Sunday, August 7, 2022

South Africa’s rail network is stalling over corruption, Covid and missing cables

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As rail strikes hit Britain’s train network, South Africa’s three Cs of Covid, cable theft and corruption have wreaked havoc that could spell the end of long-distance rail travel in the country.

Rail transport across much of Africa has been crumbling for decades, as old colonial-era equipment and a lack of investment have meant services have increasingly fallen into disrepair.

The problems were illustrated by comic actor Griff Rhys Jones in 2015 when he experienced wait times of up to 33 hours in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe and encountered serious problems while filming a documentary Slow train through Africa.

But South Africa has always been different – ​​from the electrified long-distance rail services that have allowed the wealthy to cruise from city to city in well-cushioned luxury, to the billions of pounds spent on the Gautrain local transport network, which opened in 2010.

Jones’ time in the country was marked by how easily he managed to get trains there compared to other parts of the continent. Now, however, recent disruptions from closures, widespread theft of infrastructure, especially cables, and huge sums siphoned off through corruption have brought the South African rail to its knees.

Packed with champagne, canapés, high tea, after-dinner cigars and cognacs, with tuxedos and elegant evening wear, the Blue Train’s intense luxury had earned it the nickname of Africa’s Orient Express.

The country’s flagship luxury tour took passengers the 1,600 km (994 miles) from Pretoria to Cape Town in two days and nights, costing up to £3,000 each way.

But after seemingly surviving the Covid lockdown and returning full service from January last year, the Blue Train has again been suspended until further notice following a derailment and a carriage set on fire in a separate incident. And since it only has two trains, the other has been instructed to go through a thorough maintenance program.

However, it wasn’t the only way to get around the country by rail. The more affordable Premier Classe ran mostly on the same routes and offered affordable luxury. A one-way trip to Cape Town from Johannesburg, about 40 miles south of Pretoria, costs around £160, which includes meals but no cognac or cigars.

Finally, Shosholoza Meyl was the budget option with tickets around £35. Meals were not included, but there was a dining car on the train that had cabins with beds for two or four people. But neither this service nor Premier Classe has been fully operational since the first lockdown restrictions in 2020. Services resumed in November 2020 but quickly shut down again in April last year.

A spokesman for the state-owned Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) confirmed that they would gradually reintroduce Shosholoza services from September 3, 2021. This first phase would have included Johannesburg to Cape Town as well as to the other major port cities of Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha).

Phase 2 would have brought the return of other routes, but in the end none of the phases materialized. Prasa currently states that the Shosholoza Meyl services will not be running until further notice.

The Covid lockdowns, in addition to the disruption and costs they caused, also led to a significant increase in cable theft on the network. Transnet, the state-owned company that owns the ports, railroads and pipelines, said more than 1,000km of cable was stolen from the rail network in 2021.

The scale of this continued theft has prompted Prasa to announce the closure of four major rail lines in the country for up to four months to replace what was stolen and repair what was destroyed.

The lines that are closed include the main line from Soweto to Johannesburg. Aside from being a devastating blow to commuters from Soweto to the city, all long-distance tourist trains from Pretoria and Johannesburg to Cape Town pass through part of this line.

Corruption has gutted both Transnet and Prasa in recent years. South Africa’s state conquest, which used entire state units to divert public funds to corrupt corporations, has cost the country an estimated R1.5 trillion, a third of its GDP.

Popo Molefe, the former chairman of Prasa, testified in an investigation that former CEO Lucky Montana fraudulently awarded billions of rand to unskilled companies. A 2016 National Treasury investigation into 216 Prasa contracts valued at R15 billion found only 13 were jettisoned.

That year, the rail company identified 3,000 “ghost employees.” In an audit conducted to see if all of its employees were fully qualified, Prasa found that of its 17,000 employees, 3,000 people did not show up and did not complain when their salaries were stopped.

If South Africa’s railways are to be saved, this corruption must be vigorously combated. Even then, it could well be too late.

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