ANALYSIS: The Rail Crisis In Cape Town: Causes and Solutions

By Lucky Montana

FORMER PRASA CEO Lucky Montana looks at the rail crisis in the Cape Metropole in the wake of the departure of now former Councillor Brett Heron and the now suspended “super-able, strategist and hard-working Executive-Director, Melissa Whitehead”. 


The train situation in the Cape Metropole has deteriorated to unprecedented and unacceptable levels over the past 18 months. This is affecting a significant section of the commuting public that is dependent on train services. The transport crisis is a major concern to everyone. It has become the number one public issue in the City.

However, and in typical South African style, the focus has been on apportioning blame than exploring real solutions to the challenges. Whilst a detailed analysis of the rail crisis suggests that PRASA and Cape Metrorail should take the primary responsibility for the deepening transport crisis that the City faces today, the other role-players have contributed to the crisis in various ways.

This is a major crisis facing the City but that also presents huge opportunities that should not be missed. The crisis provides a perfect opportunity to change the way things are done, and most importantly, the opportunity to create the public transport of the future for the City.

Cape Town has two major strategic advantages to enable the City to achieve its transport goals. Unlike other cities like Johannesburg where business and developments relocated away from the city, Cape Town’s city centre remains at the heart of Cape Town, with major investments or developments taking place in and around it. Secondly, the rail system in the City has unique features compared to the rest of the country, including the high number of commuters still using rail as well as the fact that some of the latest rail technologies were tested in the Cape. This creates a solid base for success.

The Dominant Narrative

The dominant narrative in the media about the transport situation in the Western Cape and the crisis of commuter rail unfortunately is driven by political groupings with no history of involvement with transport issues and rail in particular. The media have unfortunately given so much space to the views of Zachie Achmat, his “UniteBehind” NGO and the views published in the online publication “GroundUp”.

At the heart of their position is the false assertion that the crisis facing commuter rail in Cape Town is as a result of “State Capture” and “corruption”. To support their position, they have tried to link the rail crisis to the Public Protector Report “Derailed” of August 2015 and various reports of the forensic investigation commissioned by National Treasury. They seem not to understand both the operational and investment issues and challenges that are at the heart of the rail crisis in the Cape.

It is important to address this matter directly so that this does not affect the search for real solutions for the transport challenges facing the City. The first thing is that these NGOs do not understand the very purpose of the Public Protector Report and the forensic reports from National Treasury. Let us explain:

Unlike public perceptions, the Public Protector in her report titled “Derailed” never made a single finding of corruption at PRASA. Her findings were about various acts that she regarded as irregular and constituted maladministration. She deferred almost half of the allegations, (including the allegation that excites so many people that Lucky Montana travelled with 10 ladies on the Blue Train) to a final report which she promised to finalize within six (6) months. Three years later, there is still no report on the deferred items.

Adv. Thuli Madonsela could not respond to my Review Application of September 2015 as well as the detailed Supplementary Affidavit of February 2016 specifically addressing the huge factual inaccuracies in “Derailed”. She left office late in 2016 without finalizing her report and the deferred items or responding in Court to the Review Application. She realized that she was wrong and that she has been used to fight political battles.

One positive thing from Adv. Thuli Madonsela though is that when she could not find evidence of corruption, she did not make up the story. She put forward as the main Remedial Action of her Report that National Treasury institute a forensic investigation into PRASA contracts of R10 million and above. This was her main remedial action because she wanted to satisfy herself that there was no corruption. In this regard, she demonstrated fairness and consistency.

For further reading on this matter, find link hereto to the Review Application of September 2015 and the Supplementary Affidavits of February 2016.

The Remedial Action was implemented by National Treasury which commissioned the forensic investigation. The forensic reports were leaked to the media even before investigations were completed. This is after Popo Molefe and Werksmans realized that the findings did not support the narrative about “massive corruption” at PRASA. Again, the various reports from the Treasury forensic investigation, have not made a single finding of fraud or corrupt.

