Metrorail used to transport around 700-million people a year in the 1980s. Today, however, it is moving 300-million people a year.
“We are sitting at an unprecedented level in terms of the performance of our trains,” says Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) strategic network planning GM Hishaam Emeran.
PRASA operates the urban Metrorail system.
Metrorail is currently failing to contribute to an effective transport system, notes Emeran, with the system suffering from overcrowding, slow journey times (despite having the right of way), irregular timetables, lack of off-peak services and poor modal integration.
The system also faces poor levels of reliability and predictability.
The railway, infrastructure and technology have all reached the end of its design lifespan, says Emeran.
Passenger and staff safety have become another major concern.
“Maintenance costs are shooting through the roof,” says Emeran.
He says Metrorail has become a “mode of force”, with its users willing to “use any other mode” if possible.
Emeran says rail’s 2013 public transport market share of 13% “is too low” for a mode of transport that has been identified as the backbone of public transport in South Africa.
He believes, however, that a long list of PRASA capital projects will eventually secure a return of Metrorail ridership.
Five-hundred-and-eighty new trains, with delivery from a local plant to start later this year, will be able to travel at 120 km/h, and at higher frequency.
A new signalling system will, technically, allow for trains every three minutes.
Metrorail stations and interchanges are being modernised, while there is also a focus on providing real-time information at the stations and on the Internet, improved ticketing and safety and security.
The ticketing system will be revamped in a R4-billon project that should see a move towards smart cards by November 2019, with 2022 delivering a payment system that is fully integrated with other modes of public transport, says Emeran.
He notes that PRASA has a capital commitment from government to execute all these projects, with a large portion of the projects already funded, including the one to raise the platforms at Metrorail stations.
Emeran says the height of the platforms was an issue before the arrival of the first new trains, with distance-to-platform also a problem with the old trains.
When moving beyond urban rail, Emeran says PRASA has the opportunity to improve the journey time from Johannesburg to Cape Town from between 35 and 28 hours, to 15 hours, should it be able to increase traveling speed to 120 km/h.
This will compare favourably with long-distance bus services, he notes.
High-speed train solutions are still at a planning level, he adds.
* Emeran spoke at Africa Rail, held in Johannesburg this week.