Cape Town Takes Control of its Public Transport Network

cape town transit

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Today is the 18th October, the day when the City of Cape Town will launch its new Transport Authority. From as far back as 2000, calls have been made for such a metropolitan authority to be established to attend to the city’s (and indeed the region’s) transport needs, in an integrated and co-ordinated fashion. This is certainly a commendable step, which will inevitably make it easier for the City to co-ordinate the various modes of transport into one integrated system.

Of these modes, rail deserves the most urgent attention. Between 50- and 60% of Cape Town’s daily public transport users rely on trains. Trains, unlike busses, take commuters off roads, ease congestion and deterioration caused by motorised traffic, and lead to fewer collisions. In February 2012, it was announced that Cape Town would be given “control” over the management of Metrorail’s services within the city (in terms of the recent National Land Transport Act). However, there seems to be a great deal of confusion over what exactly this will entail.

Metrorail operates the country’s urban rail commuter networks, and is owned by the Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (PRASA), a state-owned enterprise under the auspices of the Department of Transport. On weekdays, Metrorail transports over 1,7 million passengers daily. During the 90s, through an underinvestment in South Africa’s commuter rail network (and other infrastructure too), Metrorail was characterised by a lack of capacity, outdated rolling stock and technology, with maintenance becoming reactive rather than preventative. This in turn led to overcrowding and a general decline in services. Moreover, the service became associated with crime and safety concerns and problems with train delays. In this regard, there is certainly space for a City Transport Authority to exert pressure in terms of how the service is managed.

However, despite these past failures on the part of Metrorail, there has recently been a turnaround at national level, with the Department of Transport announcing its plan to invest billions in rolling stock infrastructure over the next two decades, with new trains planned to enter the service in 2014. The ‘30 ways Metrorail has improved in 30 weeks’, covered in a previous article at Future Cape Town, demonstrates this renewed effort on the part of Department of Transport and PRASA. PRASA’s new CEO, Lucky Montana seems to be playing a leading role in this regard.

What function then is a City Transport Authority to perform in terms of rail transport if Metrorail already seems to be improving its service through an emphasis on better management? This is where the confusion arises: exactly how much control is the City to have over the management of Metrorail’s services. While some sources report that Cape Town will be given “control” over the management of Metrorail’s services, PRASA’s Montana seems to prefer the view that the City’s role is to be more limited.

Montana seems to believe that the City’s expectation is based on an incorrect interpretation of the National Land Transport Act. His view is that the municipality’s role will be limited to planning an integrated system, telling PRASA what the city’s needs are, and then PRASA can then plan operations in line with these plans.

It is certainly hoped that during October Transport Month this confusion will be resolved. The sooner PRASA (and therefore Metrorail), the City, and the Department of Transport can reach some agreement on what exactly each stakeholder’s role will be, the sooner we can improve our rail service.

Ultimately, the goal is to have a safe, efficient rail commuter system, used by a cross-section of the city’s population and that we can all be proud of.

Sean Dayton is a Law student at the University of Cape Town and contributor to Future Cape Town – a This Big City partner site.