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Cape Town train service slowly being reborn

First the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) was looted from within during former President Jacob Zuma’s state capture tenure, then during the Covid-19 lockdown when the trains ceased running, it was looted by cable thieves and vandals.

But in Cape Town at least, the Metrorail service is slowly getting back on track.

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula has this past month promised to revamp the country’s defunct rail system, reportedly promising billions of rands in investment.

On 17 January he released a statement listing six completed or near-complete station upgrades in Cape Town totalling R62m, and stating services in five of the Cape’s seven rail corridors has been restored. The resumption of services on one of two lines to Bellville is scheduled for March, he said.

Prasa’s biggest challenge in Cape Town is fixing the central line to Khayelitsha, which carried the highest number of passengers before ongoing vandalism brought it to a halt in October 2019. Since then, informal settlements have been built over the tracks and stations and infrastructure stripped.

Mbalula said phase 1 of the central line recovery was being implemented, involving the relocation of illegal settlements on the rail line.

He said five of 34 stations on the northern line to Bellville have “suffered extreme vandalism and are in a bad state of repair” but services on the line via Pinelands will resume in March. However, none of the five stations on this line was included in the list of stations currently being fixed. It is unclear when this line ceased operations.

One of the lines restored on 5 January was the southern line. It is the most scenic line, running next the ocean as it enters False Bay at Muizenberg, to Simon’s Town where it ends. All 38 stations on this line are “in good operating condition” and require only minor maintenance work.

Cable theft led to this line, which was popular among tourists and Capetonians heading for the beach on weekends, going only so far as the inland Retreat interchange from 10 October last year.

However, there are fewer trains running on the line than there were pre-lockdown, starting at 5.50am from Fish Hoek station, whereas previously trains would start at 4.30. Regular train user Washiela Keshwa said this was a problem, as many people in the service industry need to get to work by 6am. The last train to Fish Hoek from Cape Town now leaves at 5.45pm, at least three hours earlier than it used to, denying the service to those who work late. Additionally, the single track Simon’s Town to Fish Hoek portion of the line has not been fully incorporated, the train between these two stations essentially acting as a shuttle service. The official timetable does not even include the stations beyond Fish Hoek.

The Saturday service is also slim, with the last train leaving Fish Hoek for Cape Town at 12.40pm, meaning families cannot make a day of it, and no trains run on Sunday.

City mayco member for transport, Rob Quintas, welcomed the reintroduction of the southern line service, saying “one can safely assume” it would bring more customers to the False Bay beaches, with a positive impact on local businesses.

Quintas said passenger rail was the most affordable mode of transport for commuters, and relieved congestion on the roads, allowing people to be more productive.

He said traffic congestion in Cape Town’s had become “a huge challenge”, with some routes having a morning peak lasting almost three hours. A functioning rail system would ease this problem and reduce resultant carbon emissions.

But commuters have been slow to get back onto the trains, despite carriages noticeably cleaned of graffiti and handbills, and the visible presence of security guards ensuring safety.

When this reporter travelled from Fish Hoek to Cape Town and back on a weekday, only between five and nine people were ever in the carriage at a time. This was a vast change from the packed conditions of two years ago where it was standing room only for much of the journey.

Yet the few using it are significantly reducing their cost of commuting. Luvuyo Jali, who works as a mall security guard, said he travels from Fish Hoek to Wynberg station and back six days a week. The return ticket costs R18, whereas when he had to take a minibus taxi due to the line being suspended he paid R28 return. The train saves him R240 a month, a significant percentage of his salary.

Lifelong train commuter Lorenzo Davids, 60, who works as a social justice consultant, gets on the southern line at Steurhof station near Plumstead to travel into the city daily.

Davids says the carriages are empty because after a decade of deterioration, and particularly the dysfunction experienced in 2019, people have lost confidence in the trains. But he believes things have started to improve. Although there are fewer trains running, they are on time, clean, and safe.

“I think it’s finally being reborn. The stations are neatly cleaned, the trains are clean, it’s a pleasure to sit in it,” said Davids.

This was slowly bringing commuters back.

“Three weeks ago I was alone at the station in the morning, now there’s three of us. That’s a 200% increase.”