At most, these reports indicate a poor control environment within PRASA, that employees exceeded their delegated authority and that the procurement of goods and services through the “confinement” method was not rigorous enough and could have been open to the risk of abuse and in breach of treasury regulations. The PRASA SCM Policy provided for confinement in the form of emergency or single sourcing procurement, which required prior approval or ratification of its Group CEO.

The report of the Public Protector and the forensic reports commissioned by National Treasury had made no single finding of corruption, something which is repeated so gleefully in the front pages of our newspapers or publications such as “GroundUp”. The attempt to link the rail crisis in Cape Town to “State Capture” by Zachie Achmat is not only far-fetched but lacks any factual basis.

Many of us are not surprised though by the posture of Zachie Achmat, “UniteBehind” and “GroundUp”. These NGOs were specifically created specifically to take up PRASA issues under the guise of fighting corruption. They specifically emerged around the time when Popo Molefe and his Board were being fired by Former Transport Minister, Joe Maswanganyi.

Zachie Achmat, “UniteBehind” and “GroundUp” were fed information by Group Legal at PRASA and Werksmans Attorneys to challenge decisions of the Interim Board that attempted to undo the damage caused by Popo Molefe. They were fed information to hound and damage the reputation of the former Board Chairman, Judge Tintswalo Makhubela. Whenever the Board of PRASA was about to take a decision that will not support the illegal work of Werksmans Attorneys, documents will be leaked, with “UniteBehind” and/or “GroundUp” serving PRASA with urgent court papers.

Zachie Achmat, “UniteBehind” and “GroundUp” are silent on the real corruption at PRASA under Popo Molefe, including the finding by the Auditor-General that the appointment of and payments made to Werksmans Attorneys amounting to almost R200 million is irregular.

Many commuter organizations and trade unions are clear about Zachie Achmat and his NGOs. They have made it clear that Zachie Achmat and his NGOs only represent themselves. They are a small group rented by Popo Molefe and Werksmans Attorneys to make noise on matters they have little knowledge of. They lack intimate knowledge of the problems and challenges facing commuter rail in the Cape or throughout South Africa. They are given huge media space but they do not have the support on the ground.

Having disposed of the politics of the “rented crowd”, perhaps it is time to focus on the real issues facing commuter rail in Cape Town.

Understanding the Problem

Unless the key stakeholders have a common understanding of the nature of the crisis, there will not be a platform for united action to address the crisis. Everyone has been focusing on criminality and vandalism and how these have affected services to poor working-class communities and their families. Others have suggested that there is a deliberate plan to “sabotage” the rail system in the Western Cape.

There is no doubt that criminality, vandalism and possible deliberate sabotage are major contributors to the deepening crisis facing Cape Metrorail and these need to be investigated and dealt with quite urgently. However, these are not the root cause of the transport crisis facing Cape Town today.

How should we characterise the crisis?

(1) A Crisis of Capacity

The transport crisis in Cape Town is first and foremost a crisis of capacity. For the past five (5) years until 2025, Cape Town requires at least 140 train sets in its public transport system to deliver a quality service to its people. Unfortunately, only 95 had been available since 2007/08, with 88 in operation and seven (7) spare sets.

A Detailed Feasibility Study approved by Cabinet in 2011 details the requirements for new commuter trains over a 20-year period in the six metropolitan areas where Metrorail operates. This information is in many ways supported by the National Travel Survey as well as latest transport studies that underpin many Integrated Transport Plans [ITPs) of the various Cities.

However, the last census conducted by Stats SA provides insight into the biggest challenges that will face our cities as a result of migration and growth in population in Gauteng and the Western Cape in particular. This growth will impact on infrastructure delivery and the demands for new services in the major cities. In concrete terms, the demand for rail services in Cape Town will be even higher beyond 2025.

