Cape Town - He started as a ticket seller at Retreat Station. Now, 20 years later, Richard Walker is the new regional manager of Metrorail, charged with the mammoth task of modernising the service in the Western Cape.
Walker hit the ground running amid widespread chaos, with angry commuters resorting to burning trains in outrage at the poor service and Cosatu protesting over fare increases. But the first measures to modernise the crumbling infrastructure and rolling stock - which has not seen investment in 40 years - are beginning to see fruition.
The R233 million in emergency funding announced in March has been upped to R500m made available nationally for a Metrorail make-over.
A delivery of 2.4km of new rail is already being put to work improving track quality, and speed restrictions have been lifted on several routes.
Walker has been in his post for a month, but has already implemented a lunchtime service reliability meeting to review train performance for the previous afternoon and that morning.
It has brought the morning peak up to 84 percent of trains running on time. “When I got here, we were barely making 70 percent on time,” Walker said. “The newest trains we have are 20 years old. It’s a very old system that’s prone to fail.”
The cash injection from Prasa promises a world-class service.
But pouring money into upgrading a service that suffers from metal theft and vandalism is like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in the bottom.
“We’ve lost a number of coaches because thieves cut the wires and pull them out,” Walker said. “Some days, everything in our control goes great, then thieves and vandals come along and the service just takes a nosedive.”
While the gravity of his new responsibility sinks in, Walker takes comfort in his experience through the ranks of Metrorail, and his sentimental connection to the railroad.
He was in charge of operations in the lead-up to the World Cup in 2010. By the time football fever descended, he was head of customer services.
“There was a lot of doubt and negativity, especially about the rail service,” he recalled. “It was a proud moment, that first train bringing a rainbow nation through the gates.”
Working in Cape Town, Walker was a regular train commuter. He would park his car at Retreat Station, drop his son at school then take the train to town.
“If there were any issues, I would experience them.”
At the end of 2012, he was posted to East London as regional manager for the Eastern Cape, before taking office in Cape Town in June when Mthuthuzeli Swartz moved to Shosholoza Meyl.
After 20 years with Metrorail, Walker can’t imagine his life without trains. “There will always be this special connection between me and the railway,” he said. “There’s a saying among our older staff: once a railwayman, always a railwayman.”