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Railways on verge of total collapse

South Africa’s railway system is teetering on the verge of total collapse as a result of the daily theft of kilometres of electric cable, vandals carrying away tracks and signalling equipment, and station buildings being completely demolished, according to a new report.

The report, commissioned by the Brenthurst Foundation, reveals that about 66% of the overhead electrical cables on 3 000km of railways that are part of the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) are out of order due to theft or vandalism.

In the nation’s economic hubs, the situation is dire: 89% of Prasa’s railways are out of order in Gauteng, 70% in KwaZulu-Natal don’t work and 30% in the Western Cape are out of order.

The report’s author, David Williams, says: If such a large part is damaged and out of order, it certainly also means that the rest is useless.


In the report, titled Why There are So Many Trucks on the Road and So Few Trains on the Tracks, the railway expert and former journalist writes that engineers estimate it will cost about R500 000/km to restore the overhead electrical equipment to working order.

A contracting engineer told Williams that if there was only one team of people doing this work, it would take 15 years to repair all the damage nationwide. There would also be the need to ensure that the new cables were not stolen again in the meantime.

Prasa itself expects it could take between six and 36 months to repair the entire passenger rail network.

The situation was very bad during the initial lockdown periods because there were no security guards protecting the infrastructure. In September last year, more than 6km of cables were stolen within 24 hours.

Netwerk24 reported that Portia Derby, CEO of Transnet, told the portfolio committee on public enterprises this week that within 10 months, 1 000km of Transnet cables had been stolen, disrupting the movement of freight trains.Transnet replaces the cables at its own expense and does not share the cost with its customers.

According to Williams, it has been estimated that it will cost R35 million to rebuild just one damaged railway substation, R15 million to rebuild three damaged stations and R202 million to repair nine signalling rooms.

In March last year, shortly before the lockdowns began, Transnet cancelled about 170 freight trains per month due to a sharp increase in theft of overhead electrical cables in 2019.


In 2019, Prasa lost R364 million due to looting and because some trains were set on fire, a parliamentary committee heard in September last year.

In addition, Covid-19 restrictions and the consequent loss of revenue were further serious financial blows for Transnet Freight Rail and Prasa.

All of this could contribute to the collapse of the South African railway network, which was once considered one of the best in the world, Williams warns in his report.

Unless government gets the right policy and corporate governance structures in place and appoints competent people with integrity to implement a realistic strategy, the time will soon come when large parts of the country’s rail network will most likely need to be written off and closed permanently, he says.

Apart from problems with corporate governance, there is corruption, and inexperienced managers who cannot make decisions on policy issues. Train transport is unsafe and inefficient compared with road transport, infrastructure is stolen and the railway services are losing market share.

Williams writes that even though Prasa and Transnet use the same railways and equipment, there is very little communication between the two. Another problem is that Prasa reports to the minister of transport and Transnet reports to the minister of public enterprises.

According to a strategic report submitted by Prasa to a parliamentary committee in September, it wants to position the railway as the backbone of public transport.

That plan could be thwarted due to vandalism affecting all Metrorail and Shosholoza Meyl regional services and disrupting rail travel.


Leonard Ramatlakane, chairperson of the Prasa board, says the agency wanted to attract passengers back with a campaign portraying rail travel as the cheapest form of public transport, according to the website of parliamentary monitoring group

Joash Mageto, a senior lecturer in the department of transport and supply chain management at the University of Johannesburg, says commuters’ safety on trains and at stations is non-negotiable if Prasa wants to attract passengers back.

The service must also be reliable and adhere to timetables so that people can plan. In 2019, Mageto left Johannesburg on the Shosholoza Meyl at 8pm, but only arrived in Durban at lunchtime the next day.

He says that even if freight trains get preference over passenger trains, better planning is needed and the waiting time could be split between the two.

Even if rail transport is the cheapest form of public transport, the most vulnerable people will not use the service if it is unreliable and dangerous, he adds.

According to Mageto, there are so many demands on the state coffers that Prasa’s requirements are probably at the bottom of National Treasury’s list.

He says the only solution for Prasa would be innovative thinking and choosing the right strategic partner for a private-public partnership. The current business model is also outdated.

He says: No partner will give money for infrastructure refurbishment without the assurance that the infrastructure won’t be carried away [by thieves] and damaged.

Williams says that, with our railway network in such a precarious state, it is difficult to see where the returns for investors will come from to do repairs, and where government money will come from to attract private investors.

“It’s a vicious circle,” he adds.

As part of government’s economic reconstruction programme after Covid-19, private operators will soon be allowed to operate certain important train routes to ensure better access and quality transport.

Williams says the success of that plan will depend on the nature of the partnership.

“Does the state own and maintain the infrastructure and do the private role-players operate the services and control the traffic? Who pays for marketing and ancillary services? If the state is unwilling to pay for the repairs, which private investor will run the risk?” he asks.


Prasa’s passenger numbers have been falling for years. Annual passenger train journeys fell from 634 million in 2010 to 208 million by the end of 2019.

Prasa announced this week that from December 15, the long-distance Shosholoza Meyl would run again so that, during the festive season, passengers could travel cheaply between Johannesburg and East London, Gqeberha and Bloemfontein (via Kimberley), as well as between Johannesburg and Musina (via Polokwane).

According to Mageto, this is a step in the right direction. Even before the Covid-19 lockdowns, the Railway Safety Regulator had stopped the long-distance Shosholoza Meyl due to safety concerns.

Williams writes in his report that, when the railway police force of about 16 000 people was integrated into the old South African Police almost 40 years ago, the railway network started to be neglected.

Some of the problems can be traced back to the 1970s, when the road transport sector was deregulated without consideration of how to keep passengers on the railways.


In 1993, about 400 million tons of goods were transported by road in South Africa and 175 million tons by rail. By 2009, this had risen to 1.37 billion tons (+242%) and 205 million tons (+17%), respectively, Williams writes in his report.

This state of affairs means that the national road network has deteriorated dramatically in places over the past 30 years, due to ever more vehicles (including often overloaded and heavy trucks) transporting goods by road because the railway network is inefficient.

He quotes from Infrastructure News (2016) that, according to the SA National Roads Agency, if a truck is loaded with 7% more than the maximum allowable weight, a single trip can cause more damage to the road than 80 000 cars.

Williams writes: If a national road was designed to last for 20 years and we overload it by 10%, we reduce the lifespan of the road by eight to 10 years.

The maximum load for a truck in South Africa – at 56 000kg – is already 55% higher than in the US and the UK, and 40% higher than in Germany, according to an earlier report by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Williams and Mageto agree that competent managers are part of the recovery package at Prasa in particular.

The agency lost a CEO for the umpteenth time this week when Zolani Matthews was sacked after less than a year on the job, apparently because he failed to disclose his dual citizenship with the UK.

His departure again highlights the corporate governance mess at Prasa, writes Williams.

According to Mageto, the rail network in many African countries has followed the same path, but Kenya has successfully reversed the situation, with its government providing and securing the infrastructure, but not operating the services.



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