Fixing Cape Town’s railways will save families nearly R1-billion a year

We cannot wait any longer to save the city’s train service

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Fixing Cape Town’s rail service will save families nearly R1-billion a year, preliminary findings from a City of Cape Town study suggest. Archive photo: Bernard Chiguvare

An efficient rail service will save lower-income households up to R932-million a year, according to preliminary findings of the City of Cape Town’s rail feasibility study. We cannot wait any longer to fix the city’s railway service.

GroundUp has reported that the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) conducted an oversight visit to assess the extent of the devastated infrastructure along Cape Town’s central rail line. Until recently this was the city’s busiest route, connecting some of our poorest communities with centres of social, educational and economic opportunity.

Under the new leadership of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s (PRASA) efforts are being made to halt the theft and vandalism and repair the maintenance backlogs which have left numerous stations completely gutted. But SCOPA’s chairperson, Mkhuleko Hlengwa, made some damning remarks about PRASA’s management decisions.

Describing PRASA’s decision some years ago to cancel a security contract as “reckless, irresponsible,” and inconsistent with proper financial management, Hlengwa also reportedly emphasized that the collapsed service needs to be restored. He said SCOPA would now “assess whether that correction is done with the necessary speed, urgency, and within budget.”

Hlengwa said that “at the heart of a functional economy is a functional railway”, and this could not be more true. The City of Cape Town recognises that a collapsed passenger rail service is a social and economic disaster that hits our poorest and most vulnerable communities hardest.

We absolutely cannot wait any longer for rail to once again become the backbone of our public transport system. It is the only mass people mover used in any developed or developing city in the world, and remains the cheapest mode of travel. As the cost of living continues to skyrocket, transport costs, especially for lower income households, represent a considerable and disproportionate percentage of daily expenditure.

The City’s feasibility study will assess the costs and requirements of operating an efficient, safe, reliable, affordable passenger rail service in Cape Town, in line with the White Paper on National Rail Policy which allows the transfer of rail functions to municipalities that have the necessary resources and capacity.

Our preliminary findings show that an efficient passenger rail service will save lower-income households in Cape Town up to R930-million per year; sustain over 51,000 direct and indirect jobs; and contribute significantly to Cape Town’s economic growth, with an R11-billion benefit to the local economy each year.

According to the analysis, a fully restored and functional passenger rail service will save Cape Town and its residents R82 billion over a 20-year period:

  • The biggest saving is in vehicle operating costs, including fuel and maintenance costs: R31 billion over a 20-year period;
  • The second biggest is congestion time cost savings: more than R30 billion over a 20-year period;
  • The third biggest is casualty costs savings, related to death and injuries caused by vehicle accidents and crashes: R11 billion over 20 years. The risk of an accident is far higher for road-based transport than for a train trip; and
  • The fourth biggest is vehicle crash cost savings related to repairs and incidents: nearly R9 billion over 20 years.

We are committed to doing everything possible to see Cape Town’s service restored to its full operational capacity. Collaboration and cooperation, in good faith, between the City and PRASA, along with other spheres of government, is critical. Our call for cooperative governance is driven primarily by the interests of vulnerable communities.

The City of Cape Town is making progress with the rail feasibility study, and although this research is focused on our functional area, we believe that the work will be helpful to other competent municipalities in the country. The work we are doing will complement the Rail Devolution Strategy led by the National Department of Transport. The City has crafted a status-quo assessment that we believe is replicable anywhere in South Africa, and we are more than happy to share findings and recommendations with other government entities who are willing and able to take responsibility for operating the rail service within their area.

The City of Cape Town has chosen to drive the Rail Devolution agenda and to reap the benefits for residents.

Hlengwa reportedly went on to say that “there will of course need to be bailouts and subsidies” for PRASA to continue to fix its considerable problems. It is vital that we understand what subsidies and bailouts will be allocated. Any such funding must take into account the protection of infrastructure and the need for repairs and maintenance. It would also be important to know what subsidies will be available to support effective public-private partnerships, for the benefit of our communities.

PRASA’s decision to cancel its security contract left the door open to the establishment of the hundreds of informal houses on train tracks during lockdown.

Newly appointed Group CEO, Hishaam Emeran, has inherited an unenviable set of challenges. However, there simply isn’t time to dwell on previous failures or point fingers. We need to remain focused on removing the obstacles to transferring operation of the service to the City of Cape Town, and indeed other municipalities with the capacity to do so. We need to keep looking ahead, working together to achieve the shared goal of providing residents with a safe, reliable, and affordable passenger rail service.

Quintas is Mayco Member for Urban Mobility at the City of Cape Town.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Prasa / Metrorail

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