Cape Town commuters return to Southern Line as service improves

Progress on restoring full service to other lines lags behind

By Lucas Nowicki

3 April 2024

Photo of train

Keith Rass boards a train at False Bay station. Due to improvements, the number of commuters using Metrorail’s Southern Line has more than doubled over the last two years, but the last section of the line, between Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town, is not functioning properly. Photos: Lucas Nowicki

Capetonians living in suburbs serviced by Metrorail’s Southern Line are returning to using the train after years of faulty or non-existent service.

The Southern Line runs from Cape Town Station to Fish Hoek via Wynberg and Retreat, with a further shuttle train to Simon’s Town. Prior to Covid lockdown interruptions, the Southern Line offered uninterrupted journeys from Cape Town to Simon’s Town.

Daily commuters using the Southern Line told GroundUp service on the Southern Line between Cape Town and Fish Hoek has improved significantly over the last two years, with new trains that run more frequently and on time, improved safety, cheap tickets, and more staff visibility at stations.

Sandy Lombard, who takes the train from False Bay to Cape Town where she works for a tax administrator, said she used to take the train from 2013 to 2015, but when the service started declining, she switched to more expensive buses and taxis.

Lombard said she started taking the train again last year, as the service has improved and become safer.

Keith Rass, who has been taking the train for more than 15 years from False Bay station to his job in Cape Town, said the only time he did not use the train was during the Covid pandemic.

Rass said he was having to spend R40 a day on taxis and buses, but a monthly train ticket cost him just R175, or about R8.75 per day.

A one-way single ticket between Cape Town and False Bay costs R9.

Gardener Eliaz Chazemba, who lives in Fish Hoek and has been using the train for the last two years to get to the different households across the southern suburbs where he works, said there has been a “big improvement” to the Southern Line service. He said trains were now arriving regularly, and on time.

Three new train sets were added to the Southern Line at the beginning of March, reducing the waiting time between trains from 45 to 20 minutes, according to Metrorail spokesperson Zinobulali Mihi.

However, Mihi failed to answer further questions such as whether the new train sets had been acquired, or whether they had been in storage, and what improvements on the line had allowed additional train sets to run.

Increased ticket sales

According to numbers provided by PRASA for ticket sales on the Southern Line between Cape Town and Retreat, the number of sales has more than doubled from 2022 to 2023.

In the 2022/2023 financial year (1 March 2022 to 28 February 2023), there were 1.7-million tickets sold between Cape Town and Retreat via Wynberg. From 1 March to 31 December 2023, this increased to 2.6-million. Figures for ticket sales for the entire 2023/2024 financial year have not yet been made available.

However, this is a far cry from the 19.3-million tickets that used to be sold for this section of the line a decade ago, during the 2013/2014 financial year.

Photo of sand covering Southern Line

Sand blown onto the tracks at Simon’s Town station.

There has also been a significant decrease in the number of people travelling on the line between Simon’s Town and Fish Hoek, as what is now a shuttle train service between these stations on the extreme southern end of the line is frequently interrupted due to faulty infrastructure and sand across the rail tracks.

While there were more than 6.5-million tickets sold for the Simon’s Town to Retreat journey each year from 2013/2014 to 2015/2016, sales dropped steadily to a mere 650,000 in 2022/2023, with just 25,000 tickets sold for this section of line from 1 March to 31 December 2023.

A long way to go

Improvements to other Metrorail lines are lagging behind those on the Southern Line.

The Northern Line from Bellville to Cape Town was the most popular a decade ago, with almost 43-million tickets sold in 2013/2014, but decreased to 1.6-million in 2022/2023. However, the Northern Line has increased to 2.8-million tickets sold from March to December 2023, but there remains a 55-minute gap between trains, even at peak morning and evening hours.

The Cape Town to Heathfield via Athlone (Cape Flats Line) is also not at full service. The line is operating on limited signalling, said Mihi. She said teams are working to get the line “back to standards” and reduce travelling time.

The Central Line to Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain is also far from fully operational. Mihi said the sections between Nyanga and Chris Hani stations still require extensive work “as most of the infrastructure has been either stolen or vandalised”. She said contractors were also working on the section of the line between Nyanga and Philippi, which was occupied in 2020. Hundreds of households occupying the railway line and railway reserve have been relocated by PRASA, but many still remain.

Mihi said it is hoped work on the Central Line will be completed this month, allowing for the introduction of a “limited service”.