Opinionista Ian Ollis 2 August 2013

What Eskom crisis? Trains, Stations and Metro Rail Offices stay on all night

While the power demands this winter remain precariously high, Metrorail leaves hundreds of trains running through the night. Eskom needs to step in and demand that all government departments, train stations and actual trains are switched off at night to conserve electricity.

Metrorail has a crisis of too few functional trains to cover the whole of South Africa’s needs and it has embarked on a 20-year project to replace these trains. In the meantime maintenance has to be performed after hours on trains because there are no spare train sets available to take over when one train breaks down or goes in for scheduled maintenance. If we are lucky, and the new construction programme has no delays, we will get the first new trains on the line before the end of 2015, but it will be a number of years before enough new trains have been manufactured to take up the shortage of trains required.

Meanwhile, Metrorail’s rolling stock crisis is adding to the electricity crisis as trains are left on at night in order for maintenance to be carried out, so that these trains are ready for commuters the next morning. Each year there are about 300 Metrorail train coaches that are reconstructed and modernised to supplement the existing fleet, this equates to roughly 30 remanufactured train sets deployed each year.

However, this maintenance work hides an electricity crisis that Metrorail and Prasa are helping to create by leaving hundreds of trains, stations and office lights switched on all night. I must confess I have always wanted to be a “sleuth”. It sounded like a very sexy job when I was a teenager. Kind of like the Hardy Boys. So in the past three months I have donned my takkies, grabbed a torched and headed off to conduct a number of personal visits and site inspections, without the knowledge of Prasa or Metrorail. I have found entire yards of trains with their lights switched on and the engine transformers running after operating hours, at almost midnight. You can view them yourself from the bridge over the Elandsfontein station in Ekurhuleni, any night of the week. The last train is parked there at about 9pm.

When I asked staff about this, they told me the lights are all left on. Staff believe it is because they have difficulty with getting the old trains started on cold mornings, or getting the heaters to switch on. I have checked other stations and found many trains remain on. Metrorail has about 406 working train sets in a good month and each train consumes about 110KW/h each standing there all night, if my engineering sources are correct. Are they all left on?

Eskom is begging everyone to switch off their heaters, geysers, and everything else while electricity supply is on a knife’s edge and sporadic blackouts occurs. In the meantime Prasa and Metrorail are leaving hundreds of trains switched on all night with motors running, lights on in all carriages, and in some cases heaters switched on heating empty trains all night! I raised this in Parliament during my budget vote speech, but no response has been received and the transport minister has now been replaced.

But this is not the end of the problem.

Electricity is being wasted in most train stations in one way, or another. A few spot checks of stations around Gauteng will show this waste to any observer. For instance, many train stations have all their lights blazing while the sun is out. While people are shivering in their homes this winter with load shedding in Gauteng, the local train depot wastes much needed electricity. A further inspection at the central Jo’burg Metrorail office at 1 am, revealed another problem. The building has 11 or 12 floors and seemingly every single light in the building is left on 24 hours a day. This centre is used to control train movements in Gauteng, at one in the morning, there are no trains moving and only a tiny skeleton staff needed for an emergency.

Why has Eskom not intervened? Instead of putting out ads on the radio asking people to switch off their geysers, why is Eskom not speaking directly with Prasa, Metrorail, Transnet and other government departments about checking their electricity wastage and switching off trains, station lights, office lights and equipment when they are not in use. Government entities and departments are wasting huge amounts of electricity every hour of the day, but Eskom is pushing us, the public, to fix the problem!

We need an urgent investigation into how much money and electricity is being wasted. We must ask more questions in Parliament and push for information so that the public and Eskom is aware of what is happening. Urgent changes are necessary before we are all in the dark again in winter! DM

Ian Ollis is a DA MP and can be followed on Twitter @ianollis


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