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Cable theft and systemic challenges dampen excitement about revival of Shosholoza Meyl long-distance services

Cable theft and systemic challenges dampen excitement about revival of Shosholoza Meyl long-distance services
Despite the resumption of Shosholoza Meyl operations, South Africa's rail services remain off track. (Photo: X, formerly Twitter / @PRASA_Group)

There has been great excitement as the Shosholoza Meyl resumed long-distance passenger operations in South Africa this month. But there have been many difficulties facing the train services with a warning of great challenges to come.

A Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) executive has sounded alarm bells about the resumption of long-distance train services in the country, warning that unless there is a change in policy and a new train network dedicated to long-distance travel is constructed, trains will continue to experience delays or, even worse, may never reach their destination.

The executive cannot be named due to fear of reprisal but claims they cannot stand and watch while Prasa is blamed for all of SA’s rail failures. 

The same view was echoed by rail expert Dylan Knott from African Railway Systems — consultants and suppliers of new and used locomotives. He said the railway system needs an upgrade, as it is currently at full capacity. 

“There are so many stations that can be refurbished to make use of the crossing places like the loop lines and that means you can add more trains but at the moment most of the stations are closed, they do not have enough locomotives, not enough crews and tracks are not maintained properly,” said Knott.

However, the construction of a new network is not possible due to the financial woes South Africa finds itself in.

Prasa resumed its long-distance Mainline Passenger Services (MLPS) after a two-year hiatus. The service, halted in 2021 due to operational and network infrastructure difficulties, recommenced for the December holiday season. This resumption aims to assist financially constrained travellers dealing with the expenses associated with long-distance travel.

The Shosholoza Meyl resumed operations again on 6 December and many South Africans were excited for its return. 

“I was delighted cause I am personally crazy about travelling with the [Shosholoza] Meyl and it costs less to travel via train,” said Keanu Joseph, who has been taking the Meyl since 2011. 

However, since the announcement of the return of the Shosholoza Meyl, there have been many difficulties facing the train service. 

Challenges to the return

The return of the Shosholoza Meyl was marred by difficulties even before the service could be revived.

“Reintroducing the service will not be without its challenges, and the agency would like to highlight some issues that may affect the service and outline its commitment to address them,” read a statement released by Prasa. 

Amongst the challenges was the shortage of locomotives in South Africa, said the statement. This shortage could result in delays and cancellations of trips.

Prasa operates the locomotives on a network owned and managed by Transnet Freight Rail. When there are issues like cable theft or rail network breakdowns, Transnet is responsible for sending out technicians. 

Transnet has, however, been accused of prioritising goods trains over commuters.

“Transnet goods trains are always given priority over Prasa. One train can move at a time,” said the anonymous source. “Prasa can only move after being given authorisation by Transnet and that adds to the journey time.” 

The source made an example of a Durban train that was delayed for 10 hours following a breakdown. 

“We were meant to wait for 2o minutes but the goods train failed and they had to wait for technicians to come and fix it. The railway is always far from cities/towns. Teams think on their foot and decide to reverse one of the trains while waiting for the technicians.” 

Security concerns

Safety and security also remain another hurdle for Prasa. Trains are accompanied by security guards and at some stations by police, depending on the level of criminality areas experience. 

There were instances where Prasa had to increase the capacity of SAPS at one of the stations because of the level of criminality. Operationally, this gives the rail agency headaches, as it is nearly impossible to always have police officers around trains. 

There were also infrastructure challenges impacting the return. “The condition and quality of the infrastructure have been a concern and may impact the travel experience,” said the Prasa statement. 

Daily Maverick has also established through sources inside Prasa that trains cannot operate at full speed, as this would compromise the safety of commuters. 

“We can’t even run at high speed because the network is not reliable. The train felt like it was running on potholes. We cannot transport people on these trains.” 

