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.

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  1. […] I would board Cape Town’s Metrorail, the ticket agents would usually sell me, a white-looking person, a first class ticket. One time, […]

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