Survey reveals massive decline in rail passengers over the last ten years

The number of Metrorail passenger journeys have dropped by 46-million since 2013, but gains have been made over the last year

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Nationally, the number of rail passenger journeys decreased from 49.2-million in June 2013 to just 3.2-million in June 2023, but there has been a significant increase in journeys on Metrorail over the past year. Photo: Steve Kretzmann

  • Stats SA’s latest transport survey shows how rail as a means of public transport has declined over the last ten years.
  • Corruption at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), theft and destruction of rail infrastructure and the Covid lockdown likely all contributed to the decade-long failure.
  • But there has been a significant increase in the number of rail passenger journeys over the last year.

There were 46-million fewer train trips by South Africans in June 2023 than there were a decade ago, according to the latest Stats SA Land and Transport Survey.

According to the survey, there were 3.2-million passenger journeys on Metrorail services where they operate in the Western Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and Eastern Cape during June 2023, whereas the 2013 survey showed 49.2-million passenger journeys in June of that year.

Grand-scale corruption at PRASA, destruction of the rail network as well as the fact that most of the rail network wasn’t operational during the Covid lockdown are the reasons for the drastic drop in passenger numbers.

However, nationwide train passenger journeys have tripled over the last year, with just more than one million recorded in June 2022 compared to the 3.2-million recorded in June 2023.

DA Western Cape Spokesperson on Infrastructure Matlhodi Maseko said they would invite PRASA to the provincial parliament’s Standing Committee on Infrastructure so that the rail agency could provide their plans for timeously repairing rail infrastructure in the Western Cape.

“All rail infrastructure projects are currently at a standstill,” said Maseko. She said although the Western Cape Department of Infrastructure lacks a formal mandate, it aims to play an active role in restoring train services.

She said the department of Infrastructure has sent multiple letters to PRASA offering assistance to address crucial rail infrastructure issues, but these letters have received no response.

Calls for Devolution

The Land and Transport Survey’s figures follow recent calls for rail services in Cape Town to be devolved from PRASA to the metropolitan municipality.

In May 2022, Cabinet passed the White Paper on National Rail Policy which commits to devolving rail to capable metros, and to producing a Rail Devolution Strategy in 2023.

Following extended efforts to get PRASA to sign a Service Level Agreement as a first step towards a devolution process, Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis earlier this month stated the City would follow an Intergovernmental Dispute Resolution processes should President Cyril Ramaphosa not respond to a request to create a joint working committee on rail devolution by 31 August.

The presidency has responded by saying “it wouldn’t respond to threats in this regard”.

Hill-Lewis has stated the City’s ongoing Rail Feasibility Study which aims to chart the way to the devolution of rail, found an efficient passenger rail service in Cape Town would save lower-income households R932-million a year. An efficient service would also sustain more than 51,000 jobs and contribute R11-billion to the local economy.

Cape Town Transport Plan

In response to a media query, Mayco Member for Urban Mobility Rob Quintas said the fall in the number of people using the train was directly related to the overall decline in rail services and the limited number of trains running.

Quintas said rail should be the “backbone of public transport” and was included as such in the City’s long term public transport planning. Quintas said rail was the most efficient and cost-effective mode of public transport in the world, primarily because it is not constrained by congestion, as is the case with road-based transport.

“Commuter rail is included in the City’s Integrated Public Transport Network Plan (IPTN) 2032 as one of the trunk services due to the extent of the rail network in the City’s area and the large carrying capacity of rail,” he said.

The City’s latest Comprehensive Integrated Transport Plan states only 2% of commuters in the city currently use rail (a massive decline for the period 2012 – 2022). Meanwhile, roads are congested with 58% of commuters using private vehicles, 22% using minibus-taxis, and 9% using bus services. Nearly 10% of commuters walk to their destination.

PRASA response

PRASA spokesperson Andiswa Makanda said the sharp decline in passenger numbers has been due to deterioration of the the network, and theft and vandalism of passenger rail infrastructure during the Covid lockdown.

Makanda said PRASA has embarked on a programme to recover, rebuild and reopen corridors. “Train passengers have reacted positively to these developments and are returning in their numbers across our network, in Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal.

“We are recovering more stations for people to have access to the services and the national resignaling programme will ensure we increase the frequency of our trains and bring in more customers,” she said.

She said PRASA regularly attended meetings with the City of Cape Town and relevant departments of the Western Cape Government where they provided updates on PRASA’s programme for recovery of the rail corridors in the Western Cape. “They have all the information on our plans to deliver safe, affordable, and reliable train services in Cape Town.”

She said that they had recovered 18 corridors nationally and plan to recover a further 16 corridors in the current financial year.

TOPICS:  Prasa / Metrorail

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