JP Smith claims success for railway security unit but cable theft goes on

City says it needs to take control of Metrorail in Cape Town, while #UniteBehind calls for commuter-centred safety plan

Photo of a train window without glass

The doors to this coach don’t work, so passengers have to exit through the side door of train 3209 as it slowly makes its way from Strand to Cape Town. Photo: Tariro Washinyira

By Tariro Washinyira

7 February 2020

For years Metrorail has blamed its poor train service on vandalism and metal theft. In an email on 8 January, Metrorail spokesperson Riana Scott said: “The impact of continuous metal theft, vandalism and damage of essential infrastructure remain debilitating.”

The Rail Enforcement Unit (REU) was supposed to change this, but the rail service is worse than ever.

However, JP Smith, Mayco Member for Safety and Security, praised the REU: “The REU has recorded numerous successes since its inception on 28 October 2018 to date. We will make the statistics and successes public at a media briefing planned for next month.”

Yet despite Smith’s success claims, the Southern and Northern Metrorail lines are not working properly and the service on the Central line to Kapteinsklip and Chris Hani stations has been suspended since October due to vandalism and theft between Bonteheuwel and Nyanga.

There have also been multiple arson attacks on the trains. On 28 November at Cape Town station, two trains were set alight destroying 18 coaches at a cost of R61 million. On 25 January​ ​​​​yet another train was set alight, this time at Century City railway station, leaving only 30 out of 88 required train sets operational in the province (different sources give slightly different numbers for this).

Future of REU uncertain

Smith said: “In May 2018 the City of Cape Town, the Western Cape Provincial Government, and PRASA contributed R16 million each for the establishment of the REU for a 12-month pilot period. A portion of the original funding of R48 million was still available after the 12 month pilot period came to an end on 30 June 2019; and the parties subsequently agreed to use this money to keep the REU on the beat until at least 30 June 2020. An extension of the project will depend on PRASA’s commitment to contribute towards it financially in future.”

Smith said that the REU consists of 100 officers who are fully trained and equipped to assist with safety and security on identified problematic rail lines. The officers are deployed where the biggest threats are. “Also, the REU supports SAPS with the identification and closure of the illicit metals industry. It supports PRASA and Metrorail with fare evasion operations.”

PRASA spokesperson Nana Zenani when asked if PRASA was committing financially towards the REU project extension replied: “We are unable to attend to the [your] request at the moment.”

Scott said: “Metrorail is by no means the only service provider being targeted by metal thieves. All copper reliant industries (Transnet, City, cell phones providers etc) suffer the same fate. It is a lucrative multi-billion rand industry and as long as there is demand, criminals will target industries for supplies.”

City says solution is for it to take control of Metrorail

Felicity Purchase, Mayco Member for Transport, said the City is very concerned about the deterioration of passenger rail, which should be the backbone of public transport in Cape Town.

“Commuters are struggling to get to work, and have to use road-based public transport which is more expensive than passenger rail. Also, we are just as concerned about the impact of the near-collapse of passenger rail on our local economy and productivity, as well as congestion. However, our hands are tied, as we do not have any control over how the service is operated and maintained, or even how and where and when the new rolling stock will be distributed.”

“The City of Cape Town is of the view that the urban rail service should be managed by the City. The City would like to take over passenger rail in a structured and incremental manner as this will allow us to plan ahead, to acquire the necessary skills, and to develop the additional capacity needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the service.”

However, Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula’s spokesperson, Esethu Hasane, on 4 February said the entity remains the responsibility of the department and there are no plans to transfer any of its responsibilities to the province or the city.

“The Minister is engaged in a process to fix PRASA, with the recent appointment of the administrator being one of the actions taken. The minister and transport MEC of the Western Cape, Bonginkosi Madikizela, along with the Member of the Municipal Council responsible for transport in the City engage directly through their department officials on areas of mutual interest.”

Meanwhile, #UniteBehind is taking the Minister to court to have his decision to appoint an administrator declared unlawful, reviewed, and set aside.

A different approach needed

Spokesperson for #UniteBehind, Matthew Hirsch, told GroundUp that it is hard to call the REU a success when the sabotage of trains and cable theft carry on seemingly unabated.

“Things are even worse now that the central line to Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain will be closed until September. As #UniteBehind we feel that the most important thing is a commuter-centred safety plan. It is something that we have been calling for from PRASA for more than two years.”

Commuters don’t feel any change since REU started

It took this GroundUp reporter two hours to travel from Parow to Salt River station on Thursday morning, a journey that should be 20 minutes if trains were running smoothly.

I took train 3201 at around 6am. It kept stopping. The train then stood for about an hour between Thornton and Mutual stations.

On the Northern trains WhatsApp group, it was communicated that train 3506 was stationary at Thornton, and train 3404 at Mutual.

Many commuters, including school children, abandoned the 3201 and jogged along the tracks towards Cape Town. They said they were going to walk to Mutual, where they were planning to take taxis from Voortrekker Road.

The few remaining commuters looked anxious. By the time the train moved again and arrived at Salt River it was past 8am and the train was half empty.

A woman who travels to the Southern suburbs daily to do domestic work said on Wednesday she finally got home at 9pm. She had waited for a train from 3pm and only managed to board one at 5pm. She changes trains at Woodstock, where she takes one for Strand. But because trains to Strand were scarce, she took a train to Stellenbosch with the intention to connect to Strand at Eerste River. At Eerste River she only got a train after 8pm.

She and other commuters crammed into one carriage for safety. “The train station has closed for business and there was no security,” she said.