Cape Town trains off the rails

Increased road traffic congestion caused by excessive delays on the Metrorail system is costing the City of Cape Town R2.8-billion in lost productivity every year, according to a study by auditing firm KPMG.

Metrorail said at least 30 carriages were damaged in July alone.

The study was commissioned by Western Cape transport MEC Donald Grant and handed over to his office in November. It looked into the effect of the failing rail system, which mostly affects lines from the southern suburbs towards Fish Hoek and the northern line from Kraaifontein, Mitchells Plain and Kuilsrivier, he said.

READ MORE: Commuters rebel as Metrorail fails

“And that R2.8-billion doesn’t even factor in the frustration of commuters. But we are resolute in finding a solution to this crisis, otherwise Cape Town is going to grind to a halt because of traffic congestion,” Grant told the Mail & Guardian.

On Saturday another two train carriages were gutted in an arson attack at Cape Town station before dawn. Then on Monday, police launched a manhunt for two suspects seen on CCTV footage fleeing the scene shortly before the smoke started rising.

The breakthrough came on Wednesday, when one person was arrested after a witness saw him setting a train carriage seat on fire at Cape Town station and called security.

On Thursday morning the fury of commuters at Kenilworth station was palpable. Maverine Isaacs got a final written warning last week, after the fifth time she arrived late for work in July. She works at Shoprite Checkers in the city centre as a cashier. She said that each time she was late for work it was because the trains were delayed.

“I can see why they burn them, really. You can never depend on it, every day it’s like taking a chance. You must have backup money for a taxi or a bus,” Isaacs said as she waited for the 7.30am train, which was now 40 minutes late.

Another 20 minutes later the train still hadn’t arrived and Isaacs stormed off the platform and out of the station, hoping to catch a Golden Arrow bus to town.

“I’m going to lose my job because of this piece of shit train service,” she said.

Commuters’ frustration has spilled over to the Golden Arrow bus service, which transports about 280 000 people a day and has a fleet of about 1 000 buses.

In July, the bus company reported 200 attacks a month by commuters frustrated by delays caused by the poor train service.

The city’s transport committee member, Brett Heron, said 159 Metrorail trains have been destroyed by fire since May 2015, at a cost of R51-million.

The city is to spend R47-million on a rail enforcement unit, which will employ 100 security personnel to patrol trains and “hotspot stations”.

Grant believes that private security companies should be called in to find the culprits. “We’re now trying to get some outside people in to help us out like they did with the copper cables.”

Grant explained that the province had reduced the number of copper cable theft cases by using drone technology to monitor thieves while they made their getaway.

“People were wondering why the police arrive at the scrapyard dealers at the same time as the copper arrives. That was because of a collaboration with private sector security with drone technology,” he said, suggesting a similar solution could be used to stop train arson.

The police have already handed a preliminary report to Grant’s office about their probe into train arson, but they’ve failed to find any forensic evidence.

“Without forensic evidence, the cases become undetected. We are going to ask questions to the police related to the undetected cases,” he said.

This week’s arrest by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) guards and the police was their first major breakthrough linked to train attacks, Grant said.

Metrorail’s regional spokesperson, Richard Walker, said their staff members were on high alert and apologised to commuters for the delays.

Although the MEC had previously raised suspicions about the taxi industry and forces bent on destabilising the province ahead of elections, this week he said he was working closely with Transport Minister Donald Grant and Prasa in a dual operation.

But his suspicions about the cause of train arson remain unconfirmed.

“Are these disgruntled employees who have been dealt with harshly by Prasa in the province and their contracts were not renewed? Is it disaffected commuters unhappy with the quality?” Grant questioned.

“It’s even been suggested that it is the taxi industry who would benefit from this. Or is this a campaign to make the city or province ungovernable?”

He wants the latest person arrested to “sign affidavits saying exactly who is behind this, because it is of no use to speculate”.

READ MORE: Second train crash in a week leaves 200 injured

Back at Kenilworth station on Thursday, when the train finally arrived, there was ample space in the carriages but this did not stop the regular bursts of voices complaining about Metrorail’s unreliability.

“No it’s ma’ better to go take a taxi,” a woman says to her friend.

“This is rubbish, absolute rubbish man,” an elderly man chips in.

When the train pulls up at Cape Town station, the complaining has stopped and commuters squash up around the doors. As they open, there’s a rush of people out of the carriages and through the exits, each of them trying to make up the time spent waiting in anger at their different stations.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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