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Robust engagement needed over rail

May 09, 2017

The ongoing decline of Cape Town’s rail service receives insufficient attention on the part of the institutions mandated to oversee it. It is also a case study in how the crisis in national state-owned enterprises is impacting on a city.

If Members of Parliament and MPLs responsible for oversight of transport, CEO’s of local companies, the Mayor and the Premier caught the train to work more often, it is doubtful that the service would be in the state it is, and continuing to decline further.

There is seemingly no discernible oversight over Cape Town’s rail service at all — indicative of the social divide in our society in which the power elite drives private cars while a mainly working class community depends on public transport, and in the case of rail the functioning of a national parastatal, to get around their city.

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, which is responsible for Cape Town’s Metrorail service, is facing several governance challenges. Most recently its board had to be reinstated by a court after the minister summarily dismissed it. For close on a year it has been led by an acting CEO, who has revealed in his very public wage negotiations that he, too, has no intention of catching the train or any other form of public transport to work, insisting instead that his benefits package includes a chauffeur.

Despite a large budget for the purchase of new rail carriages – of which there is still no firm delivery date – the Cape Town service is haemorrhaging its paying customers. According to Metrorail’s own data they lost 30% of passengers in a 12-month period, and the numbers continue to tank. In October 2016 there were 10.9 million passenger journeys made, down to 15.4 million in October 2015.

What are citizens to make of this? For those of us who try and use the service it is apparent that there are many ordinary Metrorail staff trying hard to keep the show on the road – the women and men selling tickets, providing security, driving the trains and no doubt others behind the scenes. But they are being seriously let down by the leadership and management of the parastatal, and passengers are caught in the middle.

On any given day the service is one of quasi-functional chaos. There is no relationship between the timetable and when a train arrives and departs; in the afternoons at Cape Town station commuters scurry between lines trying to work out where their train is leaving from, relying on fellow commuters for information; the rail reserve is filthy and dangerous; trains stop inexplicably mid-journey for very long periods turning what should be a 12-minute trip into an hour. Trains are frequently cancelled, and carriages are often full to bursting point, with commuters hanging out of doors and balancing precariously between carriages.

The frequently cited “cable theft” – a suitcase word that those responsible for the service throw at commuters to explain away any service failing – draws a veil over what is really going on, and what we can expect in the future.

A social-economic impact study into the decline of the service – should it be commissioned — would give valuable insight into the considerable costs to individuals, households and communities when people cannot get to and from work, school and college on time, or at all. Many of us make work, school and other decisions based on the availability of transport. When a public good like this is effectively removed as a reliable service it can plunge vulnerable households into a crisis without resolution.

The disconnect between the administrators of services like this and the political elite responsible for its oversight, and ordinary people who depend on public transport to get around continues to widen, at great cost to all of us.

  • CityLife would like to hear about your experiences on the rail service, or the impact it’s having on your life or business, and we will send them on to the people who should be putting this at the top of their agenda for action. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Last modified on Tuesday, 09 May 2017 09:11
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CityLife is the newspaper for people who live, work and play in the Cape Town central city area – and our many visitors. It’s a blend of news and information about people and places in one of the most exciting cities in the world.

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