Ageing infrastructure and rolling stock has made the Metrorail train service inept. Picture: ANA
The answer to sorting out Cape Town’s traffic woes depends entirely on fixing our city’s dysfunctional trains. What we need is a well-oiled machine that runs on time, is safe and predictable.

Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate to visit cities like London, Washington, Istanbul, Torino (Turin) and Beijing. These cities have varying degrees of prosperity. But what they have in common is a reliable public transport network with trains as the backbone. Buses and other modes feed off rail.

I’m afraid to say that without such a working public transport system, Cape Town may as well consider itself a joke city.

Ageing infrastructure and rolling stock has made the Metrorail train service inept. Over the past few weeks the situation has been exacerbated by the bus strike and protests along major roads. Much-needed downpours have turned the traffic situation into the perfect storm.

The Cape Chamber of Commerce will tell you how destructive the poor public transport system and traffic congestion are for our city’s economy.

But let me illustrate it on a personal level with a few people I know. They’re professionals who have put their faith in public transport and our road network and are regularly let down.

Riana Howa is the editor of news website IOL. She travels by train from Diep River and home again. She often has to abandon her train journeys and drive to work. When she does take a gamble on the trains, mere seconds of getting her timing wrong can mean the difference between getting home safely to her family at a reasonable time or being ridiculously late.

Monique Mortlock is a hardworking, award-winning radio journalist at EWN. After a hard day’s work of keeping the public informed she makes the journey home by train. I have often seen her despairing tweets of being stuck on a train on her way home.

This week was no different. Stuck on a train at around 8pm on a cold, dark night this week, she tweeted with accompanying pictures: “Pikdonker en die trein stop en staan heeltyd (Pitch dark and the train stops and stalls all the time).”

Mark Keohane is a media consultant who uses the MyCiTi bus service from the Table Bay side of Cape Town to get to and from work in the CBD. He enjoys the service when it works. But during the last few weeks of the bus strike he’s been stranded and has to use the family car he shares with his wife or fork out for expensive Uber journeys.

Marisa Calvert is a public relations professional and mom to a toddler and drives to work in the CBD from Kuils River. She hates every second of it, having to get up at a ridiculous hour of the morning to make it in time for work on the N1 highway. The only predictable thing about her journey is the congestion she can expect daily.

Riana, Monique, Mark and Marisa can’t afford to make their journey to work their primary concern. But the horror commute is a daily reality and a cause for major irritation and inconvenience.

These are the professionals we need to make our economy work. What then of the thousands who live on the fringes of our city who were dealt this hand by our history of apartheid spatial planning and who have even less options?

I have been privy to Metrorail’s plans for the city’s trains and train stations. If the leadership of the train operator is given the resources to roll out and execute these plans it will considerably boost our city’s fortunes and improve the quality of life of our citizens.

The people who run Metrorail are not useless. That they can run any kind of service with the little they have speaks volumes. They do however need to be empowered to carry out their mandate.

There are smart people in our city whose innovation is often born out of need. Perhaps the folks at Metrorail should lean on the tenacity of citizen power to lead the way?

But the status quo can’t remain. We’re in danger of being held back and being the remedial kid in the class. If Cape Town wants to be mentioned in the same breath as London, Washington, Istanbul, Torino and Beijing then its public transport needs to be able to take Riana, Monique, Mark and Marisa to where they need to be as simply as it is for them to brush their teeth.

Until then we are at the mercy of a dysfunctional train service that has a knock-on effect on everything else and erodes quality of life and the freedom of choice of commuters. It is all of our problem.

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