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Metrorail meltdown

December 12, 2018
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Prasa’s woes mean the new Minister of Transport, Blade Nzimande, has to focus on constitutionality

The timing was exquisite. Slap in the middle of October Transport Month, the Passenger Rail Agency (Prasa) came within 24 hours of being shut down everywhere. And some people still refer to rail as the backbone of public transport in South Africa!   

Rescued at the last minute by a sympathetic judge, Prasa must now submit monthly reports to the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) that must, in turn, report monthly to the court and the transport minister. A final report has to be submitted by June 19 next year. 

Presumably, the reports will focus only on safety. I would, nevertheless, appeal to the judiciary to remind the government of the constitutional context in which this crisis has developed. Let’s look at some issues.

First, heavy-rail passenger services have never been properly evaluated in South Africa. Between 1950 and the late 1980s, a number of ad-hoc extensions were made into “black” areas as a cornerstone of the apartheid policy.

Certainly there were technical reports dealing with speed, acceleration rates and braking distances as well as detailed cost reports, all running into hundreds of pages. Sadly, none of these documents warned us of the bad outcomes when 500 000 people are dumped in a distant township, and then for each trip 2 500 of them are crammed into a single train, with a driver in front and a guard at the back.

The problems here are twofold. We have to compensate passengers with reduced fares, which reduces the cost coverage. And we have to employ so many security guards that the economics of heavy rail (which depend on a high ratio of passengers to staff) have taken an extra hammering.

Second, where does the nonsense that Prasa serves the “poorest of the poor” come from? They are not the problem of either the RSR or Prasa. They are the government’s problem, and every political party sitting in parliament is guilty of betraying them. Really poor people need free food and clothes more than they need cheap transport.

Google Earth shows that the few railway lines serving the townships have become stranded assets, with township sprawl now stretching many kilometres beyond the rail terminus. These areas are now served by unsubsidised, expensive minibus-taxi services, whose users should be subsidised to the same extent as rail users.

Where does the Constitution say that only rail passengers should benefit from low fares? (And, by the way, why is there no Taxi Safety Regulator?)

These questions bring us to the third and biggest issue, which is the lack of an integrated transport plan (ITP). A proper ITP would have ensured that all public transport modes – rail, bus and minibus taxis – work together and offer similar levels of service, similar fares and similar safety standards everywhere.

Every city should by now have had one overall harmonising transport body. As long ago as 2006, Nzimande lamented “…our systems are fragmented, irrational, uneconomic and unsustainable”. 

I hope that each monthly judicial report reminds the minister of his words and suggests that both he and his underperforming National Department of Transport have a constitutional duty to do something about it.

Then we have that other stranded asset – the Gautrain – whose promoters continue to act as if they are on a different planet, spinning all manner of nonsense about the system’s viability.

The minister of transport needs to deal firmly with this type of hocus-pocus. He should shut down both the Prasa and Gautrain boards and, together with all subsidised bus operations, place them under administration. Once subsidised public transport has been sorted out, the troubled minibus-taxi industry needs to be dealt with.

It’s the constitutional thing to do.

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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