PARLIAMENT - The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) continues to lose paying customers by the millions, MPs heard on Tuesday.

Briefing Parliament's portfolio committee on transport on the state-owned rail company's annual performance plan, Prasa group chief strategy officer, Sipho Sithole, said the number of passenger trips for paying customers went from a baseline of 633 million to 372 million in the 2016/17 financial year. 

Between April 1 and December 31 last year, the number of paid passenger trips dipped to just 210.94 million - an indication of commuters' frustration with a service which is often not reliable.

In addition said Sithole, customer satisfaction sat at 59.4%.

"I think it's the lowest in the history of the organisation."

Sithole said to retain customers and improve their experience on Metrorail trains, Prasa needs some serious shaping up.

"It can't go worse than what it is now...must endeavour to recover the lost customers," he said.

"We can only achieve this if our trains are reliable, predictable and safe..."

Prasa has set some ambitious targets for the next three financial years. These include a recovery in commuter trips to between 382.4 million to 521.3 million by 2020/21. The rail operator also wants to reduce the number of train delays.

From April 1 to December 31 last year, Prasa's statistics show only 62 percent of trains were on time, with Prasa planning to improve this percentage to between 68 and 79 this financial year, increasing to between 80 and 85 percent in 2020/21. This, said Sithole, would be done through making sure coaches out of service due to vandalism and maintenance are refurbished at a faster rate through using private contractors.

The modernisation of the rolling stock, with many coaches being over 50 years old, as well as other ailing infrastructure would be prioritised, with R12.56 billion in capital spend budgeted for this year.

Last year, Prasa underspent on capital projects, something Sithole attributed to the instability at board and management level with projects not being signed off on because the board could not quorate.

"The story of Prasa at a personal level, it's been quite an experience. This is now my sixth CEO in the time that I've been here and the fourth board and the third minister."

While Prasa has grand plans, MPs said they had seen it all before and questioned exactly where the money for the projects is going to come from.

Revenue shortfalls, a value-added tax (VAT) increase, and increases in municipal services would put Prasa in a more precarious situation.

Prasa's estimated cash shortfall over the next three financial years was expected to be around R6.7 billion. 

African News Agency/ANA