SA’s once thriving rail industry being dismantled one stolen cable at a time
Johannesburg - For the average township kid who was streetwise and mobile-savvy around the 1970s and 1980s, the train commute holds many memories.
Those were the halcyon days: for the bigots, those were the good days perhaps because the train compartments were racialised; for the rest, it was the best of times because the train offered the easiest and cheapest, though not totally the safest, ride.
Those days are gone; not gone because there are other, more convenient modes of transport. Gone because the vandal rules the roost.
Rail infrastructure has virtually gone extinct. Train stations like New Canada, Westgate, Kliptown and many others around Johannesburg are shells, stripped down to the last metal. The scrap metal business is thriving on the back of a dying rail industry.
Many fingers point to the drug addicts who have found a goldmine in the train stations, that are now without security personnel manning the premises.
The working man and woman used to rely on the trusted train and the Metrorail theme that promised to "Getting South Africa to work", a message that was at the core of their business and resonated very well with the commuters.
At the last count, commuter trains “getting the country to work” covered 2400km of track throughout South Africa.
The “Nyaope” (the drug of choice) brigade has seen to a shrinking of this statistic as they have carted tracks of railway lines off to the scrap dealer.
The vandalism is brazen and wanton. It is no wonder Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula is growing grey hairs prematurely.
He has a hard time setting up a security plan to anchor the fight against theft and vandalism of rail infrastructure.
Metrorail is said to be South Africa’s biggest and preferred provider of passenger and commuter rail services.
It is fast losing these bragging rights, if the resolve of the vandal is anything to go by. Mbalula has already engaged in countless debates in the National Assembly, “which focused on the impact that the ongoing damage to public rail infrastructure has on the economic lives of the most vulnerable and poor commuters”.
According to available statistics, “security-related incidents in the rail environment increased by 20% between 2017/18 and 2018/19 from 7 737 to 9,268”.
At the height of its efficacy, Metrorail ferried up to 2 million people daily in areas like Gauteng, the Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
The Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (Prasa) is seemingly fighting a losing battle.
It owns 317 of the 468 train stations that Metrorail operated before the onset of the vandalism, a blatant crime against the economy.
Prasa has overseen a stop-start-stop attempt at resuming halted train operations since June last year. “Cable theft”, the new buzzword, is at the centre of these on-again off-again rote revivals.
Prasa says “theft and vandalism accounted for 88% of all security-related incidents in 2018/19”.
“In addressing the pressing challenges that impact on the livelihoods of the poor, who rely on the rail system for their mobility needs, we have sought to secure the passenger rail environment by bolstering passenger security.
“The previous security arrangement was based on a 100% outsourcing model and placed reliance on private security firms. Notwithstanding the huge cost, that intervention was clearly not realising the desired outcomes,” Mbalula reportedly said.
The minister has an unending problem with regards to lack of security on the train routes.
If you grew up on the trains, and were familiar with the railway stations, you’d be forgiven to think the pictures of these Metrorail premises were scenes out of a war zone.
Rovos Rail has been in the luxury passenger traffic since 1989, says owner Rohan Vos.
The word “mess” features a lot in his speech: “The Cape Town route is a mess. The Pretoria-Germiston route is a mess, that’s where they’ve really vandalised the system.”
So a trip from Pretoria to Germiston has to take a very circuitous route that includes a detour to Meyerton in the south.
It is a single lane that, more often that not, is clogged with goods trains, Vos says, his sadness not easy to disguise.
Rovos did a trip to eMalahleni just last week after a long hiatus, Vos says, but they were delayed for up to 10 hours.
Of how badly the business has been impacted, he says, simply: “It’s been a massive problem.”