurbishment program initiated by SARCC in 1994, the new democratic government similarly ignored rail capital expenditures, favoring more immediate social spending over long term rail investment. In 2006, Metrorail was transferred from Transnet to SARCC. Finally, in 2008 SARCC was renamed the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA). The agency inherited a fleet of 4638 coaches that today has an average age of 40 years.

PRASA must address this legacy of underinvestment while coping with passenger demand that is again growing. Between 2001 and 2008, annual passenger rail trips in Gauteng (the province that includes Pretoria and Johannesburg) increased 22%, to 310 million. Cape Town has seen a 17% increase in commuters over past 2 years. The February 17 edition of the Cape Times carried the front-page headline “Road to Nowhere?” and highlighted delays in the city’s BRT plan as well as problems facing Metrorail: “Cape Town’s creaking rail service desperately needs an extra 29 trains, at a cost of R3 billion, to get the commuter service operating properly.”

The shortage of train consists leads to cancellations and abysmal on-time performance. In the first quarter of 2011, one in four peak-period Cape Town Metrorail Trains was late. On the Cape Flats and Simon’s Town lines, nearly 5% of trains were canceled.

Metrorail Delays

Metrorail Delays, compiled from Metrorail'=s Blits Newsletter

In addition to historical underinvestment and the resulting obsolescence of equipment, persistent vandalism limits the availability of rolling stock. As the previously mentioned Cape Times article reported, “[Metrorail regional manager] Matya said the cost of replacing rolling stock and infrastructure over the last 12 months had amounted to R5.6 million, excluding the cost of labor. Stolen cables had to be replaced in 54 coaches at a cost of R2.16m. The 88m of copper cable in one train carriage would not fetch more than R100 as scrap metal, but cost R40,000 to replace.” Ongoing tampering with signaling and switching equipment has not provided any financial reward for vandals, but it causes hours of delays for commuters. Indeed, it seems the root cause of this vandalism is not the financial allure of scrap metal; it is instead symptomatic of alienation from and anger towards Metrorail that many residents feel.

In township areas, there is a sense of lingering resentment towards the rail system. It was used as an instrument of apartheid, both transporting workers from distant townships into the centers of power (which are no longer the true city centers) and creating barriers within the townships themselves. Metrorail staff still treat passengers poorly. For example, during one of my trips on the Simon’s Town line, fare inspectors asked one of the passengers for his ticket. He replied that the ticket office at Valsbaai where he had boarded was closed; when this is the case (quite often), passengers are to buy their tickets upon disembarking at the main Cape Town Station. The fare inspectors insisted that the ticket office should have been open at that time, and they told him that he would have to disembark at Retreat Station to buy a ticket. He refused, because doing so would require waiting 30 minutes for the following train. He argued exasperatedly, “I’ll buy my ticket at Cape Town, but I am not going to miss my appointment – it’s your fault the ticket office wasn’t open, not mine.” The fare inspectors escalated the situation with a threat of forcing him off. They only relented when another passenger showed them a picture he had just snapped of the shuttered Valsbaai ticket office (probably anticipating such a confrontation with fare inspectors). I could tell the passengers were deeply unhappy with this mistreatment. Fortunately the situation I experienced was defused. A similar situation in March led some Johannesburg passengers to light their train on fire.

Passengers also endure intense overcrowding (see the picture at the previous link), especially on the Khaylitsha/Chris Hani branch of the Central Line, which serves some of the region’s poorest and most densely populated areas and accounts for about 150,000 daily passenger boardings (about four times the daily ridership of Southern California’s entire Metrolink system). As Cape Town’s Draft Integrated Transport Plan describes, “In the morning peak, many passengers aboard the train to Cape Town at Nonkqubela and Nolungile travelling in the direction of Khayelitsha in order to secure a seat. They remain seated when the train turns around at Khayelitsha, thus distorting the number of passengers boarding at all three of these stations.”

Passengers are further incensed by Metrorail’s notorious delays. Cape Town’s Central Line had the worst on-time performance in the system in the first quarter of 2011, due partly to vandalism. In recent protests, the chair of the Concerned Commuter’s Organization of South Africa claimed that Metrorail’s chronic delays put workers’ jobs on the line.

Metrorail thus faces somewhat of a downward spiral. Riders are frustrated with poor service and unfair treatment. When they respond destructively, through vandalism etc., delays increase and service worsens, leading to more frustrated riders. Last month, South Africa’s national government approved a massive rolling stock recapitalization plan. From Railway Gazette International:

PRASA hopes to have the first of 6 600 new vehicles entering service in 2015, with deliveries running to 2030. Of these, 4 600 vehicles will be formed as 718 EMUs for Metrorail commuter services, while the remaining 2 000 will be hauled coaches for Shosholoza Meyl’s inter-city fleet. Around 97 new electric and 27 diesel locomotives will also be needed.

These new trains cannot come quickly enough. As the recapitalization announcement was being made, protesters were calling for Transnet to take operations back from PRASA:

“The people are tired of Metrorail and Prasa,” said Concerned Commuters’ Organisation of SA chairman Bongani Ntuli. Time-keeping and safety were major concerns for commuters, who got to work late every day…Ntuli said robbery was rife on trains and that women, who were sometimes delayed while returning home at night, faced being raped. “We will not allow this to happen to our women. Their safety is important.”

The 2003 National Household Transportation Survey found that 64% of households were dissatisfied with safety on the walk to train stations. Safety is also important on the trains themselves. Earlier today, 250 people were injured when two Metrorail trains crashed in Soweto.

The National Ministry of Transport’s rail recapitalization plan is an ambitious step in the right direction, but it is only one piece in alleviating Metrorail’s woes. Staff training and upgrades around station areas would address concerns of mistreatment and safety. Ultimately, riders need to feel a sense of ownership and engagement. A concerted effort to formulate transport values for Metrorail would help ensure that, when the new trains start to arrive in a few years, riders and staff will care for them out of appreciation them rather than burn them out of frustration.