In addition, the controversial Afro 4000 locomotives would collapse the network according to the source. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Spain investigates corrupt Prasa ‘too-tall trains’ sale, while SA probe yet to leave the station

However, despite the challenges, Prasa stated that they remain committed to reviving the long-distance travel service. 

“Prasa believes acknowledging and addressing challenges openly is essential to rebuilding and maintaining trust in our service,” said the statement. 

Cable theft

Cable theft has had an impact on the operations of the Shosholoza Meyl, said Prasa spokesperson Andiswa Makanda. 

“Shosholoza Meyl also cannot move safely when there are low-hanging wires as a result of vandalised cables,” stated Makanda. 

For the trains to be able to pass safely, hanging wires would need to be cleared which causes delays to the trip, added Makanda. 

The Shosholoza Meyl’s trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town on 8 December was halted at Wellington Station due to theft of overhead cables between Kaalfonten and Muldersvlei, according to a statement released by Prasa. The remaining 70km of the journey was completed by bus, said the statement. 

“This incident, though beyond our direct control, underscores the pressing challenge of copper wire theft affecting our services,” said the statement. “We apologise for the disruption and assure you that we are taking robust measures with our partners to safeguard our infrastructure and minimise such unpredictable disruptions in the future.”

Rail expert Knott blamed lack of maintenance on the network, which then prevents Prasa from running the train at full potential. 

“For instance, in the past, you could probably run 100 km/h on a certain section, but because maintenance is being deferred, they will come and say just to be safe, you can only run half the speed. In running at half the speed, it takes twice as long to complete the route. But all this needs money, it’s really expensive. They are going to need machines and crews.” 

Bloomberg reported that Botswana has received unsolicited bids from investors to build a rail line to a Namibian port that will help avoid South Africa and its disintegrating logistics network.

Transnet responds

Transnet has denied that they give preference to goods trains over passenger trains. 

“Passenger trains will always take priority over a goods train unless the goods train is on a line where movement of all trains is blocked. In such instances the goods train will have to move to clear the route and priority will then be given to the passenger train.” 

When asked if the rail network is reliable, Transnet said the Freight Rail Network is fully operational.

“Regular national shuts are budgeted for to maintain and service the network on an annual basis. Cable theft, which has been widely reported, remains a challenge. Transnet and Prasa continue to work with law enforcement agencies to curb this crime.” 

Responding to the question if a new rail network is needed, Transnet said the National Department of Transport may be best placed to respond as the custodians of the rail policy.

Western Cape Provincial MEC of Mobility Ricardo Mackenzie said he believes that to restore rail to its place as the backbone of public transport and the movement of goods within the province, the function must be devolved. 

“If it were devolved, the Western Cape Government would work collaboratively with the City of Cape Town and other municipalities to tackle the key issues highlighted and to restore rail to a safe, reliable, quality and dignified service, with integration between rail and other modes of transport such as minibus taxis and buses. This is crucial for our economic and growth priorities,” said Mackenzie.  

He added that the Western Cape government has repeatedly offered support to Prasa, Metrorail and Transnet to restore rail in the interim, and will continue working towards devolution.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cape Town to push for intergovernmental dispute despite President’s rail devolution assurances

What does the Shosholoza Meyl offer? 

The Shosholoza Meyl has sitting economy tickets that include head and backrests, overhead luggage facility and communal toilets. Tourist Class tickets offer either a two-person coupe or a four-person sleeping compartment. These spaces function as suites during the day and convert into bedrooms at night, equipped with hot and cold water.

A single economy ticket for a trip between Johannesburg and Cape Town costs R430 and a sleeper ticket costs R690. 

Between Johannesburg and Durban a single economy ticket costs R170 and a sleeper ticket costs R360. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Wendy Higgins says:

    Anyone found tampering with- or damaging infrastructure, should be charged with treason.