The existing train system in Cape Town and the country as a whole, is simply outdated. At the heart of the crisis is the ageing rail fleet driven by 1950s technology, the outdated signaling technology dating back to the 1930s, lack of solid operational management, lack of critical skills, as well as service-designs and timetable. This has created a situation where Metrorail is unable, from a capacity point of view, to meet increasing commuter demands for rail services and fulfill its legal responsibilities in terms of the Legal Succession to the South African Transport Services Act of 1989, as amended.

Even if vandalism and theft were to be eliminated today, Metrorail will not be able to deliver the services it is being asked to deliver to the people of Cape Town. No amount of shouting, accusations or apportioning blame will change the fact that the Cape Metropole requires immediately and until 2025, an additional 52 train sets, which translate to almost 416 coaches. This is a massive shortage and it is at the heart (root cause) of the transport crisis unfolding today.

A decent service for Cape Town of at least 140 train sets, with each set, depending on its condition, doing anything between 4 – 7 trips a day, plus availability of twelve (12) spare train sets. Such service could see delivery of reliability, on-time performance, safety of operations, passenger comfort (not overcrowded) and providing personal security.

In 2005, the Constitutional Court ruled that Metrorail (then under Transnet) and the SARCC (predecessor to PRASA) had an obligation to ensure safety of passengers and should take reasonable steps to this effect.

(2) Mismanagement of the Existing Metrorail Fleet

PRASA has already procured modern commuter trains that Cape Town and other Cities will require by 2025. These are in the process of being delivered and tested in the network. The future looks bright for commuters in South Africa. However, the failure by Cape Metrorail and PRASA Management team to sustain the existing Metrorail fleet has precipitated the biggest public transport crisis in the City.

It is unacceptable that in less than three years, the availability of the rail commuter fleet in Cape Town has deteriorated from 89 sets to around 67 sets, resulting in a massive decline in train service levels. The reliability of the fleet and infrastructure has declined significantly due to poor and/or lack of maintenance. It would seem that reliability no longer counts. Management seem not to have made the right decisions on how to salvage the existing fleet.

The concerns raised by Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape that “we will soon be below 40 train sets in the Cape Town” are well founded and should be addressed as a matter of urgency by the PRASA Board and the Minister of Transport.

The situation is equally bad in other cities where Metrorail run its services. Nationally, PRASA train services has declined from an average 87% 5 years ago to almost 42% of the service. This is not only shocking but quite extraordinary.

(3) The Absence of Spare Parts and Mission Critical Components

When the anti-corruption brigade of Popo Molefe took over, one of their first decision after July 2015 was to suspend or cancel key contracts that supported Metrorail operations. Procurement of and supply of components critical to the running of trains were halted. Maintenance staff had to do without stock in Maintenance Depots.

Management could not commit or approve anything. They were afraid that any action will be taken if they procured critical components using emergency provisions under the Supply Chain Management Policy. This is how the system was brought to a complete collapse in just over two years.

The turnaround plan being developed by the Board will not succeed if plans are not made to re-stock the Maintenance Depots, allow private companies to bring skilled workers to work alongside PRASA employees in the depots to revive the fleet and appoint ad-hoc contractors for purpose of fixing key sections of the network.

The Board should obtain the prior approval of National Treasury that the procurement of these services and critical components will be done on emergency basis or sole supplier basis. The law and treasury regulation provide for this kind of interventions, where the situation demand.

(4) Partnership between the City of Cape Town and Metrorail/PRASA

The City of Cape Town under Councillor Brett Heron and the super-able, strategist and hard-working (but now suspended) Executive-Director, Melissa Whitehead had done a tremendous job over the past 5 years. Their plans around Transport for Cape Town (TCT) are truly inspiring. The CTC had the full support of the Executive Mayor, Patricia de Lille for their transport plan. It was a proud moment when the Mayor of Cape Town and the City, joined by other stakeholders, launched at the City Hall TCT and their plans for a better and quality public transport for all.

