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Houston, we have a problem

March 14, 2019
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…and so, too, does South Africa

Who would have thought that this well-known quote is now almost 49 years old? Back in April 1970, Apollo 13 was on its way to land two astronauts on the moon when a malfunction forced the crew to abort. While the world held its breath, mission control in Houston worked with the crew to use the moon’s gravity to “whip” the stricken craft safely back to Earth.

Today, Houston, itself, has a problem. Its 2040 public transport plan has come under fire from local observers, and their reasons should resonate loudly in South Africa.

In an article published on several websites, blogger Tory Gattis describes the US$ 7,5 billion (about R100 billion) plan as throwing “mountains of good money on wasteful new light-rail extensions”.

He also believes that rail “is at significant risk of technological obsolescence” as autonomous transit (AT) evolves. While conceding that AT might be slow to develop, Gattis recommends “concrete guideways with rubber-tyre vehicles that can evolve with the new technology”.

He adds: “We don’t need more high-capacity transit, but, instead, we need more routes that (reach) more destinations at high service levels. Houstonians need better basic bus service.” 

While I agree with Gattis, we should at least credit Houston for having a single transport authority as well as a proper plan, which is more than can be claimed by any South African city.

Gauteng, in particular, is sitting on a growing pile of transport documents that are gathering dust.

In July 2014, Gauteng Premier David Makhura appointed a panel to look into the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project and e-tolls debacle. It reported to him in November of that year; 199 pages long, not counting annexures, it got off to a naïve start as early as page 1 where it referred to a “Gauteng 25-year Integrated Transport Master Plan”. The public transport component of this “plan” would disappear six months later, for reasons that have not been explained.

The panel’s report made good points, such as lowering the toll fee while implementing a three-year programme of development of public transport, as well as retrofitting one or more lanes for high-occupancy vehicles. It also mentioned the “limited reach” of the Gautrain and the “limited size” of the bus rapid transit (BRT) schemes.

However, more than four years later, nothing has happened.

Getting back to light-rail transport, I would disagree with Gattis. In South Africa we should be using much more of it, but not by building new lines. We should rather convert a number of existing heavy-rail lines to light rail.

In Gauteng, how about Dube (Soweto) – New Canada – Booysens – Germiston – Tembisa?

In the Cape, how about Cape Town – Simonstown?

In KwaZulu-Natal, how about Durban – Greenwood Park – Kwa Mashu?

As for buses, I agree with him on the need for a better basic bus service. We got rid of trolleybuses because they were “inflexible”. Why then does no one in South Africa seem to have a problem with rail transport, which is even more inflexible and more dependent on unreliable electricity?

We need to consider closing Metrorail down over weekends (until it sorts itself out) and running buses instead, covering far more areas than those currently served by rail. Many thousands of buses are running under contract in South African cities and can be reorganised to achieve this. They should run on these new routes on all other days of the week as well.

Unlike Apollo 13, which made it safely back to Earth, our public transport continues to spin aimlessly around the moon, trapped in a never-ending cycle of incompetence and mismanagement.

Does mission control have what it takes to get our stranded public transport assets to start functioning properly? I doubt it, but, as President Ramaphosa would say, “Watch this space.”

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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