The torching of trains and other vandalism has become so severe that Metrorail's central line, which previously had 33 trains transporting commuters in Cape Town, is now down to only eight.
The city's rail transport "situation" is the worst in the country, Transport Minister Blade Nzimande said on Friday during a walkabout at Prasa's Paarden Eiland depot, where he viewed the damages to the state-owned enterprise's infrastructure during various arson attacks.
Nzimande, flanked by provincial Transport and Public Works MEC Donald Grant and mayoral committee member for transport and urban development Brett Herron, said all three tiers of government were working together to deal with the vandalism.
"Prasa spends a lot of money on security, but to me it looks like we're not getting value for money. It really needs to be addressed, but it's broader than that.
"We need to look short to medium term on what needs to be done in order to secure the trains. Securing it is not just securing this metal, but the people, human beings, passengers, the working class who are using these trains in the main."
In the most recent incident, five carriages and overhead power cables were damaged when a train was torched at Retreat station on Thursday.
Metrorail regional manager Richard Walker confirmed that repairing the gutted coaches would cost close to R21m.
'Wastage is really setting us back in a big way'
At the Cape Town railway station on Saturday, two coaches were burnt and the platforms' cabling was damaged. Repairs are expected to total at least R30m.
"It's money we should be using to expand the service, among other things," Nzimande said.
"We are running with shorter trains. This wastage is really setting us back in a big way."
In May, a commuter was killed in a fire near Ottery station.
Damaged Metrorail trains. (Tammy Petersen, News24)
Walker said Metrorail had "ensured a dignified burial" and counselling for the family.
Another commuter sustained serious burn wounds.
Metrorail was assisting those affected through the process of liability claims, he confirmed.
New trains are brought into service and stock coaches are used to replace the damaged ones. But according to Walker, this is not enough to deal with the current losses.
"We have had a number of cancellations. [Thursday's fire] was on the southern line, so [on Friday] we didn't have those trains running. This has a knock-on effect on overcrowding in the system, as well as delays. We can't replace them in a day or two. It will have a medium-term impact on commuters, who will bear the brunt of the loss of this capacity in the system."
Eighteen months ago, as many as 630 000 passenger trips were made per day, but lost capacity had led to a decline to just over 500 000, Walker said.
"We can see the gridlock on our roads. Given the nature of our network in the Western Cape, rail is the most desired way of commuting. We need to ensure we bring stability back into the system over the next 18 to 24 months."
Road congestion costing economy billons
In 1997, a total of 730 000 commuters travelled by train, Grant said. At the time, it was planned to increase to one million by 2000.
"The potential in the system in Cape Town is about 1.4 million a day. We have to start setting our sights on that to deal with the congestion on the roads and bring back the public's faith in public transport so that [people] move out of private vehicles to an affordable, reliable, safe public transport system."
A damaged train. (Tammy Petersen, News24)
Herron said the "displacement" of train commuters onto the road network was causing huge congestion and putting strain on public transport modes such as buses and taxis.
"In terms of the cost of congestion on our economy, KPMG did a study at the end of 2017 that estimates that congestion on our road network is costing at least R2.8bn to our economy, the city and the broader reaches," he said.
A multi-disciplinary task team would report back to his department on "what would be done to stop the criminality and vandalism" by the end of August, Nzimande said.
A transport imbizo was also planned for September.
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