City propose to take over railway service

A proposal by the City of Cape Town to take over railway services could mean better service delivery in the future but in the meantime, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for far south commuters.

And while the City awaits approval from local council before presenting the National Department of Transport with a business plan to take over the service, the City has made it clear that they do not intend to roll out MyCiTi bus services in the far south.

Brett Herron, mayoral committee member for transport and urban development, said the reason is because Metrorail is already operating a line in the area and if operated optimally, it remained the most efficient mode of transport in Cape Town and the MyCiTi bus service is not intended to compete with the service.

But according to Mr Herron, getting the service to run optimally could take years as the upgrade of the passenger rail system – in order to ensure long-term sustainability – will cost hundreds of millions of rands and the take-over will take place gradually.

Although this could have a positive impact on public transport in Cape Town, it does little to relieve the travel woes of far south residents whose only mode of public transport to the CBD is the train.

Sun Valley resident Mark Owen has been using the train service, mainly to get to work and back, since 2015. He said he initially travelled both ways (from Fish Hoek to CBD and back) using a monthly ticket but due to the poor level of service, he now only uses the service for his homeward journey.

He says his main frustration is that the service is unreliable and there are simply no guarantees that you will end up at your destination on time, or at all. Furthermore, the lack of communication relaying delays to the commuters is poor and the Metrorail’s SMS system is only effective in communicating arrival and departure times.

Mr Owen said during 2016, the service became even more erratic and the group with whom he travelled opted to start a lift club in order to ensure their timely arrival at work. But due to the difference in working hours, he was unable to get a ride home and so he was stuck using the train services. He said he uses the express service from town which is scheduled to leave at 4.12pm and arrive in Fish Hoek at 5.02pm. This train is normally crowded and the actual arrival
times are normally between 5.35pm on a good day and 7pm on a bad day.

He said in the past three weeks the trains had been so unreliable that he had been forced to use Uber on three occasions in the first week and then use his own car for the past two weeks. “Getting to your destination on time via the train is like winning the lotto,” he said. Furthermore, he has been a victim of an attempted snatch and grab once at the Steenberg station, around 7pm, after the train had been delayed for more than an hour and had also witnessed about five incidents of crime, mostly on the train.

Mr Owen said he realised he was more fortunate than many commuters who used the train as he had the resources to use alternative modes of transport like Uber and his own car.

Sunnydale resident Jay Deary works in Observatory and said before he started travelling with a colleague, his only mode of transport was the train as there were no bus services from the far south to the CBD or surrounding areas.

He would catch a minibus taxi on Kommetjie Road in the morning to transport him to the Fish Hoek station where he would catch a train to Observatory. He too said the service was extremely unreliable which resulted in him being late for work on several occasions.

He said on some days, during peak times, the train carriages would be so full the doors of the trains could not close and commuters would hang out the doors, jump on the front of the trains and stand on the interlinks as they were desperate to get home as there was no saying how long it would take for the next train to come along.

He said travelling all squashed up in a carriage was extremely uncomfortable, especially in summer.

Last month he was pickpocketed and said there were pickpockets operating on the trains on a daily basis.

Mr Herron said passenger rail numbers in Cape Town had dropped by 30% from 2015/16 to 2016/17. And according to the latest data received from Metrorail, there were on average 2.7 million fewer rail journeys in Cape Town a month in 2016/17 when compared with 2015/16.

Mr Herron said the main reasons for the decline is the poor service delivery with four out of every 10 trains (43%) being on time when the international norm is 80%. Personal safety and security is compromised, with 26% of complaints registered with the transport information centre relating to inadequate security. At least one out of every 10 trains (11%) is cancelled on a daily basis and by April 2017, Metrorail was short of 20 train sets operating on 68 sets as opposed to the 88 train sets required to run an efficient service.

Mr Herron said there was a real possibility that passenger rail in Cape Town could effectively collapse and the City cannot sit back and wait for the National Government to intervene.

He said the consequences of a complete breakdown would be catastrophic for the city, for residents, and commuters who were already subjected to constant peak-hour grid-lock on the congested road network and comes at a great cost in terms of the time spent on travelling, household expenditure on transport, environmental degradation due to carbon emissions, and the subsequent impact on productivity and Cape Town’s economy.

Metrorail spokeswoman, Zino Mihi said although security on the trains was not a Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) or Metrorail issue, it has significant impact on the train services. “Until these issues are adequately resolved by the appropriate agencies, no security strategy or resources will be effective and it cannot be left to Prasa to be solely accountable for crime prevention,” she said.

She said the rail service is a system within society that reflects the prevailing environment within which it operates and said criminals were not born and bred within rail precincts, but spilled over from surrounding areas where communities lived in fear of retribution to the point that they hesitate to expose criminals in their midst, so the cycle continues.

Due to vandalism and copper theft, about 60 to 70 carriages a month end up back in workshops after having been stripped of copper wiring. “We have just placed an order for 30 kilometres of cabling to keep up with the rate of loss. It is costly and unsustainable and results in unprecedented levels of overcrowding,” she said.

She added that Prasa will spend R68 million on the busiest and highest patronage lines to build walls and fences on both sides of the railway tracks where vandalism is most prevalent – the triangle Langa-Nyanga-Netreg to prevent ingress onto the operating tunnel.

However, she said, unless the spiralling crime rate and gangsterism in these areas were addressed decisively, any effort by Prasa to fund further improvements would be in vain.

“We operate trains, we cannot be held solely responsible for reining in unbridled crime spilling onto our network. We, as a rail operator, cannot continue to accommodate the failure of society to deal with issues such as housing, electricity, employment, vagrancy and crime,” she said.

* The Golden Arrow Bus Service (GABS) provides a range of services that link Fish Hoek with Ocean
View, Kommetjie, Noordhoek, Sun Valley, Muizenberg and Simon’s Town.