15 April 2019

South Africa: Metrorail's Collapse Costs Those That Need It Most

Lizette Jonas is scared of taking trains to work. She fears being trampled or robbed. "I am too old for crowded trains," she says.

Jonas lives in Lavender Hill. She is 65 and does domestic work at homes in Cape Town's south peninsula, including Grassy Park, Steenberg and Muizenberg. She only takes the train back from work, because she cannot rely on the train to get to work. The trains are almost always late. They frequently stop for long periods of time between stations, and they are severely overcrowded during rush hour.

Instead, to get to work Jonas uses taxis. But this is costly. A return train ticket for the areas she goes to typically costs R15 compared to R25 for the same journey by taxi.

The looting of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) over the past decade is directly hurting low-income earners. The breakdown of Metrorail, PRASA's commuter train service in the country's major cities, costs commuters money because they have to take more expensive alternatives. Sometimes it even costs them their jobs.

Zama Mata, 56, and Lindiwe Zagana, 42 both live in Philippi and work as domestic workers in the southern suburbs. Mata says that if she takes the train to work, she leaves Philippi at 7am, arrives at Cape Town station at about 9:30am, and only gets to work between 11am and 1pm.

This travel time means that, like Jonas, they cannot use the train to get to work because of the risk of arriving late.

"If I take the train and arrive at 11am, the boss can fire me," says Zangana.

This means that they have to use up to R60 a day on taxi fares for work, compared to R20 for a return train ticket, or R190 for a monthly ticket.

Zagana not only complains about Metrorail, but also PRASA's long-distance service between Cape Town and Johannesburg: the Shosholoza Meyl. It is not only the city trains that run late. Zangana says the Shozolozo sometimes takes far longer than the scheduled time to get to a place. The full route between the two cities is supposed to take about 24 hours, but it can be double this.

Dorian Schouw has been using Metrorail for over 30 years. He takes the train daily from Kalk Bay to Claremont, where he works at a financial services company. He says that the infrastructure and maintenance has deteriorated over the years.

"New trains do not matter to me," he says, referring to the launch by President Cyril Ramaphosa of a new train last week. "At the end of the day the maintenance is what matters."

Asked to comment, PRASA spokesperson Nana Zenani admitted that "PRASA is not at a stage where it can comfortably say it is offering a service that meets the expectations of its customers".

She referred to transport minister Blade Nzimande's recently announced two-step intervention plan as the company's way forward. The plan's first step is to analyse PRASA's problems over eight weeks. In the second step, a team will be appointed to fix the problems.

"It is hard for us. We are suffering without transport. They need to fix it now," says Mata.

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