….  article dated May 2022…..

The transport albatross…. where now?

Reports now indicate that Passenger Rail Agency of SA (PRASA) is a total shambles with neither a strategic plan, nor the operating ability to service the public at large. Furthermore, the Agency stands in total default on accounting terms with the state Auditor General and therefore in terms of the PMFA, is technically neither a responsible entity of the funds it receives from National Treasury or a proper custodian of the public assets it holds. All of this is quite evident from recent parliamentary meetings so far held in 2022.

The entity was the subject of Thuli Madonsela’s report “Derailed” in 2015 with ten findings against the entity, a state agency with a full board reporting in terms of the Companies Act, the shareholder being the state.

Thinking ahead  

If the World Bank money is to be used to develop Transnet and PRASA into the future, first rebuilding its passenger carrying ability on South African rail and then into Africa, it cannot be with the PRASA that is presently limping from one month to another, trying to mend by itself the rail network it was given in trust.

Half-hearted attempts at bringing back some sort of service to the public has in general failed, with a specific failure of provide electrification to most lines. In a few cases, e lines have been served instead by diesel locomotives from Transnet. The same failure rate goes for the technical systems such as signaling, marshalling, maintenance systems and passenger hailing and public information services.

With the management of passenger facilities such as stations and their services, a start was made but funds have had to be transferred to other priorities and work has stopped. New rolling stock is well in hand which is primarily contracted out to the private sector.

Help needed  

From the meetings so far, an analysis would be that either the Minister is unaware of the problems he faces with PRASA, or PRASA is not telling him the full story, or the Minister is holding back information from Parliament. Worse, it could be that PRASA and the Minister both are unaware of the enormity of the problems faced, a call which could seem possible from the little information given and the calibre of reporting by both.

PRASA’s failures and inadequacies have occupied headlines for months and to the observer the only hope for labour, SA business and industry and the public is for the state to make a deal with Transnet, call in a private investor with experience as a passenger passenger rail operator to take over the bits and pieces that are left.  Then rebuild the system with Transnet as a shareholder.

David Maynier, MEC for finance in the Western Cape, has called at provincial level for such an arrangement. The DA in the meanwhile from negotiations over railway land must be privy to certain information and certainly input from security and intelligence sources as Western Cape Province. They must certainly have become aware that the board of PRASA, its senior management and the Minister of Transport, are all way out of their depth.

Bad history

The takeaway from the recent parliamentary meetings results in a meaningless of mumbo jumbo mixture of facts presented in the form of excuses and finger pointing, with political interference as a constant feature. Unchecked criminality is quite evident in all PRASA’s failures, none of which is followed up by SAPS or the national prosecuting authority it seems.

Whilst PRASA might never recover financially from the messed-up contract to buy the “too tall” locomotives from Swifambo for R3.5bn during the tenure of CEO Lucky Montana with Zweli Mkhize as ANC Treasurer involved one way or another, the point remains is that since Montana’s departure seven years ago PRASA has not had a permanent CEO.

Current financials

Following much earlier parliamentary oversight visits to PRASA operations in Gauteng and the Western Cape after reports on the vandalisation in Gauteng, an annual report was produced in late 2021 indicating that the overall monetary crisis at PRASA showed no sign of abating, with the Auditor-General issuing a disclaimer on the agency’s financial statements for a third consecutive year.

Not only does this disclaimer signifies that the company’s accounts cannot be relied upon but it also suggests that the entity is in serious financial trouble. The extraordinary facts are that in 2020 the entire PRASA board was fired. In the same year, a new board was appointed under new chair, Leonard Ramatlakane, who had been appointed by the Minister of Transport with no CEO reporting to Parliament.

Company law?

The result is that last three years of parliamentary report backs with oversight have now become utterly meaningless. Given the slice of national budget appropriated over these years, much of which has not been reconciled properly in terms of an annual report rejected by the Auditor General, it would seem almost criminal on the part of the state to continue on this path.  

In the last meeting monitored, Minister Mbalula told MPs that in December 2021 the salaries of 3,000 ghost workers had been found in the system pointing to an enormous system of corruption within PRASA itself. 

