Beware the hornet’s sting! 

Only a few days into the New Year, and here I am looking at bodies being carried away from the latest rail accident in Pretoria.

This latest, regrettable incident reminds me of a quote from a Citylab correspondent describing Britain’s messy handling of Brexit. Britain is “a grown nation writhing and flailing through its decision-making with all the finesse of a drunk man being attacked by hornets”.

That statement applies to many situations all over the world, including public transport in South Africa.   

Let’s look at two recent quotes, the first of which is from the promoters of the Gautrain (The Citizen, November 1, 2018): “By the year 2037, cars will travel at an average of 15 km/h and the expansion of the rail network is necessary to deal with the unsustainable road congestion.”

Exactly a week later (The Citizen, November 8, 2018) it was the road-construction people’s turn: “Unless we get busy with phase two of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Programme (158 km) get prepared for a six-hour commute between Johannesburg and Pretoria. This is how long it will take by 2037 if we don’t address this problem urgently.”

When is someone going to start challenging this nonsense?

The first quote ignores the fact that the existing rail service is falling apart. Rather than focus on 2037, let’s hear some advice as to what we should be doing before the end of 2019 to sort out Metrorail – which at this rate will have shut down by 2037! Perhaps the current contract for 3 000 new Metrorail coaches should be reduced to 2 000.

The second quote continues to demonstrate the construction people’s obsession with rich motorists travelling between Pretoria and Johannesburg. I’d rather go with Australian researchers Newman and Kenworthy, who pointed out long ago that “when road capacity is removed, then a high proportion of traffic just disappears”.

As the Johannesburg Metropolitan Action Group said in 1992: “Make people pay the full penalty for living too far out by not giving them overgrown freeways”. That advice was ignored at the time, but still remains correct today.

If people want to sit in traffic for six hours a day, that’s their problem. I would rather hear the engineers suggesting that we fix worn-out sewerage systems and eradicate pit latrines at schools.

Why don’t they warn us that unless we build a million houses, people will continue to live in shacks? That will keep the construction people busy all over the country, not just in Gauteng.

If we fixed existing public transport, we wouldn’t need new rail or freeway schemes.

So why isn’t that happening? It’s because we allow transport “planners” (usually civil engineers), who have no interest in fixing existing public transport, to run the show.

Sadly, no academic discipline currently exists to deal with the vacuum, so South Africa can expect to continue drunkenly staggering along, trying to beat off the hornets with futile road and rail construction schemes.

Where do we go from here? Groups like the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) and Solidarity have started legal action against South African Airways (SAA), the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) and the Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (Prasa).

Both of these organisations claim to have research departments, and I would suggest that, rather than swinging into action long after bad contracts have been signed, they start asking more incisive questions before the damage is done.

South Africa should sober up – fast. Unlike bees that die, hornets keep on stinging.     

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Vaughan Mostert

Vaughan Mostert lectured on public transport issues at the University of Johannesburg for nearly thirty years. Through Hopping Off, Mostert leaves readers with some food for thought as he continues his push for change in the local public transport industry.
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