Vandalism, land invasions major obstacles to restoring CT's central rail line

Since the Western Cape's busiest line was shut in October last year, the rail system has been exposed to vandalism and cable theft and during the COVID-19 lockdown period, people invaded the railway lines.

The informal settlement of Lockdown has sprung up on and around the Metrorail's central line in Philippi, Cape Town. Picture: Kaylynn Palm/EWN

CAPE TOWN - The state of South Africa's railway system has become a thorn in the side of authorities, with ongoing damage to rail infrastructure, and more recently, the occupation of land over and around the tracks.

One of the often named ailing lines is Cape Town's central line, which is a key artery into the city, ferrying hundreds of thousands of commuters to and from work and school.

And while President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government continue to make promises about modernising and refurbishing commuter rail networks, the stretch of the central line heading into the poor and working-class area of Philippi has become home to hundreds of people.

The informal settlement is called Lockdown.

It is a peaceful and quiet community, with children playing, adults doing laundry and others keeping warm around fires.

But the situation is far from normal.

This community has settled on the tracks of the central line, erecting fences, growing gardens and even keeping pets.

Since the Western Cape's busiest line was shut in October last year, the rail system has been exposed to vandalism and cable theft and during the COVID-19 lockdown period, people invaded the railway lines.

Like many structures here, Mickey April's is marked with the letters 'L.D' - short for lockdown.

She said that she knew that the location was risky but had no choice but to live in the settlement.

"I would love to see government give them proper housing, with water, electricity and proper toilets. The toilets we sue are self-made - we bore holes ourselves and then we use that."

Her neighbour, Sandiso Moyikwa, said that while they knew that no trains were running on this line, they could not help but feel anxious.

"We're not feeling safe because we don't have space. We have children and they play outside and we're inside."

Phumzile Dibhongo moved into this area in April after a fire in Imizamo Yethu left him homeless and destitute.

He said that he simply had nowhere else to go and could not afford rent.

"I saw people making their houses here, that's why I am here because I need a place. Renting is not good because sometimes, the work stops and that is a problem."

While rail authorities in the province are hard at work trying to restore the line sooner rather than later, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) said that plans to relocate the people living here were under way.

Prasa said that it could take up to a year-and-a-half to relocate them.

Metrorail's Riana Scott: "The appointment process of a consultant team to assist Prasa with the designs and monitoring of construction by various contractors has begun and is expected to be concluded by year-end."

But if past experience is anything to go by, it's likely to take upwards of 18 months to relocate the people who have settled here.


The issue of the Lockdown informal settlement isn't the only obstacle facing Prasa, as it looks to restore Cape Town's ailing central line.

The COVID-19 lockdown has led to mass vandalism along the line, with stolen cables, missing platform pavings and staircase railings.

One of the affected train stations is Netreg.

This has left hundreds of commuters stranded and forced to spend more money on alternative transport.

Transport portfolio chairperson, Angus McKenzie: "There's absolutely no more cabling left, it's been completely stripped out and taken away, so there's effectively nothing left. There's not a window left, even paint has been stolen from the walls.

McKenzie explained the long commute workers now faced with the central line shut.

"They end up using two-thirds of their salary for buses, taxis and it's not just one trip - it now becomes two taxis to Athlone and then another one to Mowbray and another bus from Mowbray. It has affected people economically."

He said that the station which was once a hub of activity was now a haven for crime.

"It's become a haven for gangsterism, drugs, crime. Every single conduit wire is gone. I think there's more rubble than anything else that's working."

Prasa said that the work had begun to repair the damage and ensure the station was operational sooner rather than later.

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