/ 21 February 2020

Cape Town commuters still derailed

Destruction: Train carriages at Cape Town Station were set alight in November last year. As of January this year there are reportedly only 32 train sets operating out of the 88 required. (Rodger Bosch/AFP)

Thlompho Motapa doesn’t know how he is going to make ends meet.

He relied on Cape Town’s trains to commute between his home in Brown’s Farm in Phillipi on the Cape Flats to his workplace at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, a distance of about 21km. But in recent months his transport costs have quadrupled, because the city’s most used rail link — the Metrorail Central Line — has been out of commission for months.

“I used to spend R175 on a monthly train ticket,’ Motapa said. “I now have to pay R180 a week on two taxis just to get to work.”

Motapa’s transport costs are now about R720 a month and he needs to find the difference of about R540.

“From Brown’s Farm, I have to take an amapela [informal taxi] to Nyanga taxi rank. From there I sit in traffic to town,” he said.

The walk from the taxi rank in town to the Waterfront takes him about 20 minutes. He could take another taxi, but would rather save the little money he has.

Motapa said he watched last week’s State of the Nation address by President Cyril Ramaphosa to hear whether there would be any mention of the state of public transport in Cape Town.

The president devoted a few paragraphs to the issue.

“A key priority this year is to fix commuter rail, which is vital to the economy and to the quality of life of our people. Our rail network daily transports over a million commuters to and from work. We are modernising Prasa’s rail network” the president said to applause from the transport minister, Fikile Mbalula.

But Motapa said he laughed when Ramaphosa delivered his next line.

“The central line in the Western Cape and the Mabopane line in Pretoria have been closed for essential refurbishment and upgrades,” the president said.

Motapa said Ramaphosa is either lying or he has been misinformed by his officials.

“The line has been closed for months because it is falling apart,” he said. “Skollies have been stripping the cables like it’s free. And nothing is being done.”

Vandalism, theft, corruption: Thlompho Motapa is just one of tens of thousands of people whose lives have been disrupted because train services have been suspended on various lines. (David Harrison/M&G)

Metrorail has been at pains to point out that gross vandalism, cable and copper theft, and setting train sets on fire have severely hampered services since October 2019.

In January the commuter rail company said it must first secure the line with proper fencing and monitoring equipment before rebuilding broken infrastructure.

The burden of a dysfunctional rail network not only hurts Motapa’s pocket, but also the quality time he spends with his 12-year-old son, nephews and brothers.

“What used to take me two hours to and from work now means I am travelling for about four hours a day,” he said. “How do I have quality time with my family when they’re asleep when I get home?”

Employers have little sympathy. Although he has escaped disciplinary action for arriving late at work, Motapo said he had colleagues who have been dismissed for not getting to work on time through no fault of their own.

“These bosses just don’t care. Sometimes they want written proof that we’re late. But if we have to go stand in a queue at the station to get a note that a train was late, or a bus stuck in traffic, then we’ll lose out on even more shifts,” he said.

The domino effect of the closure of the central line means that about 25 000 people who used it daily are now travelling by bus and taxi, adding further traffic congestion on Cape Town’s major roads.

Ramaphosa announced last week that R1.5-billion has been set aside to upgrade sections of the central line in Cape Town, as well as Pretoria’s Mabopane line.

The Passenger Rail Authority of South Africa (Prasa), which controls Metrorail, announced in January that the central line would be closed for much of this year, with limited services being introduced by September.

Responding to Ramaphosa’s remarks on rail infrastructure, public transport lobby group #UniteBehind said the president’s six sentences on rail was a slap in the face for commuters.

The group says corporate looting and state capture is as much to blame for the collapse of rail services as is vandalism.

“When will we see those responsible for destroying our rail service prosecuted and jailed? It has been five years since the public protector released her Derailed report, which clearly showed how Prasa had been looted from within. Instead of the arrests and forfeiture of assets of those responsible, we have seen a near total disinterest in the pursuit of justice,” the group said in a statement.

“Why is passenger rail not declared a national disaster to kick-start a comprehensive approach of fixing it? Only a national disaster can bring together the teams of experts, ring-fenced capital funds, and scope for decisive action that is required to fix our trains.”

Meanwhile, Motapa said he has had to borrow money every month to cover his costs.

“My father now pays for my son’s school transport. I look after his and my younger brother’s clothes. It’s tough. I hope this nonsense ends soon,” he said.