TRACK TO RECOVERY?
Trains to return in 10 of South Africa’s rail corridors by September, vows Mbalula
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula has given a rundown of the progress and challenges in rehabilitating South Africa’s crumbling rail infrastructure, and has issued some stern warnings to limping Prasa. This is Part One of a two-part series on Rehabilitation Plans for the network.
The plan to get 10 of South Africa’s railway corridors up and running again by September or October is firmly on track, according to Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula.
He was addressing the media at the Koedoespoort Traction Station in Pretoria on Wednesday, during his report-back on the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s (Prasa) plans to fix the country’s railway lines.
In fact, new trains have already been deployed in some corridors, he added.
The infrastructure recovery budget for the 10 corridors is R52-billion.
“We took a conscious decision to prioritise 10 commuter rail corridors for reconstruction and recovery this calendar year,” the minister said.
A rail corridor connects two or more large metropolitan areas.
— @SAgovnews (@SAgovnews) July 20, 2022
Speaking from the Grosvenor train station in Mayfair, Johannesburg, Prasa’s acting CEO, David Mphelo, said: “We’ve got 40 corridors in essence within Prasa, without counting the long-distance corridors that we share with Transnet. Of those we’ve chosen 10 and basically the criteria of choosing the 10 was basically following where the majority of our commuters and patronage are coming from.”
Five of those are currently running – three in the Western Cape and two in Gauteng – he said.
According to Prasa, recovery work on three of the chosen corridors – Pienaarspoort and Leralla in Pretoria and Naledi in Soweto – is more than 70% complete.
The Pienaarspoort corridor is 90% complete, Mphelo said. “By 90% complete I mean the corridor would be open but we are waiting for equipment we have ordered, but we are looking at September to get the corridor up again.” The ordered equipment included transformers.
Prasa had also undertaken to replace the copper used in cables with other metals to curtail cable theft.
“The unspeakable devastation of the theft and vandalism left the network bare,” Mphelo said, adding that the government would be forced to invest billions in its rehabilitation.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Dead in our tracks: No trains, just more ruin as thieves and vandals strip Gauteng stations bare”
Mphelo explained that some stations could be repaired, while others, including Grosvenor and Kliptown in Soweto, would have to be demolished. “There is nothing to salvage here,” he said.
According to Prasa, of the total budget of R52-billion, R1.7-billion is for rebuilding and repairing the 115 train stations earmarked for revitalisation. Mphelo said Prasa was also considering the container system instead of rebuilding some of the smaller train stations. There are currently 17 operational railway lines in South Africa.
“What Treasury has said to us is that out of the funds that you currently have, go and look at those that are not earmarked and redirect them to manage the disaster and recover the infrastructure,” Mbalula said.
Prasa board chairperson Leonard Ramatlakane said the board also had to deal with the matter of R28-billion in irregular expenditure at the beleaguered agency flagged by the Auditor-General. An assessment of where the money had been spent would be done.
Warning to the board
Saying the State Capture Commission’s recommendations concerning Prasa will also be implemented, Mbalula spoke about the rot at the agency.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Chief Justice calls for special commission to investigate Prasa’s implosion”
In scathing remarks in front of members of the Prasa board, he said ineptitude within the organisation got it into the mess it finds itself in, but it will no longer be tolerated by anyone, including the board.
In scathing remarks to the board and top brass, the minister warned against collusion with service providers.
“It’s service providers colluding with Prasa’s own staff who are running things down here,” he said. “Stop listening to service providers who you have given contracts to. You are running a corrupt arrangement of friends here,” he said.
Speaking from the Kliptown station later in the day, Mbalula expressed unhappiness with how irregularities at Prasa were dealt with. Referring to dodgy contracts, he said he was not convinced by the reasons given for the irregularities, and he sought a clearer response. He was referring to the R3.5-billion contract to acquire 70 new locomotives.
“We must deal with irregular contracts,” he said.
The minister said he cannot stand people who fail in their jobs, because they make his job much more difficult and are not helping him in any way. He told the board members in attendance that their main focus, for now, should be on governance and returning train services.
Thieves and vandals have left Prasa infrastructure crippled, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. “When we terminated the board in 2019, we were under no illusion about the magnitude of the task at hand,” Mbalula said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Stripped bare: Looting till there is nothing left of Gauteng’s rail network”
Stopping the rot
Earlier, at Koedoespoort, Mbalula said that as a result of interventions aimed at cleaning up the ailing passenger rail agency, 33 employees have been suspended..
Mphelo said other implicated staff had run away from their disciplinary cases by resigning, while others had been found not guilty. He said the staff involved were already out of the Prasa system.
He said 19 disciplinary processes have been concluded, six cases were still in progress and four have been dismissed.
“We can’t get into disciplinary processes until the legalities have been dealt with,” said Mphelo.
Another intervention, said Ramatlakane, was the hiring of 3,100 security personnel to protect Prasa’s infrastructure, while Mphelo said technology, including drones and security cameras, would be used too, but this should be based on assessments by personnel on the ground.
Speeding things up
Mbalula said that since his administration took office in 2019 it has been rebuilding critical capacity on the board, and an administrator has been appointed.
His department was aiming for a faster turnaround time for the recovery process, despite a court setting aside the appointment of the administrator.
“We accepted the judgment and moved with speed to appoint the Prasa board,” he said.
In addition, his department had already reported to Parliament that they had begun the process of filling vacant posts and this process had the board’s approval.
The bizarre matter of too-tall locomotives procured from Spain also came up on Wednesday. Ramatlakane said the journalist who had written about the size of the trains in relation to the rails had used a Transnet manual in gathering their facts. He said Prasa was not angry with the journalist.
(Ramatlakane appears to have also made slanderous remarks about Daily Maverick Scorpio investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh, who exposed the bulk of Prasa’s corruption. Daily Maverick will address these remarks over the coming days. – Ed)
Mphelo said the issue of the locomotives must be finalised immediately.
Mbalula said Prasa has paid R2.6-billion towards the locomotives and that 13 of them had been dispatched around the country.
“And, of course, after they arrived there was a court case that determined that those locomotives were tall,” he said.
Seven of the locomotives had been auctioned at a huge loss to the country since it had managed to raise only R65-million. The minister said the process was then halted because it amounted to throwing money into a fire.
Three of the locomotives remained in Spain and the means to get them back to the country were being pursued.
Mbalula said they were also able to achieve their goal of appointing a group CEO within 100 days. He was referring to the previous CEO, Zolani Mathews, who was axed following investigations into his employment contract.
“We will have failed the public if we failed to deliver on this,” said Mbalula in reference to the recovery of train services.
“This is how the rail system was run down – by a human being,” Mbalula said as he stared down at the ruined Kliptown station from the bridge. DM
Read Part Two of this Daily Maverick series: “Fikile Mbalula calls on Prasa board to stamp out corruption, threatens to wield axe“