Sharone Daniels leaves her home in Ocean View, about 40km from Cape Town’s central business district, at around 6.30am so she can beat the traffic and get to the Fish Hoek train station by 7am. From there, the time it takes to get to Cape Town, where she works, is anyone’s guess.
On 22 April, she arrives at the station just after 7am to catch the 7.10am train, only to find the train delayed by 20 minutes because of national rolling electricity outages. It is a cold morning and commuters in jackets and beanies stand huddled together.
There is an anxious wait outside the station. Passengers scramble to buy tickets when they catch a glimpse of the train. Most purchase tickets only once they’ve seen the train arriving, having had to forfeit their fares in the past. Weekly and monthly tickets are no longer sold because of reliability issues. Daniels and the other passengers board and find a seat for their commute.
Daniels, who works for a trade union in Cape Town, says that since the reintroduction of the trains on the Southern Line in January, things have improved. But there are still teething problems. “Much better. Not excellent but much better. The older ones give them problems. We have had the odd occasion where we have to jump off and walk and take the bus into town. We have the commuters Whatsapp group and that helps us a lot. But it doesn’t save us money.”
According to the Department of Transport and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), the main issues have been vandalism and cable theft. Before lockdown there was also a spate of arson attacks on Metrorail trains. Two new trains have been running on the Southern Line during peak hours since service resumed on 28 February 2020. The new trains, dubbed “the people’s train”, have air-conditioning, comfortable seats and security cameras. In addition to vandalism, Prasa has been plagued by corruption and maladministration.
Cost, reliability and safety
At 8:36am, the train arrives at the Rosebank station in the southern suburbs. A few more people get on and find a seat. “They have issues now because of load shedding,” says Daniels. “The signal takes time to reboot. We have an abusive relationship with Prasa and Metrorail, and the government in general. Some days it’s better than others.
“It takes longer to get to town on the old train. My employer is at least understanding of the issues of the train. The latest that I got to work this year was at 10am. I will usually get to work around 9am or 9.30am. You can see the fear and people are scrambling. It’s not fair, we are all in this circumstance together. Employers should be more sympathetic, but they just tell people to leave earlier.”
The train rolls into the Salt River station at 8.45am, after stopping a few times because of signalling issues. When the trains aren’t running, it’s even worse for Daniels. This happens more often during power outages. It costs her R50, countless hours and three connecting minibus taxis to get to town – and she has to repeat this process in reverse to get home again. A weekly Golden Arrow bus ticket to town costs R224 for 10 rides, with a single trip costing R46. The train costs less than R10 for a one-way trip. “I buy a single ticket because you never know,” says Daniels.
“I would rather take the train, as abusive as the relationship is, because I don’t like the taxis. You still get up to 22 people in taxis. Golden Arrow has actually been a more efficient and reliable form of transport throughout lockdown. It’s much, much cheaper.”
Daniels says reliability and safety on the trains is still an issue. “In town, it’s sometimes a guessing game. It’s pointless asking the ticket checkers or the people at information because all they say is, wait for the announcement. The other day we were waiting for the announcement and the train left. Lots of people were standing there.”
She recalls a stoning incident earlier in the year. “We heard loud bangs and you don’t know if it’s gunshots or what is happening. On the other side they were stoning the train. I spoke to the driver later and he said if he had opened the window, the stones would have hit him in the face. That’s quite scary. You still have those kinds of things and it’s actually sad.”
The commuter experience
Mojacera Meroro lives in Muizenberg and commutes to work in Claremont. “Sometimes you get here and they tell you that it’s late, and then you have a problem. Especially around load shedding, it’s always late. I don’t know if it’s getting better, it’s always been the same story.”
Lucille Smith, who lives in Retreat and commutes to Mowbray for work, says the trains are not as full as they used to be. “It’s only certain times that I use it when it’s safe. Sometimes they are not always on time. Everything gets delayed, sometimes there are no trains at all and it’s hectic. It’s throwing out your morning. It is the easiest and quickest way, better than sitting in that traffic. The new trains are quite nice.
“What I like about these trains now is that there is no MetroPlus, it is just one train for all. I don’t think people will mind paying one price, I think that was one of the reasons why it didn’t work. The system is working better. It’s just the seats, especially in the old trains, that are still slashed and sponges sticking out. I thought for these two years [of Covid-19 lockdowns] they could have upgraded it, to get better seating.”
Sonja de Bruyn lives in Steenberg. She says there have been a few times that the train just stops and they have to get off. “Just to stand and say nothing is a bit of a problem. In all it’s okay, better than what it was in previous years.”
She says safety has improved, especially on the new trains. “I had an experience a few years ago where my phone was grabbed out of my hand. With the security guard and the police on the train, I give them a thumbs up for that. I get on at Steenberg station and go straight through to town. It takes about an hour. It is much cheaper.”
At 8.57am, the train finally arrives at Cape Town station, almost two and a half hours after Daniels left home. Commuters get off to rush to work. They nod to each other. Some of them will reunite for their afternoon commute home.
When Daniels finishes work at 4.30pm, she feels a different kind of anxiety. She is wary of not leaving town too late, especially in winter when it gets dark earlier. Sometimes she asks if she can leave before her knock-off time.
“There are parts of Ocean View that aren’t safe to walk at night due to constant shooting incidents,” she says. Her home is some distance from the taxi drop-off point.
While the Southern Line is slowly coming back to life, the Central Line remains largely deserted. Three stations – Khayelitsha, Kuyasa and Langa – stand empty aside from the few security guards and pigeons who call them home. People have started stripping the tracks in places near Kuyasa station and cable theft is a constant issue. The Central Line is being reintegrated in phases, with phase one from Langa to Nyanga scheduled to be completed by the end of July.
Street traders near Khayelitsha station have been affected. Notsukumentse Tshaka has been trading in the area for about 15 years. She sells snacks, beanies and face masks. “At the time the trains were running, business was booming. When the trains stopped for those years it was difficult to sell. I had to go and borrow money to stock. It is still difficult. I will be happy to see the trains coming back because it means that the business will be back. People are going to the buses and the bus tickets are very expensive, so people don’t have money to buy. They just go to the buses and spend their money on travelling. It is very difficult.”
The way forward
Commuter rail issues have been in the spotlight recently. The City of Cape Town has announced plans to conduct a feasibility study for the devolution of rail services.
Prasa was operating 444 train trips on a weekday in Cape Town in June 2019. This had fallen to 270 trips by early 2020. This year, no more than 153 train trips are made across the city on a weekday, a 66% reduction. These figures are according to Prasa, which reported to the Western Cape parliamentary standing committee on transport and public works in February about its rail service in the province.
Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said the City’s plan to devolve the rail service is about making it easier to commute. But shortly after this announcement, Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula reiterated that only he can approve any plans for devolution. Mbalula also announced the White Paper on National Rail Policy in May, which Cabinet recently approved.
“Passenger rail is a mass carrier with other modes acting as feeders. The priority of any city is to minimise road-based public transportation. The best way to do that is to support passenger rail, which remains the cheapest mode of public transport,” said Nana Zenani, the acting spokesperson for Metrorail Western Cape.