  • Wynand Deyzel says:

    Might as well drop the electrical cables, building materials and tracks off at the local township. Then they wont have to install it first…

  • Coordinated approach is required from all stakeholders to deal with this issue of cable theft and its impact to our infrastructure. Lawlessness mustn’t be tolerated anymore…

  • Jan Vos says:

    Isn’t it amazing how the word “challenges” have come into everyday use in the Country?
    Mismanagement, stuff ups, incompetence, crime, corruption, lack of maintenance, bad planning, collapsed infrastructure, the list is endless. ALL now classified as “challenges.” Pathetic.

  • Peter Merrington says:

    This nice euphemism ‘challenged’. Why is it that after thirty years of liberation we are so ‘challenged’? I have had the privilege of travel on the French long-distance TGV system, and gone down from Prague to Athens (via Budapest) on the Berlin-Athens express, and ridden trains in the USA. Other countries have all gone in their own time, their own way, through immense challenges. Here it seems that very little happens. Once the SAR&H were a byword for efficiency. They were the backbone of the nation. De Aar, the old central railway hub, is (as far as I can tell) coshed. What is it all about? Why this entropy?

  • John Smythe says:

    A whole new rail network? Bunch of ANC cadre losers. Kick those useless crooks out and vote in the winners. A party with a winning track record. And then things may start working.

  • douglas wade says:

    Back in the 1960’s, Orange express, second class return Ladysmith to Stellenbosch R25,19, and an excellent selection of wines.

  • George Mazarakis says:

    Self Inflicted Pain. Most of us remember the Railway Police and when train travel was flawless. Everything else is just an excuse

  • Richard Baker says:

    Can’t even read a tape-measure!
    Prasa (and Transnet) are jokes!
    Sadly no one is laughing….

    • Richard Baker says:

      Meanwhile, the Ukrainian railway system continues to run-reliably and on time-even when under attack in the middle of a devastating invasion!

  • John Patson says:

    Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, train tracks laid in the 1860s are still in regular use…

    • Peter Holmes says:

      Yes. Look what India “inherited” from the British Raj and how they have expanded and improved their rail network (the World’s fourth largest): rail passenger traffic has increased by almost 200% since 2000 and freight traffic by 150%, while we go in the opposite direction.

  • Wouter Holleman says:

    Challenges … we no longer have problems anywhere! We are in CRISIS, and when there is a crisis 1) admit there is crisis; 2) define the crisis and exclude what is not affected; 3) know that no one else is going to solve it – you have to deal with it, and 4) what can be learned from others. This last is always the most difficult.

  • Joe van Wyk says:

    There is apparently no political will to genuinely address the problem, in addition to the fact that knowledge, expertise, and effective leadership are sorely lacking. Has the ability of the SAPS to arrest these copper wire thieves really dwindled so low that even a foreigner stealing copper knows exactly where to sell his loot without fear of being apprehended? Find the buyers of the copper, persecute them speedily with the full might of the law, and the demand for this commodity would automatically evaporate.

  • Con Tester says:

    “Cable theft and s̶y̶s̶t̶e̶m̶i̶c̶ ̶c̶h̶a̶l̶l̶e̶n̶g̶e̶s̶ ̶d̶a̶m̶p̶e̶n̶ the ANC’s ham-fisted meddling eradicate excitement about revival of Shosholoza Meyl long-distance services.”

    There, I fixed the headline for you.

  • Cachunk Cachunk says:

    “There has been great excitement as the Shosholoza Meyl resumed long-distance passenger operations in South Africa this month”. What, are you serious, “great excitement”?! Who, in the failed state we live in, gave a continental about this additional Prasa catastrophe? I’m not sure our unemployed, destitute, crime-impacted, sick, pension-robbed, pothole-afflicted countrymen thought the ‘Slowdisaster fail’ was a beacon of hope and light!

  • It’s such a shame as the Shosoloza meyl was my mode of transport for many years to my family in CT. I love the train ride because one can relax, read a novel, have your meal in the dinning. I’m just very cautious now should anything go wrong en route. It’s always been my trusted transport. Let the happy days come back Shosoloza.

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