Commuter rail – the backbone of public transport in Cape Town – is on the brink of total collapse. Given the severity of the situation and the fact that 54% of commuter journeys are made by passenger rail, the City of Cape Town intends to request that the National Department of Transport (DoT) expedite the assignment of the urban rail function to the City, pending Council’s approval by the end of this month.
Councillor Brett Herron, Mayoral Committee Member for Transport and Urban Development, City of Cape Town
Commuter rail in Cape Town is on the brink of total collapse.
The acute decrease in the number of passengers making use of commuter rail confirms the escalating decline that we have witnessed since 2015.
Passenger rail numbers in Cape Town have fallen by 30% from 2015/16 to 2016/17. According to the latest data received from Metrorail, there were on average 2,7 million fewer rail journeys in Cape Town per month in 2016/17 when compared with 2015/16.
Commuters have been and are still fleeing from passenger rail as they cannot rely on the trains to travel to and from work:
- Punctuality is virtually non-existent with four out of every 10 trains (43%) being on time when the international norm is 80%
- Personal safety and security is compromised – 26% of the complaints registered with the Transport Information Centre relate to inadequate security
- At least one out of every 10 trains (11%) is cancelled on a daily basis
- By April 2017, Metrorail was short of 20 train sets – the service was operating on 68 sets as opposed to the 88 train sets required to run an efficient service
Passenger rail is the backbone of public transport in Cape Town. More than half of all commuter journeys – that is 54% – are made by train. However, Metrorail’s data confirms that thousands of commuters have been displaced to road-based transport – be it private vehicles, minibus-taxis or buses – over the past two years.
We are facing a real risk that passenger rail in Cape Town could effectively collapse before the DoT’s National Rail Policy (draft White Paper) of June 2017 is finalised to devolve the management of passenger rail to municipalities. This could take another two to three years.
The City cannot sit back and wait for the National Government to intervene. Time is of the essence.
The consequences of a complete breakdown would be catastrophic for the city, for residents, and commuters who are already subjected to constant peak-hour grid-lock on the congested road network. This comes at a great cost in terms of the time spent on travelling, household expenditure on transport, environmental degradation due to carbon emissions, and the subsequent impact on our productivity and Cape Town’s economy.
A sense of urgency is required, as is a plan of action.
Should Council give us the go-ahead, we will present a business plan to the DoT in which we will propose to take over passenger rail in a structured and incremental manner. The take-over must happen gradually so that the City can plan ahead, acquire the necessary skills, and develop the additional capacity to ensure the long-term sustainability of passenger rail.
Fixing passenger rail in Cape Town is akin to a business rescue. We will be exposing ourselves to significant risks – key among them being a possible shortfall in funding as we estimate that we would need hundreds of millions of rands in the short- to medium-term to halt the decline and to build up passenger rail from scratch. The City will need more funding at various points during the rescue operation – thus, it is proposed that the handover is structured and incremental and not on a single day.
That said, doing nothing at this point in time poses the biggest risk of all.
Cape Town cannot survive without a fully functional, effective and world-class passenger rail service. Without it, our economic growth will be severely hampered, travelling times and transport costs will keep on rising, and our environment will suffer due to an increase in carbon emissions and traffic congestion. These count among the key priorities in the City’s Organisational Development and Transformation Plan and Integrated Development Plan.
I want to be frank about the reality that it will take us years to repair the damage done to passenger rail over the past three decades. Setbacks should be expected.
Restoring commuters’ faith in passenger rail and improving the service to world-class standards will not happen overnight. It will require perseverance from officials, patience from our commuters, and political leadership as we embark on this treacherous journey.
Inclusive of the business plan for the assignment of the urban rail function is a report setting out a detailed analysis of the risks involved and the measures in mitigating these. The business plan sets out the City’s assignment methodology. We have divided the urban rail system into 16 key functional components, including the train operations, signalling, stations, ticketing, transport enforcement, and rolling stock. Implementation steps have been identified for each component.
The reports will serve before the Mayoral Committee for recommendation next week, and will be submitted to full Council for approval on 26 October 2017.
I will announce the full details of the reports once these have served before the Mayoral Committee, save to say that we intend on doing the following with immediate effect pending Council’s approval:
- Intensify our memorandum of action with PRASA with the intention of stabilising passenger rail and preventing the further decline of the rail service in Cape Town. The City must be allowed to access the local operational and financial data so that we can identify the functionalities where intervention is to be prioritised, get a better understanding of the current strategic and operational risks, and determine the full scope and cost of the assignment of the urban rail function
- Submit our application to the DoT and National Treasury for the assignment of urban rail to the City
- Engage with the DoT and National Treasury about the approach to 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 urban cable car. Alternative rail solutions could be implemented as part of the City’s comprehensive integrated transport plan or in areas where they could be more economically viable than other modes of public transport – in particular in those areas that are currently not served by passenger rail and the MyCiTi bus service
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.