Why not light rail?

Why not light rail?

To have an efficient transport system, road and rail need to work in harmony

I’d like to get onto the subject of commuter rail transport, for a change. The decision was triggered by the sight of a queue of people at the Century City railway station at 07:40 on Wednesday April 2, waiting to transfer to a MyCiTy midibus working on route 251. It is one of the very few examples of rail- bus rapid transit (BRT) interchange in South Africa. There are two others in Cape Town, at Salt River and Woodstock.

Johannesburg also has several places where BRT and rail stations are close to each other, but I have seen no attempt on the part of either operator to develop a synergy.

Not so in Cape Town, where the rail operator is involved in some exciting developments such as balanced frequencies (a minimum level of 20 to 30 minutes in the off peak, for example) and rerouting several additional trains to serve Century City).

It was a very new experience to see about 70 people standing patiently, waiting for a 28-seat midibus to take them further. Forty-four packed in (16 standing), leaving the rest to be picked up by the next scheduled bus, 10 minutes later.

All this made me wonder – who says we need 3 000 brand-new heavy rail coaches? Why not some light rail sets as well, which are far more user-friendly? They can stop more often, thereby serving more people, and deliver passengers, in more manageable numbers, to be taken further by low-capacity road transport?

Now, please don’t say “you can’t mix light rail with heavy goods trains”. It’s not ideal, but you can. It’s similar to the mantra, repeated in almost all transport planning documents, that rail is the “spine” of public transport. This anatomical analogy is simply twosh.

A spine, by itself, is of no use. Our bodies also need ribs to support and protect the various organs. Without proper ribs to support heavy rail, it will continue to be regarded by many as a stand-alone mode, even if the service is run by the same transport authority and through-ticketing is available.

The low fares that apply to heavy rail in South Africa are an apartheid carry-over that has resulted in artificially high passenger levels and overcrowding. Currently, we have to “buy” our heavy rail passengers to compensate them for the inconvenience of getting to the stations.

New coaches won’t fix this; a more imaginative approach is needed. In some rough order, a transport authority is needed to oversee the whole process, then, a public transport plan covering the entire area is needed.

Road services need to be considerably beefed up in the outlying areas, even beyond where rail services terminate, so that people have proper access to rail transport, where it exists. Other areas, which have no rail transport, need the same quantum of service. Then, road and rail fares need to come into line.

In Cape Town, light rail could use the harbour branch and continue to both Bellville and Atlantis; the latter using diesel traction. In the CBD, light rail could be extended from the harbour up to Adderley Street, using the same platform as MyCiTy buses. Even Simonstown could go to light rail.

In Johannesburg, light rail could run around the New Canada/Benrose loop and also serve a big park-and-ride facility at Soccer City. In Ekurhuleni, a service to Heidelberg would carry large numbers of people living in informal settlements next to the tracks.

In KwaZulu-Natal, light rail could work the Crossmoor (Chatsworth) line. The Durban transport plan refers to a bus route from Pinetown to Hillcrest. The old semi-abandoned Natal Main line could be revived for this purpose and light rail could run all the way down to Rossburgh. A (diesel?) railcar from Kelso to Port Shepstone would also be successful.

Most railway stations in South Africa are remote from the communities they serve. Light rail would allow new mini-stations to be built at road/rail bridges, thus promoting interchange.

How about it, transport planners?


Vaughan Mostert is a senior lecturer in the Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management at the University of Johannesburg. He developed a love for public transport early in life, which led to a lifelong academic interest in the subject. Through Hopping Off, Mostert leaves readers with some parting food for thought as he continues his push for change in the local public transport industry.

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Focus on Transport

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