Chalk this post up under frustrated rants. It’s no secret that Metrorail, the passenger rail service for Cape Town, has had its share of negative attention over the past several years. A prolonged lack of investment in infrastructure, mismanagement, corruption, theft/vandalism, and lack of coordination between city and national governments are among the many reasons cited as causing the long-term deterioration of a service that is vital for a huge proportion of Capetonians. Efficient, high capacity public transport connecting people to jobs has always been essential in order to overcome the extreme spatial segregation established under apartheid rule and further entrenched in the post-apartheid era (a topic that deserves its own separate post). Black township residents in particular depend on public transport to access jobs, services, and amenities that are not available locally. In theory, Metrorail should be the most efficient, affordable, cost-effective method of achieving this.
The chronic problems plaguing Metrorail and its parastatal owner, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (“PRASA”) have resulted in constant delays and poor service. These issues seem to be on the rise, leading many Capetonians to dub Metrorail as “Metrofail”. Very recently, Metrorail was required to shut down the entire Central Line, which serves the largest township areas in Cape Town. While Metrorail provided some alternative means of transport via vouchers for commuter bus service, many commuters were forced to pay (again) for other forms of transport, most notably the minibus taxi service.
One of my most fulfilling, and (I think) most environmentally impactful, personal decisions has been to go (mostly) car-free for over ten years. I am in the privileged position of being able to choose to live this way, in part because I have the resources to make other choices (e.g. where I live, how I work, which other transport services I use) that mitigate the impact of being car-free. Many people aren't lucky to have this choice, but still rely on public transportation. Of course, depending on public transportation can be aggravating at times, but I often am thankful I don’t have to deal with navigating the issues of traffic, parking, etc. that come with using a car, not to mention the financial costs of car-ownership as well as associated negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts.
I’ve used Metrorail a fair amount while living in Cape Town, but have been burned enough times now to limit my reliance on it and use it selectively. My last two experiences definitely go under the aggravating column, not so much because of delays, but because of my perception about how poorly the problems were handled. On the first occasion in mind, I was traveling for a meeting that required me to leave the main Cape Town Station during the peak evening commute period. When I arrived, I found that train display boards both outside and inside of the turnstiles were not functioning. As a result, it was difficult (impossible for someone without prior knowledge) to tell which trains were arriving at particular tracks, and whether those trains were arriving late or on time. Although Metrorail staff were making audio announcements regarding train departures, these were nearly impossible to hear or understand. As a result, I (along with a majority of the passengers going my direction) boarded one train and waited nearly an hour in sweltering conditions while two other trains on the same line arrived and departed before us.
My second recent poor experience occurred during the closure of the Central Line mentioned above. I arrived at Cape Town Station to buy my ticket, only to find the lines four times longer than usual. The cause of the long lines were ticket holders seeking refunds due to the Central Line closure. The tedious process of filing a refund significantly slowed down the progress of the lines, which were mixed between ticket purchasers and refund seekers. Fortunately, although I missed the train I had originally meant to take, I made the next (and last) train in time. I imagine others did not however, or forwent the train altogether, which probably cost Metrorail additional ticket sales.
In my opinion, both of these experiences could have been mitigated by relatively simple planning and organizational decisions. For example, in the case of the display boards not working, Metrorail could have provided for several floating staff people to direct passengers to the next departing train. Similarly, in the case of the long ticket lines, on-hand staff could have separated lines between ticket purchasers and ticket holders seeking refunds. These sort of steps should be made a standard part of contingency plans for times when elements of normal operations are disrupted. While this might require some additional staff or resources, I would imagine their costs would easily be made up for by the revenue made (or preserved) through ticket sales.
Scheduling delays, frequency, and on-time performance are of course very serious issues that require more profound action, particularly funding and better top-level management. However, these issues are unnecessarily compounded by poor operational decision-making on the ground, which exacerbates Metrorail’s problems and leads to more negative perceptions than would otherwise be the case. While pressuring for more consistent and long-term investment in the rail lines, these operational aspects seem like good places to achieve more immediate returns.
Obviously I don’t full know the full scope and spectrum of challenges that Metrorail management and employees face, and I feel certain that most of them are trying to do their best given the constraints. However, I think it is obvious that things could be better, and that some fresh thinking about how to serve passengers, their customers, would help both customers and Metrorail. Given that public transportation is such a vital component to moving towards a more sustainable urban future, it is critical that we get this right.