Ramaphosa should declare passenger rail a national disaster

Six actions that would help fix our rail system

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Photo of a train
South Africa’s passenger rail service needs to be declared a national disaster, says #UniteBehind. Photo: Brent Meersman

In the 2020 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa offered up six sentences regarding the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA). These were:

“A key priority this year is to fix commuter rail, which is vital to the economy and to the quality of life of our people.”

“Our rail network daily transports over a million commuters to and from work.”

“We are modernising PRASA’s rail network.”

“The Central Line in the Western Cape and the Mabopane Line in Pretoria have been closed for essential refurbishment and upgrades.”

“We are investing R1.4 billion in each of these lines to provide a safe, reliable and affordable service.”

“Work underway on other lines includes station upgrades, parkway replacements, new signalling systems and overhead electrical traction upgrades.”

Thankfully, this year Ramaphosa departed from championing bullet- and high-speed trains. But he still did not adequately address the miserable reality of our commuter rail network. We were left with more questions than answers.

We have six statements in response to Ramaphosa:

Why is passenger rail not declared a national disaster to kick-start a comprehensive approach for fixing it? Only such an admission would bring together the teams of experts, ring-fenced capital funds, and scope for decisive action that is urgently required to fix our trains. PRASA cannot be fixed by one-man armies. We need the President’s guidance to guarantee that what is started is finished.

We need a permanent board at PRASA composed of experts to provide oversight. There has been no permanent board since 2017, and it shows. There is no provision in law that allows the Minister of Transport to appoint a single Administrator, as he has recently done, nor is it advisable. What is required are teams of experts. This sort of unlawful intervention in PRASA’s leadership is no different to the unlawfulness that characterised the Zuma presidency. We need stable and effective leadership at PRASA – a lawfully appointed permanent board and executive.

What is the government’s plan to secure the safety of rail infrastructure and commuters? In November 2019, the Western Cape High Court ruled that PRASA must produce a commuter-centred safety plan that addresses the particular struggles faced by vulnerable commuters, such as women, children, elderly people and persons with disability. At the time of writing, PRASA is in contempt of this order. Two Constitutional Court judgments have ruled that PRASA must prioritise commuter safety, and yet our disastrous PRASA neglects commuters every day. This has to change.

Why has the government allowed decisions that pose catastrophic legal and financial risks for PRASA, such as nonpayment of their attorneys and other service providers? The recent Werksmans debacle means that PRASA is now at risk of losing more than R3 billion to the indisputably corrupt Siyangena Technologies. #UniteBehind is urgently intervening in this matter. But should our intervention fail, the public purse will be liable for billions.

What is the national government’s plan to ensure that other spheres of government play a meaningful role in fixing and operating passenger rail? The province of Gauteng and the City of Cape Town in particular have signalled readiness and willingness to move forward with the Constitutionally-required devolution of rail. Many of the crises at PRASA have their root in hyper-centralisation. When can we expect an honest discussion on the internationally accepted advantages of metro–, city–, municipally– controlled public transport, including rail?

When will we see those responsible for destroying our rail service prosecuted and jailed? It has been five years since the Public Protector released her “Derailed” report, which clearly showed how PRASA had been looted from within. Instead of the arrests and forfeiture of assets of those responsible, we have seen a near-total disinterest in the pursuit of justice. Lucky Montana walks free. Sfiso Buthelezi is Chair of the Appropriations committee. Themba Camane, one of those responsible for the Siyangena fiasco, has been appointed as one of Administrator Mpondo’s key technical advisors. Most importantly, has government taken action against international companies responsible for corruption, such as the German-owned company Vossloh? Where is the break with the past this presidency promised?

We need the Central line opened or alternative emergency transport provided by PRASA. We need to resuscitate rail. We need lawfulness in the executive suites and on the platforms. We simply cannot afford to leave our cities without a rail service.

Stent and Dube are with #UniteBehind. Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

TOPICS:  PRASALeaks Prasa / Metrorail Transport

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