Arson is the least of Metrorail’s challenges

EMERGENCY services personnel battle to extinguish flames that engulfed a train at the Pretoria North station last year. The Tshwane Rail Traders Association has asked authorities to use Transport Month to address safety concerns in the Metrorail train service. African News Agency (ANA)

What does an ideal, effective and efficient railway system looks like. Asked differently, what is a benchmark of a great railway system that anchors a city’s economy with minimal disruption. Answering this question would help us properly mirror the countries metrorail against that standard so that we can see the standard deviation or how far off our railway system is against the prevailing world standard.

First of all, a railway system is an integral part of the transport system in all economic hubs, from Cape Town to the London, Hongkong to Paris and even the worlds economic epicenter, New York City. Unlike Cape Town and South Africa, the other cities have always understood that an ‘immaculately clean, well-signposted, cheap, regular, and convenient system’ that connects the entire city’s economic activity’ is the minimum standard of any railway system that can sustain a vibrant and dynamic city.

In order to have this kind of train system it follows that from the onset, we need sufficient investment. According to Riana Scott, Head of Marketing and Communication at Metrorail Western Cape Region, “The primary reasons for inefficiencies on WC trains are old and obsolete technology as a result of decades of disinvestment in rail and perpetual vandalism’.

PRASA therefore inherited a train system that had experienced years of defunding and disinvestment. PRASA had taken over a railway system with collapsing infrastructure and poorly trained personnel, purely because this system had been seen as primarily a mode of transport for working class whose lives are always at the bottom of the foodchain.

That however was 24 years ago. The ANC government would have been expected, at least as heirs to this protracted legacy, to do a detailed audit of what it will take to create a world class railway system and how much would the government invest over time as its fiscus capacity grows.

Due to fiscal constraints, the ANC government seems to have spent the first decade refurbishing the existing trains and trying to buy time until it had enough money to completely overhaul the system and buy new trains and put down new railway lines.

Finally In 2011, presenting to the Transport Committee on their recapitalization plan,  PRASA said,  ‘most of our trains are between 30 and 50 years old and should be scrapped in the next three years. It was uneconomical to run such old train sets’, said Lucky Montana, then PRASA CEO. ‘A feasibility study noted that the country required 7 224 modern coaches over 20 years’ to build the kind of train system middle income country’s like ours needed

True to PRASA’s plan as articulated by its CE in 2012, In 2017, launching a new set of trains President Zuma said, ‘We are investing R51 billion on buying new trains and R4 billion on new hybrid locomotives. All in all, the investment programme towards the modernization of passenger rail infrastructure and services totals R173 billion,”. The President also said, ‘Prasa has 585 train stations and a total fleet of 4,735 coaches. Prasa said they would also invest ‘R7 billion into a modern signalling system and Siemens had already been appointed to carry out some of the work’.

PRASA therefore seemed to fulfill its obligation of investing in overhauling our railway infrastructure , albeit late and albeit inadequate. The question is whether that investment has translated to a reliable, clean, timely and safe railway transport in the country.

While explaining why PRASA had to hire locomotives from a private company against Treasury instructions for 2017 December holidays, executive manager of Mainline Passenger Services, Mthuthuzeli Swartz said the country’s passenger rail service,  ‘had only “36 locomotives” to run the entire service, down from 124 in 2009’. He went on to say the ‘Mainline Passenger Services has had to reduce the number of trains that it runs from more than 6 000 trains in 2009 to the current 1 872 trains’.

This means between 2011, when PRASA presented its recapitalization programme and 2017, when it actually went ahead with it, we lost over 70% of our locomotives. Of course, even from that report, the CE had said most of our trains would not last the next 3 years. This means the recapitalization should have happened between 2011 and 2014. Beyond 2014, we would have no train service to speak of. We don’t.

It is therefore disingenuous to suddenly blame arson as the main cause of the current challenges PRASA faces. Despite destruction of coaches through Arson, according to Metrorail, last year the main contributors to train delays were rolling stock (old trains) at 16%, vandalism and theft at 22%, and signals (obsolete infrastructure) at 24%.

So even if we spent enough on security, we would only solve 22 % of our train problems. 50% of our challenges are old trains and signals. The rest should be human error. This makes great sense because if u look at all the damage due to Arson, only 1 person has passed on in Cape Town. However in 1 accident due to signals, where 2 trains can find themselves in the same train track, 100 or more people generally get injured and tragically, at times double digits people die as with an incident of a train collision with a truck in Freestate in January this year.

This clearly shows u where the real challenges are. South African railway system is far from the world class railway stations of other countries and this is mainly because of old defunding that goes back to Apartheid days, poor recapitalization programmes over the years, inadequate security provision and flowing from that, vandalism and Arson. Government must respond adequately to these challenges and not continuous knee-jerk responses that follow headlines and political noise-makers

Yonela Diko is the ANC Western Cape spokesperson