South Africa

LOCKDOWN

MPs voice concerns about reopening public transport as Mbalula appears before virtual Parliament

MPs voice concerns about reopening public transport as Mbalula appears before virtual Parliament
Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula. (Photo: Sune Payne)

As the country shifted to Lockdown Level 4, the Department of Transport updated parliamentary committees on its plans — including those for Metrorail.

Reopening the embattled Metrorail rail service has been questioned by MPs worried about common levels of overcrowding on trains and the potential this has for spreading Covid-19.

“We have always been mindful that transport is not only an enabler of economic activity and social mobility, but also a potent instrument capable of spreading the Covid-19 virus far and wide,” argued Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula on Thursday 30 April. He went on: “…ours is to ensure that the mobility of the virus through our transport system is stopped dead in its tracks.”

Mbalula was addressing a joint sitting of Parliament’s portfolio committee on transport and select committees on transport, public service and administration and public works and infrastructure, explaining his department’s role in the Covid-19 lockdown.

It was Mbalula’s first appearance before the joint committee to deal specifically with matters related to the lockdown. Under the previous 35-day extended lockdown, transportation operated under strict conditions — including the closing of borders and limited periods in which public transport could operate. At one point, public transport times were extended  to accommodate people who were collecting their monthly social grants.

Air traffic was closed, apart from 114 evacuation flights for South Africans returning home. There were also 106 repatriation flights out of the country, said department director-general Alec Moemi. A total of 2,011 public transport offences were recorded.

With transport regulations being relaxed slightly for Level 4, due to start on Friday 1 May, the big question is: How will the department ensure the safety of the increased number of passengers using public transport?

It was announced in the joint committee meeting that public transport (minibus taxis, rail, buses and e-hailing services) will be allowed to operate under directives issued by the Transport Department. Aviation and maritime services will only be permitted for the shipment of cargo.

On plans for rail operations, ANC MP Lawrence McDonald asked: “It’s been impossible to keep people from climbing onto the trains, hanging onto the sides of the trains, filling it to capacity — how is this going to be controlled if we couldn’t control it to capacity? How will we do it? I think it’s a very, very bad idea.”

Another ANC MP, Matodzi Ramadwa, questioned whether information would be translated into all official languages so that more people could understand implications of the virus.

In an often sound-interrupted virtual briefing, MPs asked questions about the provision of sanitising equipment for taxis and trains, as well as the provision of safety equipment for passengers and drivers of public transport.

Moemi, answering some of the questions, told the committee plans were in place to provide cloth masks, but the department was still working with the national Treasury on finalising the process.

On McDonald’s question regarding trains, Moemi replied: “We stress-tested their plans and their proposals and we found that they were unready to proceed and it is for this reason that there will be no operations in rail during this period as they will be doing testing of the system and they will be testing all lines and the rolling stock.”

On Wednesday 29 April, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa sent out a statement that four lines across the country would be operational. But that statement was withdrawn — possibly based on recommendations made by the Department of Transport.

On Thursday evening, Mbalula’s office announced he would issue new transport regulations on Friday 1 May at 2pm. DM

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