Opinionista Nathan Geffen 20 February 2015

Commuters must organise to improve Metrorail

The Metrorail website claims that it carries up to two million passengers per day countrywide. Finding a reliable estimate of how many people commute daily using trains in the Western Cape is challenging. Estimates range from 300,000 to over 700,000. Whatever the number, a lot of people, mostly working class, depend on trains to get to and from work.

Over the past few years, Metrorail has upgraded Cape Town central station at a cost of several hundred million rands. It certainly looks more modern. But it is as dysfunctional as it was before the upgrade.

Here are some common scenarios at the city’s main station.

Dozens of commuters getting off trains during rush hour try to find a turnstile that allows them to exit the platforms. There are no signs to help them. At the same time, commuters trying to enter the platforms are also searching for an open gate. They converge on the one turnstile that appears to be working. The two sets of commuters try to push through it in opposite directions. It’s survival of the rudest and pushiest. The Metrorail employee who is supposed to be checking tickets at the turnstile is barely interested.

We sit in a train for 10 to 15 minutes waiting for it to depart. Suddenly, though no audible announcement is made, the train carriages empty with all the commuters running to another platform, because the train we were on has been mysteriously cancelled. How the first commuters to make a run for it realise what has happened remains baffling.

These are minor, slightly comedic events. But they exemplify the problems with both the old and new Cape Town station.

The problems have nothing to do with the facade of the building or the shininess of the new train timetable technologies that have been introduced. These are management problems, and the management, to the extent that it exists, hasn’t noticeably improved despite the costly upgrade. Another sign of poor management is that the Prasa website has been “under construction” since at least early January.

Whether there’s security on any platform, both to protect commuters and check that people entering the platform have tickets, is a random affair. Carriages are invariably covered in graffiti. Train stations are poorly signed and carriage windows are often opaque so that working out which station a train has stopped at requires extensive commuting experience. If you have poor or no eyesight, or are otherwise disabled, using the trains must be especially stressful.

When Metrorail makes an announcement at my usual station, it is through such a bad PA system, that the message is inaudible. Sometimes it is to announce that a train is cancelled or late, but the announcement is often so late itself, that it is pointless.

Carriage doors sometimes don’t close; more often they don’t open, leaving commuters frantically trying to work out how to disembark before the train pulls away. During the several hours of peak traffic a day, commuters are squished together in overbearing heat.

Now and then trains stop in the middle of nowhere for long periods of time. No explanation is given. No estimate of the delay is provided.

Two days ago, a Metrorail engine caught fire, bringing a large part of the Southern line service to a halt for several hours during rush hour. No replacement buses were offered; they hardly ever are. Most commuters will not get their money back.

This is a company that disrespects its customers.

The problems are certainly not confined to Cape Town. See Mandy de Waal’s report for Daily Maverick in 2012.

Our article above describes Metrorail plans to improve the situation. But a cursory Internet search will show that plans to improve the service have been offered as a stock response for years. So it is hard to have confidence that Metrorail will improve.

In 2011, Prasa group CEO Tshepo Lucky Montana blamed Metrorail’s “numerous complaints and protest marches about our service” on “ill-disciplined managers”.

“We have heard the voices of commuters and have an action plan aimed at improving their travel experience,” he reportedly said. Four years later, that experience is not noticeably better; it might even be worse.

Fixing Metrorail is a big job that requires a team of highly skilled people with excellent management credentials. Montana has academic, committee and government experience but there is nothing in his résumé showing he has the experience to manage and transform a complex bureaucracy like Prasa.

It’s difficult to find out much about the career of Mosenngwa Mofi, the CEO of Prasa Rail. He previously headed the Railway Safety Regulator, a job that doesn’t qualify him to make the trains run on time. Before that there is scant information about him.

In 2004, the Rail Commuters Action Group, supported by Cosatu, won a landmark Constitutional Court case. Judge Kate O’Regan wrote a unanimous judgment ordering Metrorail to take reasonable measures to provide for the security of rail commuters. Metrorail has improved security since then. But the trains are still not safe enough. Muggings are commonplace and last month a gang stabbed, and used a stun gun to shoot passengers on the Southern line.

Today, there is no active Rail Commuters Action Group. Although Cosatu occasionally criticises Metrorail, it does not appear to be a priority for the trade union federation. When things go wrong – which is frequent – commuters merely collectively moan, united across class and race, ‘Metrofail!’

If Metrorail is to improve then we commuters need to organise ourselves and rekindle the efforts of the early 2000s. Cape Town (as well as the other cities that Metrorail serves) needs a decent train service. It’s up to those of us who use the trains to hold Metrorail accountable. DM

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