Cape Town -
Metrorail in the Western Cape is in bad shape but has a plan, regional manager Mthuthuzeli Swartz says.
Speaking at a media briefing on Tuesday, Swartz says R233 million in emergency funding has been made available by the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) to slam the brakes on Metrorail’s decline into chaotic service delays amid failing infrastructure.
Step one is to stop the railroad falling into dangerous disrepair and to get trains running on time within the next four months.
Last week, Western Cape Transport MEC Robin Carlisle said he would not be surprised if “some of the worst accidents the country has ever seen” happened on Metrorail trains.
Carlisle said disaster was inevitable as the “rails are so old they no longer perform their function of holding the wheels on the track”.
According to Metrorail engineering services manager Raymond Maseko, Carlisle’s claims are entirely true.
Metrorail runs 4 000 trains a day on 489km of track. On the busiest sections, near the CBD and Bellville, the track is so worn it cannot hold trains’ wheels in place at high speed. Trains are restricted to running at 15km/h when they should be doing 90km/h.
The road bed, which underpins the tracks and provides them with ballast and spring, is also failing.
Maseko said that for years money had been channelled into more urgent maintenance. Now the tracks were fast approaching a critical point.
Swartz agreed a disaster was imminent unless something was done.
“If nothing gets done, Minister Carlisle’s prediction will be correct. But we have R233m in emergency provisions to make sure it is not.”
Rebuilding road beds on hardest-hit areas is a priority, Swartz says.
In total, 37km of Western Cape track suffers from “rail and component wear”. The speed restrictions over these areas make trains slower and lowers their frequency. Commuters experience this as overcrowding and being late for work.
At least their lives are not in danger, Swartz says. “We are prepared to take flak from commuters while we are doing the right thing.”
Much of the chaos of disrupted train schedules is caused by vandalism. “We are fighting a losing battle against senseless and mad commuter behaviour,” Swartz says.
Vandalism has been largely directed at Metro Plus carriages, which then have to be taken for repairs when the only faulty element is torn seating, he says. Theft and vandalism of railroad signals, tracks and electronics is also a scourge on the service – to the extent that Metrorail engineers have designed vandal-proof concrete housings for the equipment.
While vandalism throws daily problems at Metrorail’s technicians, Swartz says the railway’s problems had their roots in a decision taken in 1988, when a law was passed to deregulate the industry.
The government started spending on roads rather than railways and other investors began losing interest in the railway services.
The years of neglect and disinvestment had taken their toll.
South Africa used to manufacture rail and trains, but now had to purchase them from overseas suppliers.
One of Swartz’s long-term plans is to revive the rail manufacturing industry – and the factory site has already been identified in Joburg.
Once emergency repairs were finished and trains were running reliably, Prasa planned to embark on an ambitious modernisation of the railway, to be completed in the next two years.
Swartz plans for trains to run every 15 minutes during peak times, and every half hour during off-peak hours.
Designs for stylish new stations have been drawn up, with Nolungile, Khayelitsha, and Bonteheuwel among those scheduled for a revamp.
New train sets have been ordered, and will increase the number of trains running from 89 to 110.
The ticket-checking system will be automated.
For now, passengers will have to bear with delays, and direct their frustrations to Metrorail’s Twitter handle @CapeTownTrains, which is providing realtime support for commuters during peak hours.