Every day, some 30,000 Cape Town commuters use a Facebook group called “Metrorail Commuters – Cape Town” to find out about delays and updates on services alongside the picturesque Metrorail Western Cape railway network.
In existence since 2015, it is used over ten times a day by workers and students who travel to the South African hub of Cape Town via the region’s decaying rail line. Tens of similar groups and group chats have appeared on Facebook and other social media platforms over the past few years in response to the network’s unreliable services.
But delays and poor communication with passengers are merely the tip of the iceberg for this line, which serves over 620,000 commuters every day and operates more than 460km of track. Connecting one of the most congested regions of South Africa, the Western Cape, to Cape Town, the network has been hit by crime, plummeting safety standards and arson attacks.
Once a source of pride for locals, the railway’s worsening conditions attracted national attention in the months leading up to May’s general election, during which all major South African political parties pledged to give it a new life.
Yet, as the re-elected African National Congress (ANC) returns to office with new promises, many commuters are already voicing their discontent, in the hope that someone – whether in Pretoria or in Cape Town – will eventually listen.
Poor conditions and a broken system
The loudest and possibly most unifying voice of dissent comes from the umbrella civic group UniteBehind, a long-time advocate of Cape Town’s commuter rights.
Often in an open dispute with the network’s state-owned operator the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), UniteBehind recently launched a campaign called #FixOurTrains urging for major changes throughout the route.
“The situation at the moment is pretty bad,” says UniteBehind media and communications officer Matthew Hirsch. “Commuters travel on average two-three hours a day just to get to work in Cape Town and the same to go back.” This, he adds, is on a good day.
But this is rarely the case for passengers on the Central Line, one of the busiest and most used of the network, which connects the centre to the key township of Mitchell’s Plain. Here, Hirsch explains, passengers “see one train every two hours at the most.”
“There are always problems, either to do with signalling, infrastructure or crime,” he continues. “Hundreds of thousands of people have now left train services in favour of taxis and buses,” the ripple effect being increased congestion and rocketing pollution rates in the city.
At the core of the problem, Hirsch explains, is the scarce availability of carriages, about 2,000 of which are currently not in use, “sitting at stations waiting to be fixed.” A lot of them have been in this state for eight months, inevitably making the few running trains overcrowded and unsafe.
Adding to this issue is also the fact that operator Metrorail – and, consequently, its owner PRASA – are proving incapable of communicating with their passengers, resulting in even more confusion and chaos.
“You go to a station and you have to run to get the train and there will be cases of people running from platform to platform, searching for the least crowded carriage,” says Hirsch. Official communications are so rare and unreliable that commuters have turned to social media and set up groups on Facebook and WhatsApp to share live updates.
The threat of arson attacks
Crime on the Cape Town rail network has surged ever since 2015. In March this year, Metrorail Western Cape regional manager Richard Walker told local media that almost 350 arrests had been made along the line between 2018 and 2019.
Most of these arrests, he explained, were related to charges including possession of stolen property and destruction of state infrastructure.
Yet the most prominent and concerning form of crime along the line has been arson, with a staggering 175 attacks registered between 2015 and October 2018. These are believed to have caused Metrorail damages of R520.8million.
As a result, UniteBehind has been urging Pretoria to declare Cape Town trains a ‘national disaster’ and collaborate with local communities to address the situation. But according to Hirsch, the issue is far more complex than it seems, being it strictly tied to cases of corruption and money laundering within PRASA.
As Hirsch puts it, “These attacks started in 2015 and back then, the civil public protested for the end of corruption inside PRASA.”
The state-owned company has continued to face public backlash, which culminated, in November last year, in the charging of PRASA acting chief executive Mthuthuzeli Swartz with fraud, money laundering and theft of railway lines and sleepers for an estimated cost of R1.5m.
“We believe [these attacks] have to do with either people working in PRASA or who worked for PRASA, who are trying to distract from the main issue and prevent the exposure of more corruption,” says Hirsch.
PRASA was contacted, but did not reply to a request for an interview on this issue.
PRASA’s efforts to improve safety
With crime far from decreasing, in October last year, PRASA announced plans to introduce a Rail Enforcement Unit (REU) of 100 officers to improve safety throughout the network.
A year after its implementation, official reports claim that REU has recorded a number of successes, resulting in over 20 court cases for a series of rail-related offences.
However, Hirsch maintains these are merely scratching the surface of how crime is crippling the network: “There have been several cases of thefts and other crimes that happen on the train every day,” he says, adding that it is rare to see an REU officer on trains. “Some of them may be undercover, but we think that the REU should be on the trains, on as many carriages as possible every day, and we’re not seeing that.”
In an effort to ease out congestion, PRASA also introduced two new passenger trains, which, having been launched in April this year, are expected to start operating in the coming months.
What can be done in the short term?
The months building up to May’s general election briefly sparked new hopes among Cape Town commuters, as major parties – from the ANC to Western Cape governing party the Democratic Alliance (DA) – pledged to help rebuild the network.
However, a few months into the new term, the ANC is yet to put forward new proposals. “The government and local authorities seem to be unwilling to work together though that’s what we actually need – for them to cooperate, put aside party politics and do things for the people,” comments Hirsch.
As uncertainty lurks, UniteBehind is lobbying for a number of long and short-term changes. “All we want is for commuters to get to work on time and safely and not have to apply for a delay-repay scheme every day, as well as constantly looking over their shoulders to check if they’re being mugged,” says Hirsch.
In practical terms, this can happen if the government declares Capetonian railways a ‘national disaster’, which would lead to stricter cooperation between Pretoria and local authorities.
“The immediate problem is solving the crisis within PRASA,” continues Hirsch. “There are still people within PRASA that need to be prosecuted for corruption and trying to get money back from contracts and tenders.”
Key to guaranteeing safety is also fixing the 2,000 damaged carriages, which Hirsch says would help ease overcrowding, prevent crime and decrease road pollution. In addition, UniteBehind is calling for the introduction of special carriages to carry disabled and vulnerable passengers.
Calls for a change in management
In the long term, more significant changes will have to be made to the way Metrorail is handled. In particular, the DA has been pushing for local authorities to take over management of the network.
“People would like to see that the province has more control over the metro and rail,” maintains Hirsch. “All decisions right now go through Pretoria so everything that has to be done takes months to be signed off and go through paperwork.”
Overall, he adds, even if the owner and operator remain the same, “there will need to be a process that cleans the structure and that is transparent and accountable to the people,” restoring the service that the existing ownership has allegedly corrupted over the years.
“Commuter rail should be the safest and most reliable method of transport,” concludes Hirsch, but at the moment, it’s maybe the most unsafe one.
“This is a sign of inequality and there is nowhere more evidence of that than in Cape Town.”