File picture: David Ritchie/Cape Argus
Parliament – Claims by top officials from the embattled Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) that the country’s commuter rail services will see a turnaround in the next 12 months was met with skepticism from MPs on Tuesday.

Briefing Parliament’s portfolio committee on transport, Sipho Sithole, Prasa’s group chief for strategy, said the agency would reach a turnaround phase in the next 12 months and reach its growth and expansion phase within the next 36 months.

“Rail is the backbone of public transport and we are working towards ensuring that…that it becomes the mode of choice for people wishing to travel within the republic,” said Sithole, adding that government’s intention to invest R173 billion in rail over the next two decades would go a long way towards Prasa improving its services to commuters.

“It is then upon us to ensure that translates into faster, more reliable and safe transport.”

Sithole did, however, flag the constant vandalising of trains as a major risk to its expansion and modernisation plans, saying that commuters blamed Prasa for trains delays and cancellations when the blame lay with thieves stealing copper and in so doing bringing the system to a shutdown. Often commuters would get so angry, they would set trains alight to express their grievances.

“Trains don’t just stop because Prasa does not know what it is doing. We are appealing for help, otherwise the 173 billion rand government is giving to us will just go down the drain.”

MPs expressed disbelief at some of Prasa’s plans, specifically achieving a turnaround in the metrorail system within the next year.

The Democratic Alliance’s Manny de Freitas said while it was a noble aspiration, it was also a pipe dream.

“Literally hundreds of thousands of people in South Africa arrive late practically every day because of this bad service…I don’t believe it….how in 12 months you are going to turn around this whole system that has been a disaster all along?”

“I think it’s cloud cuckoo land,” said De Freitas.

African National Congress MP Leonard Ramatlakane insisted Prasa should work towards better management/worker relations to ensure commuters did not pay the price for labour strife.

“Stabilise that issue, because if you don’t stabilise it, it can be a curveball all the time,” said Ramatlakane.