The City of Cape Town has over the years worked very closely with Metrorail and put resources to contribute to a better rail service in the City, and in particular to support Metrorail and PRASA to improve security on the trains and around train stations. Brett Heron has been a good Councillor, he listened to the other side and focused on the job at hand. This is a man that never allowed politics as a member of the DA or his colleagues to stand in the way of real solutions. He is one politician that gets the job done.

The partnership between the City of Cape Town and PRASA was captured in a Memorandum of Action with a clear set of agreed priorities, including rail expansions in the City such as Blue Downs, Atlantis and Fisantekraal Rail Projects. Already the teams had done impressive work.

In addition, the City and PRASA entered into a separate MOU to facilitate developments within the City. PRASA was keen to use its assets to support the commitment of the City to address access for the people of Cape Town. In particular, PRASA put its weight behind initiatives that would facilitate greater access for poor Coloured and African communities in the South-East Metro. PRASA signed an MOA with the City wherein portions of land owned by PRASA within the City and future station developments would be released for development in a manner that would integrate housing development, spatial transformation and transport delivery.

Notwithstanding the tremendous and inspiring work done by the transport team of the City of Cape Town, there are still serious shortcomings. The transport department in the City had in the past been dominated by engineers with a very strong bias to roads and not public transport. The solution was always road construction and expansions that favoured private car-use.

However, Brett Herron and Mellisa Whitehead understood that the challenges of transport in the City required a massive investment in public transport and that the train system is its centre. They brought the balance to bear on the entire team. They should be credited for bringing this strategic focus on Public Transport.

The City of Cape Town has itself missed major opportunities to advance the cause of public transport in the City. There are three specific areas of concern being highlighted in this regard:

  • Devolution of Rail Services

When the Metrorail crisis in the City was developing, the City of Cape Town was being encouraged by National Treasury to focus its energies on the devolution of rail functions to the City. They had been allocated some funds to undertake a study on devolution. This was to give effect to provisions of the National Land Transport Act (NLTA).

However, this seems a misguided focus. The devolution of rail services will not immediately solve the rail challenges in Cape Town or in the rest of the country. Devolution as provided for in the NLTA should be seen as an “End-State” rather than as an immediate challenge. Devolution has to be carefully managed and properly sequenced. The Department of Transport, through its Rail Policy that is in the process of being finalized, should clarify the end model, the conditions under which devolution could take place, critical success factors, future investment requirements and proposed process and timelines. The current devolution project is driven by Treasury rather than being spearheaded by the relevant Policy Department.

Among the key conditions for the success of devolution will be the densification of the rail corridors to support passenger numbers as well as growing revenues for the system. Any study of cities where rail is under Metropolitan Government will show that this requires high-levels of densification, relatively large cities than ours, high passenger volumes, mixed passenger profiles as well as cross-subsidization of rail operations by real estate/assets/advertising. Hong Kong is perhaps a good example of such a model.

Any attempt to devolve rail services as a short-term objective may trigger the collapse of commuter rail around the country. The current Metrorail system is based on a model of cross-subsidization. If rail functions are devolved in Gauteng and the Western Cape, the operations in the Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal, where passenger numbers and revenues remain low, will have to be shut down or maintained at huge cost to the fiscus.

The Cities do not have the necessary technical expertise to run rail operations and this may take quite a long period to build. The entire country lost its capacity and skills following decades of under-investment in the rail sector. The immediate challenge is to consolidate the skills in the industry through Transnet and PRASA.

No City will be able to meet the investment requirements necessary for the upgrade of the system as the situation demands. If the City of Cape Town demands that rail services be devolved, the City will have to divert huge resources from other pressing municipal priorities towards a fully-functional rail operations.

The personnel involved in rail operations will have to be transferred to the City, including their pension, medical and housing benefits. It will be irresponsible for the Government to approve devolution which could undermine the ability of cities to deliver on their mandate. Our system of Local Government is still evolving and to burden it at this stage with rail operations that are in “ICU” will be highly irresponsible.

