City of Cape Town wants to get Metrorail back on track

Metrorail train. (Netwerk24)
Metrorail train. (Netwerk24)

Cape Town - The City of Cape Town says it wants to take control over the beleaguered Metrorail in order to bring it back on track.

Councillor Brett Herron said on Tuesday that the City was seeking permission from the Department of Transport (DoT) to fast-track the devolution of control over the rail network, so as to prevent its total collapse.

"Commuters have been, and are still, fleeing from passenger rail as they cannot rely on the trains to travel to and from work," said Herron, a member of the mayoral committee for transport and urban development, in a statement announcing the plan.

READ: Metrorail costs Cape businesses millions - survey 

The City's council would meet to discuss the proposal on October 26, and if council approved it, the proposal would be sent to the DoT, he said. 

The DoT is planning on devolving control of commuter rail networks to local municipalities in its National Rail Policy, but because this could take up to three years to implement, Herron is proposing to fast-track this process for the City of Cape Town and Metrorail.

If the plan is approved by council and the DoT, the City would take over the running of the network gradually.

However, it would need "hundreds of millions" of rands for this "business rescue", as well as political and commuter support.

"Restoring commuters’ faith in passenger rail and improving the service to world-class standards will not happen overnight," said Herron. 

"It will require perseverance from officials, patience from our commuters, and political leadership as we embark on this treacherous journey."

Constant delays

Cape Town's Metrorail services are constantly delayed due to cable theft - that leads to signalling problems - vandalism and train torchings. 

It is not unusual for commuters, panicked about getting to work late, to sit on the roof of a train, or to be so squashed that they hang out of open doors.

Some even break windows to have something to hold on to as they hang off the side of the train. And occasionally, trains are set alight by angry commuters.

READ: No quick fix for Cape Town’s trains, commuters told

Herron said that, because Metrorail was having so many problems, its customers were turning to taxis, cars and buses, and the extra demand was causing problems on the city's already congested roads.

It was costing commuters more, and having a negative impact on the economy because of time-keeping problems, with staff stranded on stationary trains. Emissions were also increasing.

More than half (54%) of the city's commuters used to use the trains, Herron said, but according to Metrorail's data, there were on average 2.7 million fewer rail journeys in Cape Town per month in 2016/17, when compared with 2015/16. 

He said four out of every 10 trains (43%) were on time, compared with the international norm of 80%, and at least one out of every 10 trains was cancelled every day. By April 2017, Metrorail was short of 20 train sets - with only 68 available, instead of the required 88.

'We are facing a mammoth task'

Comment was not immediately available from Metrorail in the Western Cape, or the DoT, but Herron warned that passenger rail in Cape Town was in danger of collapsing.

"The City cannot sit back and wait for the national government to intervene. Time is of the essence."

The City's proposed business plan divides the urban rail system into 16 key functional components, including train operations, signalling, stations, ticketing, transport enforcement, and rolling stock. 

Implementation steps had been identified for each component and would be presented at the October 26 council meeting. 

In the meantime, until it was put before council, the City's department of transport and urban planning would work with the Passenger Rail Agency of SA to obtain its operational and financial data, in order to better understand risks and costs. 

It would also discuss, with the DoT and National Treasury, the allocation of subsidies for urban rail, and commence with a detailed exploration and investigation of the feasibility of alternative rail solutions, such as light rail, skyrail, monorail, and an urban cable car.

"We are facing a mammoth task, and we will need our residents to support us in this endeavour. From our side, we are committed to providing the political direction and leadership to get us back on track."

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