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March 27, 2024

Revitalisation of Cape Town’s Metrorail Central line on track with potential for greater commuter access

By South African journalist and researcher Ntsika Xuba. First published in Daily Maverick.

The revamping and upgrading of Cape Town’s crucial transport artery, Metrorail’s Central Line, is back on track after the relocation of residents who had built shacks on and occupied the rail corridor.

Four years have passed since Metrorail decided to suspend passenger rail services along the Cape Town central line, a vital route stretching from Cape Town to Kapteinsklip and Chris Hani, due to rampant cable theft and extensive infrastructure damage.

The lax security measures implemented by Prasa, combined with the onset of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, led to illegal occupations along the railway network, posing a significant obstacle to Prasa’s revitalisation plans for the Central Line.

Despite their 2021-24 Corporate Plan emphasising the recovery of this rail corridor, trains are still not operating and their return has been met with delays. Prasa’s 2022-25 Corporate Plan unveils their commitment to rebuilding these corridors and modernising infrastructure, a move eagerly anticipated by commuters.

The focus extends to station amenities and ticket sales technology, aligning with commuters’ expectations. Ex-commuter Sphamandla Ngalo said that “improved efficiency through technological advancement in purchasing and travelling is needed”, while Alulutho Mbendeni said that passenger rail “must use payment technologies like those of the Gautrain or MyCiti”.

While Prasa’s corporate plans primarily highlight socioeconomic benefits, such as heightened economic connectivity, job creation, and a projected 60% reduction in transportation costs for commuters, the introduction of Electrical Multiple Unit (EMU) trains is a positive stride for the environment. These trains reportedly emit less carbon per passenger compared to previous models and other forms of transportation in Cape Town.

Additionally, Prasa envisions a reduction in road congestion and greenhouse gas emissions by up to 100 minibus trips with each passenger rail trip accommodating 1,200 passengers. However, my attempts to secure an interview with Prasa representatives proved futile, leaving us in the dark about any potential in-depth environmental impact assessments. This lack of clarity raises concerns about the overall impact of the rail corridor on environmental safeguarding.

Safety and violence

Ex-commuters have expressed apprehension about their safety, fearing potential sabotage by minibus taxi operators facing reduced profits. Many believe that the financial threat posed by the revitalisation process on taxis will not be met without retaliation, with some pointing out that the taxi industry holds significant authority in local transportation.

A 38-year-old female ex-commuter who experienced violence and mugging on trains stated that “safety is a huge issue, and I would like this to be addressed because thugs take advantage of us in trains as they know we know there isn’t any way out”.

Prasa’s assurance of enhanced safety and security in their 2022-25 Corporate Plan attempts to address these fears, to increase the number of commuters using trains thus reducing road emissions. Prasa’s Passenger Service Charter, outlining standards for Metrorail’s operation, emphasises improved safety and security responses, increased comfort, convenience, and reliability, along with affordable transportation.

Despite these promises, confidence in Prasa’s commitments remains low, including among inhabitants at Philippi Station, who illegally occupied the railway network.

Encroachment near the railway line in Philippi, Cape Town, Aug. 2023. Railway infrastructure has been subject to severe damage, with trains not operational. Photo by Ntsika Xuba.


Prasa’s failure to reclaim the land led to legal action, resulting in an eviction order that includes the provision of alternative emergency occupation for the habitants, with Prasa appointing the Housing Development Agency to undertake land acquisition, planning approval applications, and the relocation of these occupants.

Residents affected by the eviction order expressed scepticism, citing a lack of information and faith in Prasa’s intentions to provide the necessary housing.

A concerned female resident who preferred to stay anonymous stated “we were told to evacuate, especially those of us who live within 10 metres from the railway line, and we don’t mind moving as long as they give us a place to stay,” demonstrating an understanding of the importance of trains being operational again.

Prasa fulfilled its promise, as residents of Philippi Station began to be moved in December 2023. To be placed on a list of recipients of a plot of land, applicants had to apply. After that, they would receive labour, building supplies, transportation for their furniture and building materials to build their new homes.

However, A 28-year-old female resident said, “we have not all moved, there are people that I know that are still in Philippi”. The new housing has now been constructed in an area known as Loyiso, which is sandwiched between the R300 main road and the Stock Road train station.

A 35-year-old male resident explained that they have been provided with portable toilets and unofficial cable connections are used to provide electricity. He also stated that they have poor access to clean drinking water, as they must travel about 1km to collect water twice a week, where they must sacrifice quantity, raising serious sanitary and hygiene issues.

There are also concerns over disputes coming from neighbouring communities, with a concerned 28-year-old female resident of Loyiso stating that “there is a post on social media where people said they don’t want us to live here because the land is important to them”.

Many nearby communities send their young boys to Xhosa initiation schools in this area, where they learn the fundamentals of what it is to be a man. Though they are worried about their safety, the people of Loyiso are optimistic that this dispute will not escalate, and if it does, Prasa will try to settle this dispute.

The City of Cape Town (CoCT), acting as the impartial administrator for the revitalisation process, continues to offer transversal support to Prasa. They view the revitalisation as crucial for connecting commuters to Cape Town’s commercial and industrial sectors.

However, the city questions Prasa’s capability and advocates for devolving passenger rail services to the metro, in line with the White Paper on National Rail Policy from May 2022. In a media statement issued by the City of Cape Town on 3 August 2023, published by PoliticsWeb, the City stated that Prasa expresses a preference for a non-binding memorandum of understanding to collaboratively improve Cape Town’s entire railway system.

The CoCT recently conducted a Rail Feasibility Study supporting the devolution, promising a fully functional passenger railway system that would create over 50,000 jobs, save households up to R932-million ($49-million), save commuters R4-billion ($211-million) in vehicle operating costs and inject R11-billion ($580-million) into the local economy.

This would be in line with Cape Town’s transport strategy of creating a net-zero emissions integrated transport system, which depends heavily on incentivising commuters to use public transport. 

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