How close is Cape Town to taking over commuter rail?

Fikile Mbalula has been ignoring the mayor’s letters. Activists are now threatening legal action against the transport minister.

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Metrorail across the country is in disarray yet Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula has taken no steps to devolve responsibility for commuter rail to municipalities. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

  • The mayor of Cape Town has been asking the minister of transport to devolve responsibility for commuter rail from national government to the City.
  • But Minister Mbalula has ignored Mayor Hill-Lewis’s correspondence.
  • The law provides for commuter rail to be devolved to municipal level. So commuter activist group #UniteBehind has threatened to launch litigation if Mbalula fails to make progress.

Commuter activist group #UniteBehind says it will launch litigation in the new year to compel the Minister of Transport to hasten the local control of commuter rail to municipalities or provincial governments, also known as devolution, if they do not see concrete progress.

#UniteBehind director Zackie Achmat told GroundUp that the case will be against the minister and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), and will cite the City of Cape Town.

Devolution of rail has long been government policy, but to date there has been little progress or coordination to achieve this, either by national government or from municipalities. According to the National Land Transport Act of 2009 (NLTA), commuter rail should be located ”in the appropriate sphere of government”.

The City of Cape Town appears to be ready to claim its responsibilities for commuter rail. On 13 December, Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis released a statement, which argued that the persistently poor performance of PRASA “confirms the urgency for rail devolution”.

Hill-Lewis said that there is no hope of the national government turning around passenger rail and they need to start planning for the handover process without delay.

He said that the City was moving ahead with completing its Rail Feasibility Study, a necessary first step before devolution can be implemented, but that the City required “access to all institutional, financial and technical information associated with operating the current rail system in Cape Town” from PRASA.

Correspondence from the City to minister for transport Fikile Mbalula shows that the City has been attempting to push ahead with devolution. On 23 May, Hill-Lewis wrote to Mbalula to propose establishing a working committee composed of City and Department of Transport officials to discuss how commuter rail could be devolved to the City, in line with the National Rail Policy that Mbalula had gazetted earlier this year. No reply was received.

Then on 18 August, Hill-Lewis wrote to Mbalula, saying that the City had begun a feasibility study into the devolution and assignment of rail on 1 July 2022, and that a conceptual report was due at the end of September.

Hill-Lewis requested a meeting and asked for information that the City could use to inform their plans to take over commuter rail from PRASA. Once again, no reply.

On 1 December, Hill-Lewis wrote a further follow-up letter to Mbalula, noting that the minister had not replied to either of his preceding letters, and yet again asked to meet with the minister to discuss the devolution of rail to the municipal government.

In May this year, the Department of Transport released its National Rail Policy White Paper, which “acknowledges the importance of devolving public transport functions to the lowest level of government”. But just days before, on 28 April, Mbalula seemed to pour cold water on hastening devolution, tweeting: “Any suggestions that the Minister of Finance has given a green light for commuter rail takeover by the City of Cape Town is inaccurate. Only the Minister of Transport can assign a public transport function to another sphere of government.”

#UniteBehind has been calling for the devolution of commuter rail since 2017, and has been writing to the City of Cape Town since 2020, arguing that it must be pursued proactively.

In a letter to Hill-Lewis in June this year, Achmat wrote that the NLTA places the responsibility for integrated land transport with local government, especially metropolitan municipalities.

But there has been little coordination to achieve this.

A 2014 submission from the Financial and Fiscal Commission to the City of Cape Town said that the “municipality [the City of Cape Town] cannot fully achieve all these functions [described in the NLTA] without also having control over rail”.

In 2015, PRASA and the City of Cape Town signed a memorandum of action from which very little action flowed, which acknowledged that there was, at that stage, “a strong push from national government … for the devolution of rail to the metros.”

In 2017, the City’s transport authority, then under Brett Herron, published the Business Plan for the Assignment of Urban Rail, which presented the metro’s transport authority’s case for devolving rail and starting the assignment process immediately. But, again, despite there being a clear crisis in commuter rail (and then not yet anywhere near its lowest point), there was no action.

But Hill-Lewis’s statement suggests that the City is ready to forge ahead with assuming responsibility for commuter rail.

In a 12 December letter to #UniteBehind, Neil Slingers, the City’s Director of Transport Planning and Network Management, said that the City will develop a service level plan for rail “on a corridor basis”, in terms of the NLTA, together with PRASA. Slingers writes that the City intends to have “urban rail devolved from the National Department of Transport”.

According to #UniteBehind, in a 22 September 2022 letter to the City, a service level plan is “the enforcement mechanism that ensures control, monitoring and oversight over PRASA. A properly drafted and implemented service level plan will give effect to the City’s constitutional duty.”

“The City of Cape Town has control over the safety of commuters - it has been the law since 2009 but has never been applied. The step by the mayor and City is critical and starts a new path. Now, the City has committed to immediately start with the drafting of a service level plan in consultation with PRASA as required by law,” Achmat told GroundUp.

“Mbalula will go to Luthuli House after his election as ANC Secretary-General. Now is the chance for President Cyril Ramaphosa to appoint a Minister of Transport with substance.

“Will the Minister instruct PRASA to enter into service level plans with all municipalities and the Gauteng government without delay?” Achmat asked.

We do not know, because we sent detailed questions to the Department of Transport, and just as with the mayor of Cape Town, we also received no reply.

TOPICS:  Prasa / Metrorail

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