In October, Cape Town’s Mayoral Committee Member for Transportation and Urban Development Brett Herron declared the city’s commuter rail to be “on the brink of collapse”, and expressed his intention for the metropolitan municipality to take over its management.

The service has been in a deep crisis for years. Passenger rail numbers in Cape Town fell by 30% from the 2015-2016 period to 2016-2017, indicating that 2.7 million fewer rail journeys were taking place every month, on average, according to data from Metrorail.

Instead, commuters are resorting to driving, where possible, resulting in a situation where today Cape Town has the worst traffic in South Africa and last year’s TomTom Traffic Index ranked it as the 48th most congested city in the world.

“The consequences of a complete breakdown would be catastrophic for the city, for residents, and commuters who are already subjected to constant peak-hour gridlock on the congested road network,” Herron said.

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Currently, the service is owned by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), a state-owned enterprise under the auspices of the Department of Transport, and operated by namesake division Metrorail.

PRASA is, therefore, run by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), unlike the municipality of Cape Town which is run by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).

Herron’s proposal sought for the City of Cape Town to take over management of the network, and was approved by the council at the end of October. This is bound to set in motion a ‘mammoth task’ of transferring all assets required to provide services, which is expected to take up to three years.

“I want to state from the outset that taking over the urban rail function will not happen overnight,” Herron said. “I want to be frank about the reality that it will take us years to repair the damage done to passenger rail over the past three decades. Setbacks should be expected. We are facing a mammoth task, and we will need our residents to support us in this endeavour. From our side, we are committed to providing the political direction and leadership to get us back on track.”

Muggings, assaults and redundancies: a crumbling service

Over the years, incidents such as cable theft, insufficient investment and a shortage of rolling stock has led to a wildly unreliable passenger rail service, where commuters often fear for their safety.

The escalating decline, which has worsened since 2015, means that today, only four out of every ten trains (43%) run on time, as opposed to the international average of 80%. Also, at least one out of every ten trains (11%) is cancelled on a daily basis. By April 2017, Metrorail was short of 20 train sets and struggled to operate with just 68 sets, as opposed to the 88 required to run an efficient service.

These shortages are having a jarring effect on people’s daily lives.

In an open letter to Metrorail, passengers complained of overcrowding and nearly fatal stampedes at stations, saying that “children, mothers with infants, and the elderly and disabled are being physically endangered, particularly during peak hours”.

People have been fired from their jobs due to persistent lateness and students have missed tests and exams, while commuters stuck on trains between stations are vulnerable to incidents of mugging and assaults, after which the assailants simply jump off the train without any repercussion.

“The repeated delays are having a jarring effect on people’s daily lives.”

“Commuters are concerned about losing their livelihoods due to the current situation,” the letter reads. “We feel robbed, left out in the cold to fend for ourselves. Stop lying to us.”

Over the past few months, the local media reported multiple instances of frustrated commuters setting trains ablaze in protest.

An online survey of about 300 local businesses found that train delays have impacted the “mental health and morale” of 94% of their employees, the vast majority of which had been robbed and assaulted on the trains. Around 20% of respondents said they have considered relocating their businesses because of commuting problems.

Can this be a lifeline for Metrorail?

In its initial stages, Herron’s business plan will focus on the network’s most urgent needs, such as stabilising the service, preventing further decline and improving service delivery.

In the long run, it aims to improve punctuality so that at least 80% of trains are running on time, ensure there is enough rolling stock to meet the passenger demand, instil a sense of safety and security in passengers, and ensure the service is fully integrated with other modes of public transport. In addition, a single method of payment across all public transport modes will be introduced, similar to London’s Oyster card.

To achieve this, the city plans to take control of all necessary assets, from the stations and land they sit on to the tracks, signalling systems and the existing and new rolling stock, which is to be allocated to Cape Town through PRASA’s recapitalisation programme.

To reach a position where it can enforce service standards and hold operators accountable, the city aims to become the contracting authority, drawing up and awarding the operating contracts to rail operators.

“As the contracting authority, the city will be able to determine the performance standards for service providers,” a press release reads. “In so doing we will be able to monitor performance, to penalise operators and service providers for non-compliance when standards are not adhered to, or even cancel contracts when there is a breach.”

The plan also looks at possible alternative rail solutions, such as the Cape Town International Airport Rail Link, or two separate lines serving the poorly connected northern suburbs and the congested southern corridor.

This operation will not come cheap, Herron admits.

“We estimate that we would need hundreds of millions of rands in the short to medium-term,” he said, “with the funding coming from national government subsidies and the national fiscus”.

Delivering a reliable, affordable transport system will make a big difference to lower income households, which currently spend 43% of their monthly income on transport, Herron added.

Unions blast “misleading” plans

Shortly after the council’s approval, the plan stirred a negative reaction from the country’s unions. The United National Transport Union (Untu) and the Federation of South African Trade Unions’ (Fedusa) slammed it as an “unrealistic plan”.

“When the media asked Untu to comment about the city of Cape Town’s plan, we thought it was a joke,” Untu general secretary Steve Harris said in an interview with IOL Media. “But now it seems it is true that they are continuing with their pre-election propaganda and misleading taxpayers and our members. They are dreaming about a pie in the sky that has no prospect of success at all.”

Meanwhile, the government is currently dealing with an overwhelming number of corruption probes into PRASA, while NGOs and activists have staged protests to call out the misappropriation of funds that is draining the money out of passenger railways.

The union blamed PRASA’s inability to maintain a functional passenger rail network on “lack of funding”, and argued that the council should instead “take up the fight with the government”, who it believes should continue to be in charge of running and funding the network.

Although both Untu and Fedusa state to be politically non-affiliated unions, their opposition to a much-needed solution for Cape Town’s failing passenger network raises questions, due to a number of murky ties between the passenger rail agency and the governing ANC party. For example, earlier this year, it was revealed that members of the ANC governing party profited from one of PRASA’s controversial locomotive deals.

“The government is dealing with an overwhelming number of corruption probes into PRASA.”

Now, Herron’s proposition would mean that all control over the city’s railways will be taken from PRASA and instead be put into the hands of ANC’s opposition party, the DA. Just over half of PRASA’s employees are members of Untu.

Responding to criticism, Herron said PRASA employees were protected by labour laws and had nothing to worry about, adding: “I urge unions to act responsibly, refrain from using unnecessary inflammatory language and to reserve their comment for when the full assignment plan and rail masterplan is presented.”

The Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry also warned that the city of Cape Town had a huge challenge in trying to take over management of the rail network.

Dalton Ndongeni, spokesperson for Public Transport Voice, told IOL that the organisation “supports any initiative that would serve as a solution to the ongoing Metrorail crisis”, but was waiting to hear more about the council’s plans.

The approved business plan is expected to take up to three years to implement, so any definitive improvements to the service are quite a while away. After this phase, the city plans to follow up with a more comprehensive assignment implementation plan and a rail master plan, which will also be submitted to the council for approval when the time comes.