Metrofailing South Africa: Two trains left Rosebank Station

Last week saw the official launch of the 56.1km high-speedish rail link between Pretoria and Johannesburg. It’s a giant leap forward for South African public transport but the existing Metorail commuter rail service keeps on failing millions in Gauteng, Durban, Cape Town and the Eastern Cape.

Until recently PRASA, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, has announced a R97 billion budget for the upgrading and replacement of the current commuter trains (which have been used since 1958!!). The roll out of the new trains will take about 18 years to be fully procured to the different Metrorail operations in the different cities.

Is this too late? Does a project like the Gautrain, not question whether the Western Cape economy can wait this long?

There are several interventions Metrorail have the ability of carrying out to improve services dramatically in the short run. This is possible even when considering the ±52 year old trains it is currently operating. I believe it’s disguisting for a company such as Metrorail, which receives substantial operating subsidies, to offer the current services to the South Africa public. In fact, I believe it’s a human right taken away from citizens who needs it most.

How can trains be cancelled daily, be delayed by ±30minutes or regularly experience complete suspension of services in the year 2011? South Africa is losing billions of Rands every single day – just because of this problem.

Most people who could and want to use trains daily – completely rule out commuting by train when compared to their alternative options, as they know of the safety and reliability failures. Unfortunately there are millions of people who have no option – who are treated like animals and just have to make do with the status quo. They are not unlike any other Capetonians. They have meetings, appointments and demanding bosses, and for all of the above, need to be on time to earn a decent living. For many, waking up at 4am is a necessity in the event of any rail failure or delays, which in 2011 are still a regular occurrence.

The day the Gautrain opened it’s luxurious sliding doors to passengers to commute between Pretoria and Johannesburg – I got onto a Metrorail train. Both trains departed from Rosebank station but only one of these trains made it to their respective destinations.

A trip from Rosebank to Cape Town Station normally takes only 14 minutes and costs R14 for a 1st class ticket. Instead the short trip turned into a nightmare. In fact – the train I boarded never reached the next train station en route. It stopped halfway between Rosebank and Mowbray where it stood for 40 minutes. We eventually decided to jump off the train and walk back along the railtracks to Rosebank station.

Apparently there were theft of cables or signaling problems. Do I care? No! If it’s a daily problem, then you surely have back-up plan B, C and D.  Especially when millions of people rely on your services.

People got agitated and because they had things to do and places to be – forcefully opened the doors and jumped, like animals, 1.5meters from the train onto the tracks. At that moment I was quite enjoying myself. I felt part of a group of South Africans, black, white, coloured, together fighting ‘the system’. The poor old mamas needed help getting off the train.

I saw hundreds of people walking on the tracks once off the train. Walking back to the Rosebank station I just saw train after train after train at complete stand still. It looked like the world was ending or had for a moment, stopped. If PRASA don’t fix Metrorail soon or start to allow competing operators – it will be the end of South African public rail services.

I wish I had interviewed people that day. I could have used it to created a video similar to the Gautrain video above.

If Metrorail was run successfully it could:

1) Alleviate so much congestion on our roads as it really becomes a viable alternative to car users. Metrorail has quite an extensive network in Cape Town, with reasonable penetration into most parts of Cape Town.

2) Create thousands of jobs (as the demand for services will increase).

Hopefully after 2014, when control of the rail subsidies are transferred from PRASA to local municipalities will we see improvement in services, and service level agreements will be created with all operators of  public transport.

For now, Rosebank Station in Cape Town and Johannesburg remain worlds apart.

About Rouen Smit

Future actuary working at a company based in Cape Town. Love open water swimming. Love taking public transport and feeling the city. The Future’s Bright