It also does not make sense, from a Policy point of view, for Government to capitalize PRASA, acquire new trains and other modern operating equipments, whilst pushing at the same time for devolution of rail functions. This will defeat both efforts. The main immediate task is to stabilize PRASA, restructure this to be a financially-viable entity and start to prepare regional operations as viable, stand-alone operations and businesses. If successful, this could in future provides huge opportunities for private-sector investment in some of the regional rail operations.

(B) Integration of Public Transport Services

The rail crisis provides the City with the opportunity to accelerate the integration of its public transport system. Despite strong public commitment, the City has missed the opportunity to redirect some of the transport services, to integrate the fare structure, schedules and ensure that taxis, buses and trains work together in the best interest of in the City.

In respect of the current transport crisis, the City may have abdicated its legal responsibilities deriving from the National Land Transport Act (NLTA) to plan and integrate transport within the City. This has become urgent in order to bring short-term relieve than allow the public transport crisis to deepen further.

Due to capacity challenges, Cape Metrorail should be required to focus its existing capacity on certain priority corridors and not continue to spread its limited resources as is currently the case. This strategy is simply not working.

The City, supported by the Province, should review certain transport services on the road side, including re-directing non-subsidised services of Golden Arrow. The City may consider contracting additional services from Golden Arrow, small bus operators and taxi services at certain hours. In addition, the City may need to negotiate with SANRAL for the application of counter-flow plans on certain sections of the N1 and N2 at peak hours and use the Parade to complement the Cape Town station.

PRASA could use part of its operational subsidy to contribute to the City meeting its financial obligations for this plan if Treasury does not come to the party.

Transport Engineers and planners may take issue with some of my suggestions but I believe that a crisis of this nature requires us to think outside of the box. If such a transport plan is viable, it would ease the pressure on Metrorail services and bring short-term relieve to the City.

(C). Cape Town International Airport Rail Link

The other opportunity being missed is to enhance public transport in the City and facilitate private sector investment is the Airport Rail Link. A modern City such as Cape Town will require an Airport Rail-Link as a critical part of its transport system This is a long-term planning issue but may be key to the efficiency of the city.

In 2012, PRASA put together a detailed plan to implement a rail-link connecting the City and the Cape Town International Airport Rail Link. The Airport Rail Link was a planned express service between the City and the Airport and would be connected on the existing line, which will be elevated through the median of Borcherds quarry Road with a terminal station at the airport.

There are different options where the choice could be a dedicated railway line from the airport into the city or invest in existing lines to run such a service.

This project would have opened new opportunities and would have enabled PRASA to invest R700 million to open the infrastructure blockages and increase capacity where many of the current services come through the Lavistown and /Bonteheuwel Stations.

The Airport Rail Link will offer new opportunities for integrating the City, more specifically, future lines could link the airport to the Blue Downs area and also create a better link between Metro South East and Belville.

The Airport Rail Link would also enable private sector participation and investment in excess of R2 billion, depending on the option being selected.

The City previously used provisions of the NLTA to object to the implementation of the project claiming that it is the transport authority to make the decision. However, the situation is catching up where key decisions will have to be made sooner rather than later.

(5) Conclusion

The partnership between the City of Cape Town and PRASA is key to the turnaround of the transport crisis facing the City, which has been triggered by the crisis facing Metrorail. However, this is largely a public transport crisis.

The resignation of Brett Heron as Councillor and Mayoral Committee member responsible for transport and housing raises questions whether there is political will or commitment within the City to drive some of the required changes. In interviews he gave after his resignation, Brett Heron mentioned attempts by the DA Caucus to block the release of well-located land for affordable housing in Salt River and Woodstock, as the main reason for his decision to resign. Land, housing and transport are inseparable.

Without political commitment to transform unequal access and build a City for all, strategies to build an integrated transport will not work. The success of Metrorail is so depended on various strategies being implemented by the City, including housing development and densification of key corridors.

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