By Clayton Barnes and Noelene Barbeau
South Africa is sitting on a passenger rail time bomb - a third of the country's trains will be out of service by 2013.
And if the government fails to secure new rolling stock by the end of the year, Metrorail's already stretched service will be under further pressure, resulting in more overcrowding on trains and longer delays.
More than 280 000 passengers in KwaZulu-Natal make use of Metrorail's trains daily.
The country's urban railway system will have totally collapsed within 10 years without the necessary recapitalisation. About R5-billion a year is needed to make such a recapitalisation possible.
A third of the country's trains will have reached the end of their lifespan in three years, said Lucky Montana, chief executive of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), on Friday.
Prasa is Metrorail's parent company.
He admitted that the country's commuter rail system was headed for disaster if the government did not buy new trains soon.
"It doesn't make sense to keep refurbishing. It costs nearly as much as buying a new coach," said Montana.
"The current coaches are not built for the modern economy, and the levels of reliability are too low."
But the Transport Department says it simply does not have the budget.
Transport Minister S'bu Ndebele acknowledged the need for more passenger trains, but said that there were other areas, such as roads, which also required huge investment.
In his 2010 budget vote, Ndebele made road maintenance his focus for the next financial year.
Montana said there had been no investment in new trains for years. The government last spent a decent amount of money on trains in the late 1960s.
The average age of a Metrorail carriage transporting passengers is said to be 47 years.
Thandi Mkhize, KwaZulu-Natal Metrorail spokeswoman, said based on their 2008/9 assessment, the province should be running 465 trains daily with 57 train sets.
"The same study proposed a further 10 train sets needed to be introduced during 2011 to handle the the expected increase in patronage," she said.
Currently though, Metrorail KZN is operating 402 trains with 52 train sets.
They reduced their service in January as some train sets have gone for a general overhaul.
Mkhize said rail is still considered the cheapest mode of transport even with the latest fare increase. For example, the single fare from kwaMashu to Durban is R5.50 and from Umlazi to Durban is R6.50.
"Passenger rail is environmentally friendly as it uses electricity and therefore does not contribute to air pollution in urban areas. By encouraging the use of rail transport, the number of vehicles on the city's roads is reduced. It's also an important social service, providing transport to people who are unable to afford other means of transport," she said.
Cape Town requires 120 trains a day, but only 90 are running.
Deputy Transport Minister Jeremy Cronin told the Daily News that the situation was of grave concern.
He said the department had a strategic plan and was working with Prasa and the Treasury.
"We are working on a plan which includes providing the recapitalisation of the rolling stock and the rail signaling system," said Cronin.
"There is a sense of concern and urgency. We are looking at the best route and the best way to do it.
"The process should start by at least the end of this financial year."
Last year, the Transport Department announced that rail would be the backbone of the World Cup transport plan.
Prasa spent R7-billion to upgrade 2 000 coaches for the event over the past three years.
Of those, 780 coaches, which equates to 65 trains, will be dedicated to the World Cup for city to city transport, and services from park-and-ride facilities.
Montana said the 2 000 coaches had been fully refurbished and upgraded, and was ready for the football howpiece.
"Everything is new, except for the under-carriage," he said. "The trains have new brakes, were all serviced, and some will also have CCTV cameras."
Montana added however that the upgrade was only a "temporary intervention" to get of the train sets ready for the football tournament.
"We can't go forward only with these upgrades, we still need new trains."
During his budget vote in Parliament last week, Ndebele said Prasa would use the World Cup as a springboard to upgrade rail infrastructure, and to increase mobility and accessibility for commuters.