Tackling overcrowding on our trains

By Stephen Ngobeni

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I’M A big fan of innovation – real innovation – and, certainly, over the next few years South Africans are going to have to increasingly stretch their brains to overcome a variety of tricky challenges, of which spiralling fuel costs, electricity shortages, overstretched and aging sewerage systems, rampant crime and overcrowded transport modes will all be competing for attention.

Most of the challenges I’ve just mentioned – except, perhaps, for the problems over the piping and treatment of poo – affect the operations of Metrorail to a greater or lesser degree. For instance, we have made remarkable progress in improving security on our trains.

But by far our biggest problem centres on overcrowding.

The key question … the question that we’ve been wracking our brains over for years … the question that is shouting at us to come up with an answer in the light of massive fuel increases that are forcing increasing numbers of people to use public transport … is: “What can we do to alleviate this overcrowding?”

Or to put it another way: What can we do to ensure a safe and more comfortable journey for the hundreds of thousands of commuters who, every day, choose Metrorail to ferry them to and from work, school, college and university?

There is one thing that may seem patently obvious – but which I would like to highlight: nothing about public transport in this country is simple. It would therefore be a big mistake to look at rail’s problems in black and white, or in terms of A, B and C.

That is why I am disappointed – and, okay, I’ll admit it, irritated – by the response of Albert Schuitmaker, the CEO of the Cape Chamber of Commerce to my call for staggered working and school hours as a possible solution to the problem of overcrowding in the Western Cape.

Mr Schuitmaker’s suggestion that Metrorail “buy more trains” is a glib, unhelpful response to a complex problem. It is certainly not the type of contribution I would have expected to hear from a person who acts as a spokesperson for big business in the Western Cape – and who ought to know the background to many of the transport challenges that are being debated in our province today.

Let me make a few things clear….

Metrorail would love to put more – new – trains into service. And we have a simple reason for wanting to do this: we want to give our commuters the best that we can afford. I cannot emphasize this enough.

In recent times, we’ve raised the issue about the refurbishment of train sets in a number of forums, including Parliament… we’ve argued (eloquently, I believe) that we cannot refurbish year after year – especially if (as has happened) year after year becomes decade after decade.

But there are constraints – and these should be well known to people like Mr Schuitmaker.

The chief among these is funding (in capital letters). Let me reiterate at this point that for almost four decades the State made little or no investment in rail.

While this is not the time to go into the reasons for this – or to apportion blame – there have been consequences, and the chief among these is that we are being forced to play catch up today.

I readily acknowledge that overcrowding and a myriad other problems arising it, do not add up to a pleasant experience for train commuters. However, as the manager of Metrorail in the Western Cape, I intend and, indeed, I am already doing something, to rectify the situation.

The question that could be asked, of course, is: “What?” And, arising from this: “How?”

At this point I would like to tell readers – and train commuters – about something that they will never see me doing. They will NEVER see me raising a white flag of surrender….

I relish the challenge of helping to turn Metrorail in the Western Cape into a commuter service that we can all be proud of.

I accept that Metrorail will not be given billions of rands to buy new trains tomorrow, next year or even in two years time. But I will not be tearing out my hair and crying, “Woe is me!” People who know me describe me as a proactive person – and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I fully agree with them.

At the beginning of this article, I spoke about “innovation” – and “innovation” is exactly what I intend employing.

I am going to be what I’ve always been – innovative … and a person who is well known for quickly turning plans into action. Indeed, the discussions that I have initiated with the departments of Transport and Public Works, and Education over the issue of staggered work and school hours show how seriously I regard the matter.

And that’s not all: over the next few weeks, I will also be initiating discussions with businesses and unions – to explore common ground on these issues with them.

I know that there are a number of matters that will need to be discussed; in the light of the debate that I have sparked, some of these issues have already become apparent. Others will emerge as we delve deeper into subject.

And that’s great … that’s why people have ideas, and that’s why many of them love having these ideas tested in various public forums.

The biggest mistake that we can make in this time of “business unusual” for our country is to stifle innovation with comments such as: “If it ain’t broke, why try to fix it?”

As far as flexi-hours are concerned, it is a spurious argument, which I counter like this: Sometimes, if you wait for something to break, you may well find that you “ain’t got the time to fix it.”

Last week, at the height of the debate over staggered work and school hours, a copy of a letter to a newspaper landed on my desk. I won’t go into context, but It said (among other things)….

“In the search for ways to cut down on rush-hour congestion and prevent Metro from losing money, it seems that the very principle of public transportation has been forgotten.

“The overcrowding during peak times is not due to a sheep mentality that leads hundreds of thousands to choose to shove themselves onto overcrowded trains. It is due to the fact that these people begin and end their workdays at approximately the same time.

“Unless the government and large corporations decide to stagger work hours, huge numbers of people still have to get from Point A to Point B every morning and evening along the same routes.

It was signed by Jessica Clarke – of Washington DC – and it appeared in the Washington Post newspaper.

This just goes to show that Cape Town is not the only city wrestling with overcrowding on our trains. It’s a global problem, with even rail administrators in the capital city of the world’s last remaining “Superpower” being told to alleviate congestion –quickly and innovatively.

Canadian politician Ron Johnson once described innovation as “the amazing connection between someone’s imagination and the reality in which they live. The problem is, many companies [and certain people too, judging by some of the reaction to my suggestion] don’t have great imagination; their view of reality tells them that it’s impossible to do what they imagine.”

My call to all who believe that we can build a more efficient – and comfortable – public transport system in our province is: “Let’s talk about it … let’s plan it … and then, dammit, let’s go out and make it happen….”


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