President Cyril Ramaphosa visits Cape Town train station to launch the new Prasa trains last week. File photo: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA).
Cape Town - Calls for the rail system to be declared a disaster have been amplified ahead of elections as Metrorail’s woes continue to hit commuters hard.

Civil society group UniteBehind, has vowed to embark on demonstrations to force President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Transport Blade Nzimande to make the declaration so that the failed rail system can be fixed.

Ramaphosa unveiled two new trains with much fanfare in Cape Town this week. He promised a punctual, safer and more convenient service. A total of 35 new trains will be rolled out by the end of next year.

But frustrated commuters were unconvinced as they continued to experience delays with the service.

“We are giving the president, Minister Nzimande and the ANC notice that #UniteBehind will embark on peaceful and radical action to demand that a disaster be declared before election day,” said the organisation’s Zackie Achmat.

“Minister Nzimande announced his intention to once again find out what is wrong with our rail service by appointing a task team. He feigned surprise at the delay President Ramaphosa experienced on his election campaign train journey in Pretoria.

“The announcement was bizarre and irrational because Minister Nzimande is fully aware of numerous reports on governance and management instability, lack of safety, rail stock and infrastructure maintenance, state capture, infrastructure, incompetence, mismanagement and rot at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa.

“We are ready to work to #FixOurTrains and if necessary, find the expertise needed in rail transport to rebuild our passenger rail service and agency under democratic control,” the group said.

Political parties have put forward proposals to revive the country’s rail system as a priority in ensuring that the public transport runs smoothly.

The Good party cited the collapse of rail services as the main cause of congested roads and proposed prioritising the system as a way of ensuring a better transport system.

The party believes minibus taxis should be integrated with other public transport and given contracts to run a single public transport service.

The ANC has stressed the importance of making rail the backbone of the public transport system while integrating other modes of transport.

The party has promised to work to support initiatives within the taxi industry to make it safe, invest in infrastructure and support the roll-out of bus rapid transport systems in other cities.

The EFF has also promised to prioritise the rail system and to upgrade and refurbish lines by 2021 and increase the number of carriages by 50% by 2023 as well as invest in speed trains that will transport people and goods across the country.

While political parties are in full electioneering mode, commuters say promises do not offer solutions to the immediate problem.

Phindeka Mbolekwa, 41, said: “Ramaphosa said trains would no longer be late, but the very next day I waited for close to an hour for a train.

“In order to make sure that I get to work at 8am, I leave home at 4.30pm so that I can be at the station at 5am or 5.30, but sometimes these trains are cancelled and I sit and wait for an hour before I get a train.”

“My boss is no longer interested in hearing my stories about late trains, I get home at 8pm sometimes because of these delays.”

Professor Marianne Vanderschuren from the University of Cape Town’s Africa Centre for Studies in Public and Non-motorised Transport, said the solution to stable public transport was an efficient rail network which served as the backbone of the entire system.

“We cannot let the rail system collapse. It is important we rehabilitate the rail and its infrastructure and to do so we should think outside the box in terms of what could assist us,” she said.

“If we don’t sort out public transport the risk is that it implodes and our cities becomes like Nairobi where traffic moves 10km per hour. Cape Town’s roads are already suffering from all the congestion and this is all a sensitive system and once it collapses it will be hard to get back on track,” Vanderschuren said.

Weekend Argus