Trains in South Africa
(Photo by Gallo Images/Papi Morake)
  • A national survey - conducted last year, before the start of the pandemic - showed that the passenger train service is the least used mode of public transport in South Africa.
  • The number of people who regularly used trains dropped by 80% since 2013. 
  • The average time of a trip on a train has increased by 45% over the past eight years to 107 minutes.
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The total number of daily train commuters in South Africa has dropped to its lowest level on record since the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), compiled by Statistics SA, was first introduced in 2003.

The latest study shows that travelling by train is by far the least popular mode of transportation in South Africa.

South Africans are relying less on trains and more on taxis as a primary mode of public transport to both school and work. The sharp decline in the country’s train services has been laid bare by the latest NHTS results which were released on Thursday using data collected between January and March 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic placed the country under lockdown and further eroded the rail system.

In 2013, the last time the NHTS was conducted, some 700,000 South Africans – representing 13% of the employed population – regularly used trains as to get to and from work. By 2020, that number had dropped by almost 80%, with just 150,000 workers still relying on trains. Less than 2.2% of all households surveyed – across 65,000 dwelling units – reported using trains as their main mode of transport, dropping significantly from the 8.9% recorded in 2013.

Trains in South Africa
National Household Travel Survey (NHTS)

Importantly, this data is limited to just five provinces where passenger rail systems are still operational. This excludes the Northern Cape, Free State, North West and Limpopo, where less than 0.5% of households indicated using the train as a regular form of commute.

Only two provinces in the country – the Western Cape and Gauteng – reported household usage rates above 3%. In 2013, more than 10% of Western Cape households surveyed reported using trains as their made mode of travel. This dropped to just 3.1% in 2020. Similarly, 8.2% of Gauteng households previously relied on trains and that number has since shrunk to 4.2%.

Almost half of all respondents surveyed said that they hadn’t used trains because none were available. At the time of the survey, MetroRail – operated by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) – had been crippled in the Western Cape, due to a spate of vandalism and arson attacks. MetroRail’s Western Cape fleet, which requires 85 trains to adequately service approximately 100 stations, was depleted to just 32 trains by January 2020.

In Gauteng, particularly along Johannesburg’s key PRASA corridors, theft of overhead cables and railway infrastructure drastically reduced MetroRail’s operating capacity even before the coronavirus-induced lockdown halted trains. The only service which has managed to escape the dismantling of the system largely unscathed has been the Gautrain.   

The travel times by train – excluding delays at the platform due to under-capacity – were also cited as a serious point of dissatisfaction. The NHTS revealed that travel times had increased across the board, with the average duration of a commute to work growing to 49 minutes by car, 84 minutes by bus and 63 minutes by taxi. These represent increases of between 11% and 26% compared to travel times observed in 2013.

But the average travel time by train grew from 74 minutes in 2013 to 107 minutes in 2020, representing a 45% increase.

Trains in South Africa
National Household Travel Survey (NHTS)

A sharp decline in MetroRail’s operating capacity, coupled with long travelling times and delays, has led to overcrowding on the limited carriages in service. This has been listed as the primary cause of dissatisfaction among train commuters, with more than 86% of passengers listing overcrowding as a serious problem. More than 60% of commuters cited safety concerns aboard trains as their primary worry.

Ultimately, the only positive point attributed to South Africa’s passenger rail service is its affordability. At an average monthly cost of R581 for working South Africans, the train remains the least expensive mode of travel.

And while the latest NHTS results paint a grim picture of South Africa’s train services, the impact of Covid-19 and associated lockdown has made matters even worse.

During lockdown, vandalism and theft of railways infrastructure surged in Gauteng, and the 35km main line between Johannesburg’s Park station and Randfontein was stripped of more than 60km of cable. As a result, PRASA’s plans to restart all operations in the province have been delayed.

In the Western Cape, MetroRail is still struggling to bring new trains into service to replace the carriages which have been decommissioned due to arson. Cape Town's central line was reopened in February, but trains can only progress as far as Langa – roughly 12km from the city centre – due to informal structures built along the tracks.

The line’s rehabilitation project has already cost cash strapped PRASA R1.4 billion, with Phase 2 of the programme off to a staggered start.

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