South Africa

OPINIONISTA: While Prasa continues to sink, the Western Cape seeks control of its rail systems

Management of rail services should be devolved, along with the necessary budget, to capable, financially sound sub-national governments. This would allow the province, City of Cape Town, or both, to take over management of the rail system. This would enable the Western Cape government to ensure a reliable, safe, and efficient rail service for commuters in the province.

The responsibility of ensuring an efficient, effectively run rail service in the Western Cape has become an uphill battle for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa). Since 2019, the Cape Town Central Line has not been consistently in service, while various other routes have been indefinitely suspended. While there is no clear way forward from the national Department of Transport, which is the lead agency legally in charge of carrying out rail operations, the Western Cape government has stepped in with credible solutions.

Nevertheless, the rail line in the Western Cape continues to be plagued by theft, vandalism, arson attacks and land invasions. In fact, 71% of all arson attacks on trains take place in the Western Cape. So, it is very clear that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2020 State of the Nation Address promise to restore the Central Line by September 2020 has failed and we are yet to see the benefit of the R1.4-billion set aside for this.

In fact, since the president’s pledge the situation has only deteriorated:

A glimpse of hope came in the form of a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) signed by the Western Cape government in conjunction with Prasa to revive the Central Line. This came at a pivotal moment as we face the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions that come with it, which saw public transport carrying limited numbers, and physical distancing ignored. This, with the recent taxi violence, Golden Arrow Bus Service attacks and a failing rail service has left a tremendous challenge for the public transport sector in the Western Cape.

In 2018, Prasa signed a different MoA with the Western Cape government to fund the deployment of 100 additional security officers for the Cape rail network. The rail agency contributed R16-million toward the R47.9-million project which would run for 12 months. Despite the best efforts by the provincial government, a lack of planning, absence of leadership, and multiple management changes at Prasa have led to minimal benefit for commuters.

The ANC-led national government has failed in its duty to deliver on promises made, while state-owned enterprises (SOEs) such as Eskom and SAA have been consistently and irrationally bailed out. If Cabinet in Pretoria is serious about driving a pro-poor governance agenda, then we would not see pie-in-the-sky for executives, but rather safe and reliable transport for the thousands of residents desperately trying to earn a living in these harsh economic times.

It is our view that management of rail should be devolved, along with the necessary budget, to capable, financially sound sub-national governments. This would allow the province, City of Cape Town, or both, to take over management of the rail system. This would enable the Western Cape government to ensure a reliable, safe, and efficient rail service for commuters in the province.

In 2020 alone, 12 Golden Arrow buses were destroyed, resulting in a R29-million loss, and 87 taxi operators and drivers were murdered, with a further 34 attempted murders. These numbers highlight the need for a safe and reliable means of transport, which could potentially be achieved if the Western Cape Central Line is restored to capacity.

As a result of its inefficiency and inability to operate, Prasa saw its trips plummet from 633 million in 2010 to 269 million in the 2017-2018 financial year. This number now stands at 125.24 million and will continue to worsen if drastic interventions are not implemented.

We see, now more than ever, the need to deliver a safe, reliable and effective train service in the Western Cape while we find ourselves in a global pandemic as well as a public transport crisis. The province’s transport sector needs a running rail service to ensure livelihoods, safety and social distancing are maintained.

While its completion is long overdue, decisive actions must be taken to restore the Central Line, as well as delegate the responsibility of rail to the provincial government.

As Chairperson of the Standing Committee for Transport at the provincial legislature, I look forward to engaging with Prasa and the Western Cape government throughout the year. It is absolutely in the public interest that the Western Cape government’s solutions are presented in full view and scrutiny, and that decision-makers — at all levels and spheres of government — are held to account.

Our vision remains to provide a safe and reliable public transport sector in the province. The fight to restore the Central Line and hold national government accountable for its lack of efficiency and effectiveness to deliver on this mandate will continue. DM

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