Delays, faults and failures: what is to be done about Metrorail?

| Kevin Elliott
Photo by Masixole Feni.

Persistent train delays cause constant problems for Metrorail commuters. The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), which owns Metrorail, plans to fix South Africa’s ageing and poorly maintained rail infrastructure.

Between 13 and 26 January 2015, GroundUp recorded updates made on the GoMetro website for the Western Cape. These updates inform commuters if trains are running on schedule or alert customers to faults which could cause delays. Many of the updates made during this period were to inform commuters about delays, frequently mentioning “defective tracks”, “defective sets”, “speed restrictions”, “train failure”, “operational problems”, “technical problems”, and “vandalism” as the reason. When multiple trains are late by 10 to 15 minutes, Metrorail describes this as “minor delays”.

We kept track fault updates in the Western Cape. There is only one page of updates displayed at any given time, with no option to go to the previous page of updates. We accessed the website at different times during the day, but only once per day.

We noted 60 faults affecting trains over the 14 day period. But what we recorded is only a fraction of the faults each day. We estimate there were over 300 fault updates.

Commuters departing from Nonkqubela train station in Khayelitsha told GroundUp that despite the train being the “cheapest way to travel”, Metrorail problems have caused them to be late for work on many occasions. Two commuters said that their bosses don’t believe them when they say the trains caused them to be late for work. One commuter said that it is only because he has a good working relationship with his employer that the train delays have not lost him his job. He is concerned for his colleagues, who are temporary workers, as they are not trusted to the same degree.

GroundUp spoke to PRASA, Metrorail Western Cape and the City of Cape Town to find out what is being done to solve the problems faced by train commuters.

Lesedi Mapheto and Riana Scott, heads of marketing and communications for PRASA and Metrorail Western Cape, respectively, acknowledge the slew of difficulties that commuters face. Mapheto says PRASA is “fully aware and concerned” with these issues and Scott recognises that there are many obstacles in the way of Metrorail “achieving its objective of delivering quality services to customers”.

Both Mapheto and Scott point to the underinvestment in passenger rail over the past 30 years as the major factor which has lead to the deterioration of rail infrastructure and rolling stock [coaches and locomotives].

“The old and obsolete technology currently used is not responsive to the modern demands of an efficient rail service,” says Scott, noting that “continuous theft and vandalism of assets, mainly cables and other metal bearing components” has left Metrorail services unreliable.

PRASA’s long-term answer to these problems is a “modernisation programme” which will see R137 billion “allocated to resuscitate an ailing rail industry over the next two decades,” says Scott. The project will introduce 600 new commuter trains for Metrorail, over 70 new locomotives, a vehicle manufacturing plant in Ekurhuleni, and it will see investment into rail infrastructure and maintenance facilities. According to Mapheto, the new trains are designed for the “modern passenger”, with air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, real-time travel information, and are accessible to people with physical disabilities.

Besides this long-term programme, PRASA has established an Operational Efficiency Plan which focuses on “immediate, short and longer term accelerated infrastructure improvements” which aim to “sustain and stabilize service while the twenty-year replacement programme is underway”.

Scott says the Operational Efficiency Plan will introduce more express train routes, as well as shuttle services between specific stations during peak hours. Clock-face time tables will be used to ensure “predictable travel behaviour” with trains leaving every “10, 20 and 30 minutes depending on the route and travel period.” Speed restrictions will become less of an issue as a result of a R1 billion investment into infrastructure over the next three years.

“Criminal and vandalism hot spots have been identified in each region” as part of a safety and security strategy. This strategy includes the deployment of security personnel and the use of fencing, alarms, and CCTV cameras in key areas. Adding to this, reaction units and a Cable Theft Intervention Unit will be put in place.

The last aspect of the Operational Efficiency Plan focuses on “operational safety” which will see changes being made to the train-driver training programme. These changes include the use of train driving simulators which can simulate all operating conditions.

Brett Herron, the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Transport, says the City has no authority over Metrorail. “However, we do engage with Metrorail, regionally and nationally, on a regular basis to ensure that they are working on these issues so that our residents are not stranded.”

Commenting on how the City plans to help train commuters, Herron says “we are introducing the MyCiTi BRT [bus rapid transit] as a service that complements the rail service and provides an alternative. In situations of crisis – like last year when sabotage of the central line from Khayelitsha left thousands of commuters stranded – the City was able to support Metrorail by providing extra MyCiTi bus capacity.”

See Commuters must organise to improve Metrorail.

A correction was made to this article after publication. It originally incorrectly stated that the GoMetro app was Metrorail’s app.

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