Cape Town - When the Cape Town train station’s Parade Concourse reopens to commuters in a few months after a R126 million upgrade, it will have undergone more than a cosmetic overhaul. While it has been decked out with new technology, and parts modelled after Hong Kong’s famous central railway station, it’s also about converting a symbol of apartheid.
This is what Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa chief executive Lucky Montana mused over as he toured the refurbished space on Wednesday.
Built in 1966, the concourse served as a separate entrance for “non-whites”, with stairs leading directly to the third-class carriages below. It’s a history of segregation that was carried into the present as the concourse was forgotten and neglected. Where the central station below was populated by shops and blinking screens, the concourse - looming over the taxi ranks outside - was dusty and decrepit, with only a few hawkers selling from cardboard boxes on its doorstep.
But, four years after work began to convert the space to match the interior of the main station, Montana joked that “it might now even look better” than its older cousin.
The new lofty station has giant windows on either end, while manual gates, where security would control the flow of commuters, have been replaced by an automatic ticket scanning system - a small part of the agency’s R1.5 billion rollout of the same system found at railway stations across the country.
The blackened stairwells that led down to the platforms now include well-lit escalators to the concourse, which will have a range of shops, including Steers, Vodacom and Debonairs.
Montana said the station had essentially been rebuilt to do away with its apartheid legacy and to create “a modern train facility in which all people of South Africa can have access to all modes of transport, shop and relax”.
He added that spaces such as the concourse could generate a fortune for the agency, which could be invested back into the public transport service, furthering the company’s goal of turning rail into the backbone of South Africa’s transport network.
But while rebuilding the concourse speaks to a renewed faith in Cape Town’s railway systems to be profitable, as many passengers know, Cape trains can be a bumpy ride.
Over the past two years vandalism has rocked the service. In July, Prasa considered shutting down the central line after vandals “butchered” signal cables, halting trains running between Philippi and Nyanga.
It was revealed that over just three years vandalism had cost the agency R382m.
But Metrorail regional manager Richard Walker said they were winning the war against vandals, and plans were being carried out to “wall in” infrastructure in problem areas such as Philippi and Nyanga.
He added that law enforcement and police had cracked down on scrapyards found buying stolen signal cables.
“We are not seeing as many incidents (as last year)… So I can definitely say we are winning.”
Security will be of paramount importance near the end of this year when the railway agency plans to put the first of its 600 brand-new trains on the tracks. Montana said an improved signalling system was also on the cards, and parts of the railways may be diverted to accommodate future plans to link Cape Town International Airport to the city centre by train.
Prasa will be spending R1.3bn over the next three years to upgrade its services across the country.