#225 The life saving surgery that Metrorail needs

“There was a thick crowd on Platform Two, rushing for All Station Randfontein train. Men, women and children were pushing madly to board the train. They were heaving and pressing, elbows in faces, bundles bursting, and weak ones kneaded. Even at the opposite side people were balancing precariously to escape being shoved off the platform. Here and there theft fingers were exploring unwary pockets. Somewhere and outraged dignity was shrieking stridently, vilely cursing someone’s parentage. Fuller and fuller the carriages become with a jerk the electrical train moved out of the station.”

Canodoise Themba, ‘Mob Passion’, 1950.
Can we trust the all too familiar passionate thrust behind our modern ministries, when the issues plaguing railways were pertinent in the 1950s?

A smoking pipe-dream hovers over the African continent: railways for and by the people. Infrastructure to integrate this massive stretch of land, where exploitation scrambled, carved and drilled to lay the foundations of modern cities, towns and ‘slums’. 

It is upon these foundations that much of the infrastructure, human settlements and industry are anchored. For passenger rail in South Africa, the ‘anthropological’ classification of races informed who would be forcefully removed and how this ‘labour’ would fuel the city. 

From the forced removal of residents away from the city into townships came with an expectation that they would pay the full cost of travel on the new rail lines. It was only until ‘pricing at what commuters could afford’ took precedent in the 60s that the ‘public interest’ notion was born. As an Evening with Belafonte and Makeba echoed Mbombela or Train Song, it slickly paints a silhouette of departure in 1965. 

Departure from all the protection passenger rail enjoyed in the 30s and 40s, as public transport subsidies spread toward buses—a main competitor—and the proliferation of a commuting conundrum of the 70s as the taxi industry exploded in vehicle population. Neighbourhoods began growing, and townships began sprawling without much concern for railways or bus routes because the taxi associations could easily follow the growing territories.

The spatial fragmentation perpetuates itself as Solène Baffi intimated, and spreads insidiously into the transport disadvantage in our large metros. However, Metrorail has had both the legacy and capacity to transform the mobility and access narratives between, across and beyond townships—it’s not a question of regulation. Instead, for the nearly 50 million passengers who used Metrorail each month, trains full of promise now represent the molten metal burning through the bodies of wasted years. 

Starved capital base

Passenger rail in South Africa seems to have been built with a deeply rooted inefficiency base that only apartheid planning could support. This artificial policy of separation, had real implications on the true viability of passenger rail in SA. A trap-door was breached by diverting their focus from investing in a new passenger rail fleet towards to investing in road infrastructure to connect towns and industry through the flexibility of motor vehicles. This path injected cash into the fiscus through fuel levies too. 

Consider the rail fleet age profile that PRASA reported to justify the fleet renewal programme, there were train sets purchased in the 1950’s operating, and ideally the average age was envisioned to be around 25-24 years—in practice it is nearly 38 years. 

FIGURE 1: Motor coach (locomotive) and trailer coach ages at PRASA.

Consistent fleet renewal laid the foundation for highly utilised locomotives, but the new dispensation operated with inherited assets and perpetually planned for their renewal. How bad is the situation? Well, according to PRASA the fleet renewal programme was expected to meet travel demand in 2020, and gear up to meet demand in 2030 through R123.5bn procurement and industrial programme that would bring 7 224 new rolling stock. However, the operator has been plagued with manual authorisations in a digital age; injury prone and fatal accidents; and the torching of trainsets. These are among the ingredients stirred in a melting pot of a leaking SOE. 

All the while, mobility and access alternatives continued to multiply and household preferences changed. Commuters seem to suffer as the backbone of our public transport economy lacked the spine to retain its volumes, and urgently reform. 

Plunging crowds and plundered dignity

Imagine going from 51 million passengers per month in January 2008 to 9.9 million monthly passengers by February 2020—that is a fifth of the market, and the capital outlay has not changed. Where did all the passengers go? The erosion of passenger volumes was a symptom of an ailing entity, but without perspective it’s unclear how deep the hole was. 

FIGURE 2: Seasonally adjusted monthly rail passengers between 2008 and 2020

While the Competition Commission’s inquiry into the public passenger market argued that passenger rail in South Africa follows classist divides, it must be noted that this does not seem to be the plan on paper. Metrorail was set to increase its capacity and systems to accommodate rising passenger volumes, and offer an integrated passenger service—by 2020. 

Working toward repair

“War Rooms! Boards! Administrator!”—don’t ask if the exclamation marks are necessary as the headlines scattered with bait. Whereas, the issues at Metrorail have, have more to do with customer needs, improving services and procuring the best solutions incrementally and transparently. 

To confront the spatial footprint it has in many cities and towns Metrorail could revitalise neighbourhood stations from a real estate development perspective to capture value. Through PRASA’s Intersite efforts, most stations in major cities have been able to attract some commercial activity, but not enough to break out of the ‘fare box’ like airports have become shopping and industry hubs.

However, tapping into such development at a township level needs deliberate transport planning efforts that incentivise a new spatial form toward the train stations. While the new trainsets gradually begin to join the line, PRASA will need to set suitable and commercially competitive real estate schemes that attract private and public sector investment—in housing, commerce, culture and industry. 

There is an opportunity to cascade the rail function from a national competency to a provincial function—retaining PRASA, but separating infrastructure from operations. Especially as the Gauteng Transport Authority takes more solid form post-COVID19, and the Western Cape’s Transport for Cape Town is as fully fledged as the eThekwini Transport Authority. This could create a more manageable and context sensitive passenger rail service offering, rather than a behemoth entity that has had a national approach to local level issues.

Simultaneously, it could expose the operating market to some risks from incompetent players, poorly implemented regulations and dreadful law enforcement—in addition to tattered procurement practices. The team behind Metrorail are faced with a multi-stream programme: one for the ongoing investigations, governance and financial reporting issues, and the other for implementing approved programmes and projects that stabilise operations.

Coming out of this with a renewed commuter rail service would be a valuable contribution to the transformation of railways in Africa. These are unchartered waters. Metrorail’s revival is the kind of spinal surgery where being genuinely hands-on outweighs crossing fingers. 

Thank you for reading. This article originally appeared in Fin24 on the 26th August 2020.

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