RAIL FAIL

Fikile Mbalula promises less jaw-jaw and more war-war on safer rail transport

By Suné Payne 9 July 2019

Prasa was a hot topic during Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula's budget speech in the National Assembly on 9 July 2019. (Photo: Gallo)

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula’s maiden transport budget vote speech on Tuesday was marred by two key transport themes — e-tolls and the ongoing rail issues at Prasa. But Mbalula stood firm on his June promise on rail: A stable board and a war room for passenger rail.

Efforts to clean up the rail system, especially the embattled Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and a subdivision of the entity, Metrorail, will be one of the main focuses of the next 100 days for new Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mbalula delivered his maiden transport speech in the National Assembly chamber — where much of the focus was on the battle over e-tolls. While the e-tolls debacle was the subject of quips about mixed messages given by the different government and ANC officials, Prasa was a hot topic during the budget speech.

Political parties — both on government and opposition benches — decried the appalling security on trains, condemned high crime rates and expressed hope that the rolling stock programme would fix the ongoing rail issues at Prasa.

After his first train ride in Cape Town since becoming the fourth transport minister in three years, Mbalula reiterated his June promise of creating a rail war room and establishing stability by appointing a permanent board at Prasa.

Mbalula said there was “urgency” in filling critical senior management positions at entities in the department. He said he had instructed boards to fill these — particularly at Prasa, which has seen eight board changes since 2014 and seven acting CEOs between June 2015 until now.

Mbalula said he was establishing a ministerial war room with a mandate of oversight — interventions in service delivery and a focus on safety measures for commuters and Prasa infrastructure.

I will be engaging with the Minister of Police (Bheki Cele) to look at ways we can strengthen the capacity and visibility of the Railway Police in the Metrorail environment, so we can reverse the negative impact of rampant crime in our environment,” Mbalula said.

DA Shadow Minister for Transport Chris Hunsinger said the DA “would promote regular joint committee meetings between Transport and Police”.

This will provide a platform to engage on the current unacceptable levels of violence against users and the destruction of infrastructure,” he said.

While Hunsinger said the DA was in support of a merger of Prasa and Transnet to cut costs, “reality links to the fact that not a single metre of rail track was purchased in the last five years. We remain adamant and determined that the DA-led Western Cape should run Metrorail (in the Western Cape).”

Freedom Front Plus MP Piet Mey maintained that “other countries have modern, punctual transport systems that were built and are being maintained by, among others, South African engineers who are not welcome to work in their own country due to affirmative action”.

Mey, who is the party’s chief spokesperson on transport, said that “apart from expertise, two major reasons why South Africa’s transport system is struggling are discipline and crime”.

The great number of incidents in the Western Cape in which trains were torched serves as proof that policing must drastically be improved,” Mey said.

Mbalula said that out of the department’s budget for the 2019/2020 financial year, 97% would go to Prasa and Sanral as well as to provinces and municipalities for the construction, operation and maintenance of transport infrastructure.

The department has a budget of R64-billion for the 2019/2020 financial year, of which R16.4-billion will go to Prasa in transfers. Sanral, the department’s road entity, will receive R21-billion in transfers.

Mbalula’s speech comes on the back of a weekend City Press article which said that R2-billion would be shifted from Prasa to Sanral in an effort to recoup the debt from the e-toll system.

Before Mbalula’s speech, rail activist coalition #UniteBehind said it was concerned that much-needed funds would be shifted from Prasa to Sanral.

We understand that Prasa has not been able to spend its capital allocation, but that is because there has been no disaster management plan. Government cannot starve Prasa of desperately needed capital,” the coalition said.

Read in Daily Maverick: Derailed again: Cape Town protesters disrupt ‘vote-catcher’ train journey

Our concern is that the new government will follow a policy of divestment in rail because Prasa needs money to be fixed. However, Prasa needs more than money to be fixed, it urgently requires a disaster management plan, disaster management team, and a permanent board of control,” said #UniteBehind, which has been campaigning for a safe, efficient rail network, the declaration of rail as a national disaster and the appointment of a permanent Prasa board. DM

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