In July, this column warned of problems ahead with the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s (Prasa’s) plans to buy 7 224 new coaches. If the hoo-ha around the public protector’s report, dodgy contracts, oversized locomotives and bogus qualifications are anything to go by, the future has already arrived.
Sadly, the problems go further than this – public transport is also being hammered by bogus 25-year plans and questionable high-speed railway and bus rapid transit (BRT) schemes. October “public transport month” is on its way, so let’s take a closer look at the mess we are in.
For nearly 190 years, railways everywhere have been pushed around by vested interests, incompetence, mismanagement and government interference of the wrong kind.
Thankfully, there is also a “right” kind, but this has been absent so far in South Africa, where both Prasa and the Gautrain are underperforming. The main difference between them is that Prasa is underfunded, while the Gautrain is overfunded.
Writing in the Daily Maverick on June 23, 2011, Ivo Vegter, a writer on environmental issues, described the Gautrain as a “disgusting barrel of pork”. That was when the loss was R360 million. I wonder what he would make of the current loss, which amounts to R1 500 million.
What should we learn from this?
Lesson one: We suggested a few months ago that Prasa and the Gautrain should become one organisation, but with a new management structure and operating philosophy. In the absence of a proper 25-year plan for Gauteng, a clean sweep is called for.
In the Financial Mail of July 9, Gautrain management was trying to justify its continued existence and to deflect attention from its huge loss with more spin about “densification”. This process should have started 40 years ago – around Prasa stations. It’s not too late to start doing just that, at a fraction of the cost of new rail construction.
Lesson two: There is no need to use brand-new locomotives to pull passenger trains. In 1972, I made a final trip from Durban to Stanger behind two venerable class 1E electric locomotives – E2 and E22. Both were by then 48 years old.
The most numerous class of locomotive (960 units) to run on the South African railway system so far has been the 6E1, but it was only in 1984, a full 13 years after their introduction, that they started pulling passenger trains regularly.
Lesson three: There is no justification for using locomotives to pull only passenger trains. Today, the inter-city rail timetable for South Africa can be fitted on a single A4 page. The highest number of trains “on the road” at any given time is 12; during Sunday night and Monday morning. Even with two locomotives on each train, that is a requirement of only 24.
What are we going to do with 70 locomotives? Perhaps Prasa and Spoornet have a plan to introduce more trains. That would be nice. In that case, we can ignore lesson four, but here goes anyway.
Lesson four: We need to re-introduce daily long-distance rail passenger services, and revive mixed passenger and freight services on many lines.
Let’s go back into history. From 1830 onwards the United Kingdom (UK) experienced an explosion in railway activity which was Uber-like in its implications.
Over a period of 53 years (1840 to 1893) the UK parliament had to pass a number of Railway Regulation Acts (RRA) to ensure proper standards in the industry. The most significant of these, from a South African point of view today, is the RRA of 1844.
In order to get a “licence” to operate, every railway had to (take a deep breath here): run at least one train a day, every day, on every line, in both directions, stopping at every station and travelling at an average of not less than 12 mph (20 km/h). The trains also had to provide coaches for third-class passengers that were fitted with a roof and seats, and charge them no more than one penny a mile.
(Until then, many passengers had been sitting on top of the goods in open wagons; a practice that had started on day one of public railways in 1825. Exactly the same happened when trains were introduced in Durban, on June 26, 1860.)
We are coming up to the 190th anniversary of the 1825 event, on September 27. It would be a fitting tribute to the role played by railways so far if Prasa and Spoornet were to announce the re-introduction of daily trains between all major destinations in the country and on several other lines as well.
Since 1825, rail freight and rail passengers have co-existed, however uneasily, so let us hope for some “right” kind of interference from the government, for a change.
Did I hear someone say “insufficient funds”? These suggestions will cost far less than we are wasting on the Gautrain.
Vaughan Mostert developed a love for public transport early in life, which led to a lifelong academic interest in the subject. He recently retired as a senior lecturer from the Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management at the University of Johannesburg. 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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