OPINION | CAPE TOWN 

Failure of commuter rail is a crime against urban poor

“I am appealing to employers to empathise with staff who rely on rail to get to work”

Photo of overcrowded train
Councillor Brett Herron was travelling on a train from Khayelitsha to Cape Town, when a man got electrocuted on the train just in front of his. Photo from Brett Herron’s Twitter Feed
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On Thursday morning (30 November) I went to assess the conditions for our residents who travel to work each day along one of the most important Metrorail routes – the Central Line between Khayelitsha and the Cape Town central business district (CBD). This was my second commute on this line in recent times. It followed Council’s approval on 26 October of our Business Plan for the assignment of the urban rail function to the City.

I am appalled and shocked by what I saw and experienced.

There is little dignity, concern, or respect shown towards rail commuters. The dysfunctional rail service is a crime against the poor to say the least. Residents who need to get to work on time are literally forced to make life-or-death decisions.

I arrived at the Nolungile station in Khayelitsha just after 5am.

For the early morning peak, trains are scheduled to depart from the Nolungile station at 5:19am, 5:34am, 5:41am, 5:49am, 5:56am and 6:04am. They are scheduled to arrive at the Cape Town station 50 to 60 minutes later. Not a single train, however, arrived before 6am.

While I waited for the train, many commuters told me heart-breaking stories of their efforts to get to work and back each day. Among them were elderly residents who needed to leave home at 4am in the hope of catching an early train only to get to the station with no train arriving.

A man told me he could not carry any money on him for fear of getting mugged on the train. And when the train does not arrive he must walk back home to fetch money for a minibus-taxi to town. Another gentleman told me that it took him up to six hours to travel from Khayelitsha to his workplace in Simon’s Town.

As I was waiting on the platform, some commuters realised they would not make it to work on time. They left the station to go stand in the long minibus-taxi or bus queues in the hope that they would be able to get to town faster that way. Despite having already paid for their weekly or monthly train tickets, these workers had to pay again for alternative, more expensive, public transport.

The first train eventually arrived at about 6am.

To say that it was hugely crowded is a gross understatement. None of the train windows had panes. People were already hanging from the doors and windows or sitting on the roof as it arrived. I could not get onto this train, but some of the commuters were getting in through the open windows as they were desperate to find space in the already packed coaches.

One commuter I had been talking to, a bricklayer working in Sea Point, was adamant that he had to get to work by 8am and he proceeded to climb onto the roof of the train as he explained he could not take a chance for when the next train might arrive.

That first train pulled out of the station with commuters crammed inside and hanging out of windows, doorways, or riding on the roof so that they could get to work. Those who could not fit in were left stranded at the station.

I was able to squeeze into a train an hour after I arrived at the station. As we continued with our commute to Cape Town, the train stopped at each station with more people being crammed into the coaches. During the commute, the stopping between stations added another 45 minutes to the journey – the worst being that there was no communication or announcement whatsoever as to why we were stopping and for how long it would be.

At Nyanga station there was a stationary, abandoned train next to us. Commuters informed me that this was the same crowded train that had left from Nolungile earlier. They said that someone riding on the roof had been electrocuted and this was the reason for their delay. I was shocked to the bone and realised somebody just lost his life because Metrorail is in ruins. Tragic as the incident was, the commuters around me were relieved that our train stopped at a station and that they were not forced, like other times, to walk along the tracks to the next station.

I arrived in Cape Town approximately two-and-a-half hours after I got to the Nolungile station. During this journey I was witness to the desperation, the frustration, anxiety and fear that many commuters experience because of the very real possibility that they may lose their jobs if they arrive late for work yet again.

It was unbearable to witness and it pained me.

Those of us who do not rely on the trains to get to work cannot begin to imagine the dreadful conditions that rail commuters face. Commuting can take anything between three to six hours, and it is dangerous – be it because of windows without panes, open doors due to overcrowding, or criminals taking advantage of the desperate situation.

The situation is dire and the failure of rail affects us all.

Commuters abandoning unsafe, unreliable rail switch to more expensive bus, taxi or private car transport options. This adds to their transport costs, it causes more road congestion, and inhibits transport and economic growth as the costs and time of commuting rise.

Commuters who remain on rail endure indignities, lose their jobs and, as we have seen on Thursday, literally risk their lives to get to work each day.

It is in all of our interests that rail services are stabilised and improved.

We are working on extending the MyCiTi bus routes to the metro-south east, but urban rail is and will remain the backbone of public transport in Cape Town.

I will do everything within my power to get the trains under the City’s management in order to safeguard our residents and ensure the sustainability of our city. Council has approved the Business Plan for the assignment of the urban rail function to the City. The City’s Transport and Urban Development Authority (TDA) will now approach the National Government for the necessary approvals and funding for taking over commuter rail in an incremental and structural manner.

Following Council’s approval, we will commence with our strategy for getting urban rail back on track. This is a longer-term strategy. Our Business Plan is the first step in this process which entails a detailed due diligence and planning phase. This phase is to be concluded within the next two to three years, following which we will present an Assignment Implementation Plan and a Rail Master Plan to Council for approval.

I want to state from the outset that taking over the urban rail function will not happen overnight.

We have to do a thorough investigation of all of the risks – in particular as they pertain to funding – and then devise an Implementation Plan to mitigate these risks through an incremental take-over. Our approved Business Plan prioritises the interventions we must immediately undertake to stabilise the service, prevent further decline, improve service delivery, and create a sustainable, efficient commuter rail service that is integrated with other modes of public transport in Cape Town.

Our chief priority is to create a customer-centred urban rail system where rail becomes the mode of choice of the majority of Capetonians. For this to happen, the commuter must be at the centre of everything we do.

For now, I am appealing to employers to empathise with staff who rely on rail to get to work. We are facing a huge challenge and I can testify that rail service is in a dire state.

I am also appealing to Metrorail employees and contractors to show up and assist commuters to the best of their ability. Keeping the stations and trains clean, communicating with commuters about delays and incidents, and collecting ticket fares are basics.

To Cape Town’s rail commuters, I want to say that I am committed to doing everything within my power to begin the much-needed process to fix urban rail.

Councillor Herron is the Mayoral Committee Member for Transport and Urban Development.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

Letters

Dear Editor

I note the City's long-term plans for commuter rail services in the metro. But what can the City do now to make things better, until a longer-term solution kicks in?

For example, can the City deploy its metro police to stations and trains, especially at peak hour, to improve safety? Can the City deploy technicians - electricians, signalling staff - and technology to keep services running? Where power constraints hamper scheduled services, can diesel locomotives be used?

In Britain they do so on their metro-regional routes. And when interruptions occur, can agreements be put in place with local taxi associations to help out? Can the City facilitate negotiations between the taxi associations and Metrorail so that the latter subsidises fares when commuters are forced by interruptions to resort to taxis and buses? Just thinking.

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