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Transport travails: Urgent action is needed to restore Cape Town’s passenger rail service — jobs are literally on the line


Ricardo Mackenzie is DA Western Cape Spokesperson on the Premier and Constitutional Matters.

The prioritisation of public transport investment is no longer a nice to have; it is an absolute necessity — and specifically the need to restore our railways as a primary means of travel. However, the national administration has been ineffective with the implementation of budgeting and policy.

With November marking the end of Transport Month, we are reminded of the heavy burden South Africans face in their commutes. On the cost front, for residents living in and around the cities of our country, more than half of us spend more than 20% of our monthly income on transport. In rural areas, this expands to above 73% of the population.

And we are reminded that these costs are not for leisure transport, but to go about daily commutes to and from places of work and education.

These findings not only indicate the worrying situation in which we find ourselves as a country, but also expose how the lack of affordable and dependable public transport is hampering economic opportunities in South Africa.

Recently, the American Public Transportation Association and the Economic Development Research Group published a report which investigated the benefits when governments increased investment in public transport. Not only does the short-term injection of funds result in economic growth, but it also lays down the foundations for long-term economic productivity. So much so, it was projected that for every $1-billion spent, $5-billion of value would be added to the economy over a 20-year period.

More simply put, at the current wage rate, it was estimated that 49,700 people would gain employment per $1-billion invested.

For South Africa, the prioritisation of public transport investment is no longer a nice-to-have; it is an absolute necessity — and specifically the need to restore our railways as a primary means of travel. However, the mandate of this industry is predominantly centralised in Pretoria, where the national administration has been ineffective with the implementation of budgeting and policy.

Now more than ever, the devolution of powers for railways to the Western Cape, and others alike, is paramount. To understand why, one needs to take a closer look at the current situation.

Over the past few years, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) has faced a war on two fronts. On the one hand, the institution has historically been plagued by corruption and maladministration. On the other, constant vandalism and occupation of the rail infrastructure has only compounded pre-existing problems. To summarise, the Western Cape has experienced the following:

  • Back in 2014, the province had more than 80 trainsets. This number now sits at a mere 29;
  • Weekday train services have decreased from 444 a day to just 151 a day — a fall of 66% in total;
  • There have been more than 640 incidents of infrastructure theft in the first seven months of 2021. Recently, we have seen an attack on the Southern Line rail infrastructure in Fish Hoek to the tune of R1-million. Due to the decision by Metrorail (a division of Prasa) to suspend this service for a week, in addition to some Northern Line services having been halted for similar reasons, the entire train public transport system in the province is now on the verge of non-existence;
  • 7,844 dwellings have been occupying the Central Line in Cape Town in the stations of Langa, Philippi and Nonkqubela for the past two years. While plans have been made to move a portion of the occupants to a site in Eerste River, the Central Line is yet to be declared fully operational;
  • A total of 55.9 hectares is required for a boundary wall to be built along these areas so that the corridor can run smoothly; and
  • Even though Prasa will be spending R790-million over the next three years to repair and upgrade stations, it will still cost the country’s fiscus at least R2.8-billion for the Central Line Recovery Programme to be completed.

The only real progress that was made on this front was the MOU signed between the Western Cape government and Prasa in an attempt to revive the Central Line. This is particularly profound as the Western Cape is the only province to have taken this step — even though railways do not form part of our mandate.

Since its signing two years ago, the province has been the only party to the agreement to adhere to its commitments by supporting efforts to relocate informal settlements, providing interim bus services and clearing vegetation that is obstructing the line. It is clear that, despite all of the plans which were promised, we can no longer rely on the national government to bring about change. Until funding and mandate are given to competent provinces, the situation will never change.

This is why we in the Western Cape have set out a number of initiatives over the years so that residents can receive the public transport they deserve, and mitigate the failures of national government.

One of the more long-term solutions implemented is that of the MyCiTi bus service. Since being launched 11 years ago, MyCiTi has been providing affordable, safe and reliable transport to Capetonians. With the buses — which are designed to be accessible for those with disabilities and are installed with CCTV cameras — being 90% on time, this service provides the foundation of what a dependable mode of public transport can be.

However, with MyCiTi only covering around 10% of Cape Town, the province and city have also collaborated with the Golden Arrow bus service to equip their vehicles with security cameras and officials to improve their safety.

Extending from the metro, the province has worked with George Municipality to roll out the Go George bus service. This project stems from an empowerment programme in which former minibus taxi and bus operators are employed. Currently, this service is being further developed and will be connecting nearby towns in the near future.

But even more than this, perhaps the most innovative policy action which has been focused on relates to minibus taxis. The industry, particularly in Cape Town, is an important strategic partner in the province’s public transport system:

  • It supplies transport opportunities to about 700,000 passengers every day in the province;
  • Almost two thirds of the public transport trips are supported by taxis;
  • There are around 15,000 legal vehicles currently operating (surplus of 20,000 if you include illegal operators);
  • R6-billion in revenue is generated every year;
  • It is made up of 10,000 small businesses and employs about 40,000 people; and
  • In terms of equity, the industry has 100% black ownership which makes it extremely broad-based.

Despite this industry being largely informal, the Western Cape government identified the unique potential it possesses. This began with the Red Dot taxi service last year during the beginning stages of the pandemic. The Department of Transport and Public Works launched the Red Dot taxis to provide safe transport for healthcare workers under various restrictions of the time. Today, this service remains active and is now running a fleet of 135 taxis — it had transported about 8,600 people for vaccinations by mid-August, continuing to offer crucial support in the province’s Covid-19 response.

It was this initiative that laid the groundwork for the Blue Dot taxi service. After an extensive nine-month trial period, the service officially went live in May this year. Currently, there are more than 700 taxis operating on close to 190 routes across the City of Cape Town.

The taxi operators involved in this programme receive payments from the province based on the quality of their driving, which incentivises the participants to drive responsibly and induces behaviour change over time.

Owing to these vehicles being equipped with tracking devices, the department is able to gain valuable information from the taxi industry like never before.

These examples underscore what competent, effective sub-national governments, like the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape government, can provide in the way of diversified and accessible public transport. We have the right policies and we hold the solutions to unleashing full economic expansion, underpinned by an agile transport and infrastructure system.

For this to be realised, we need dedicated commitment from all spheres of government, including national government.

My challenge to President Cyril Ramaphosa and Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula is this: help us to help you, and by doing so, we will give the people of this province ever-greater access to transport that is affordable, on time and safe. DM


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  • Pedro Monteiro says:

    The importance of a safe and stable suburban train service should become aparent when within the next 5 to 10 years when possible fuel price increases due to the carbon transition and reduction in finance for maintence and upgrading of refineries begin to make the existing taxi system unaffordable. But time is running out to implement a future efficient and low carbon transport system for CT that includes all and benefits ALL. This would be a great example of combining mitigation and adaptation objectives and mutual benefits

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