As was stated two weeks ago in the media, if 80% of the rail system is inoperable as reported, how many signalmen, train drivers, train guards, ticket collectors are being paid to sit at home?  Upon questioning by Alf Lees (DA), the Minister could not tell this MP confirm whether the 3,000 ghost workers were part of PRASA’s compliment of 17,000 employees or not

Big brother

When will things get back to normal? Probably never, say commentators, unless the private sector is brought in, as has been the case with urban bus services in all three metros. But Minister Mbalula and the governing ANC have adopted the opposite course by filibustering through Parliament, using their majority vote, the National Transport Amendment Bill proposing that the state assume control of all bus services.

The Bill was returned to Parliament by President Ramaphosa after advisement from his legal team that constitutionally such a move was ill founded. This move is one of the factors leading to the belief by ANC members that the judiciary is biased against them, which is quite ridiculous.

The problem

During an overall summation in a recent virtual meeting held by SCOPA, PRASA stated that an estimate of the cost of all vandalised and destroyed infrastructure in the three major provinces was in the region of R4.9 bn. In a long presentation, the following points were raised:

  • Security is difficult to exercise and very costly. Vandalism has dropped there being little left of the old railway stations to steal. In Cape Town, the vandalism is specifically due to shack dwellers stripping stations to build on railway reserve. 3,000 security guards are on the PRASA payroll, their wages being part of the dispute with Cash Paymaster services, the contract being declared illegal by the Constitutional Court. Consequently, work levels are poor.
  • In Tshwane, the Mabopane line is secured by armoured cars which is effective but costly. Security officials state that copper theft is major export item to Mozambique and to the North, with organised gangs operating on a large scale with scrap metal merchants in exporting major quantities of copper cable stolen from new and recently installed electrical systems. SAPS are failing to follow up such crimes, stating there no law on copper dealing/trading due in the main to a lack of political will and not understanding the need. SAPS have also stated they have insufficient manpower to enforce this kind of commercial crime in the scrap metal environment.

Also there is the problem of the establishment of informal settlements on the Cape Town/ Phillippi/ Khayelitsha Central line which have blocked movement on tracks for many kilometers. The major commuter line serving the major townships is therefore halted and has been so for over a year.

 Extended negotiations between PRASA, informal settlement bodies and provincial authorities are stalled on legal issues finding new land and the nature of alternative housing.

“Reinforcements in security” he said, had been introduced which included walling in some sections in Cape Town “where there is a collaborative effort by PRASA, the National Department of Human Settlements and the Department of Public Works to access land to relocate those people.”   Walls will be established along the Langa, Kyalitsha and Philippi portion of the Central Line

Fog down the line

In an attempt to establish a date by which the main labour force areas in the cities Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban could see the return of regular commuter rail services, based on the trajectories given by PRASA it would seem that  of the 46 rail corridors – the bulk of which are not in working condition- about 20 have been made operational in one way or another and some partially for short distances and with stations operating only at terminals or where the service stops.

Only six of Cape Town’s ten lines are operating, mostly single train/single-track and only during peak hours, according to press statements. According to PRASA in presentations to SCOPA and the NA and NCOP committees there are various dates. The line between Bellville and Strand is now promised for October 2022 and to Muldersdrift in early 2023.

Trains were promised in March this year between Pinelands and Langa without signaling, and similarly on the short stretches between Bellville and Goodwood, also without signaling. Passengers are being moved on the domestic line from Cape Town to Simons Town and to some extent this has assisted tourism but the schedules are erratic.

The big ones

The critical stretches of the main Central Line from Philippi to Mitchells Plain and then to Khayelitsha will only be operating, it was said, by the end of 2022 or early 2023. Trains are back on track on the Mabopane-to-Pretoria line but of the 23 stations, only five are operating for passengers – Pretoria North, Mountain View, Hercules, and of course Mabopane and Pretoria’ which means still a limited take-on of passengers by area.

When an MP queried why electrification had not been restored to any portions of the Mabopane line and only expensive diesel locos used, Minister Mbalula argued that it had been electrified. The MP in question, Alf Lees, who had just returned from a parliamentary visit to the area, assured him that the train he travelled was pulled by diesel. Possibly Minister Mbalula had not realised this when he officiated at the opening ceremony, said Mr Lees.

Clearly Minster Mbalula is a very confused man. Irritatingly, Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, Ebrahim Patel, has, as usual, shown little interest in the failure of one of the most important building blocks of industry and commerce. He has stood far off, resisting any involvement in transport matters.

 

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