Towards a unified transport system

2012-03-31 10:43

Even if he wanted to, it must be difficult for Lucky Montana, Passenger Rail Agency of SA’s (Prasa) chief executive, to lose track of what his job is about.

His office is right behind the Rissik Station in Pretoria and every few minutes a train passes by.

From his third-floor office in Hatfield, Pretoria, you can see a wall that separates the Metrorail line running between Mamelodi and the capital city from the Gautrain track.

This separation, no higher than two metres, typifies a divide in the transport infrastructure that adds wrinkles to Montana’s 42-year-old face and greys his head. It is for Montana the most potent symbol of the ills of an unintegrated transport system.

The Gautrain passes Rissik Station and stops at Hatfield a few blocks away.

What irks Montana is that the wall is testament to almost R50 billion (R25 billion on Metrorail infrastructure and R24 billion for Gautrain) the state has spent on transport systems that pretend the other does not exist.

“All public transport systems that get a subsidy from the state must move towards having one common ticket,” says the Mamelodi-born Montana. “People might say that the Gautrain does not get a government subsidy, but it does.

“We must get to a point where we expand the Gautrain and its capacity to carry people and make it part of a unified transport system. It cannot be a stand-alone system.”

That debate will continue. For now, Montana has a much more immediate task and one that will make him potentially the most marked man in the South African business, even international, arena.

Prasa this week requested proposals for a R123-billion tender to supply Prasa with its first fleet of trains in more than 30 years.

Just for perspective, the Prasa tender is about R97 billion more than the controversial arms budget.

With so much cash waiting to be spent, a story or two will surely be written as allegations and counter-allegations of impropriety come to the fore.

The South African Transport Workers Union president Ephraim Mphahlele has already accused Montana of corruption; and Montana strenuously denies the allegations. Prasa has sued Satawu and Mphahlele for R20 million for defamation.

Mphahlele regrets not fully leveraging the opportunities presented by the 2010 World Cup when locals who did not ordinarily use trains used them.

“We lost a big opportunity. We had the middle classes, professors, and chief executives using our trains. We needed to sustain that.”

Montana’s criticism of the chasm in class of the transport system are not just based on his egalitarian instincts he might have acquired as a member of the Communist Party. He is an old hand at matters relating to the modernising the public transport system.

He is a former transport department deputy-director general and was in charge of the taxi-recapitalisation process, which sought to replace minibus taxis with safer buses, and to align the business to the normal rules of doing business.

This did not go down to well with some vested interests in the taxi business who threatened to visit harm on Montana.

“The police told me they could not guarantee my safety. That was when I resigned. The minister did not accept my resignation.”

One Saturday morning, while enjoying his short spell as “unemployed” then Minister of Transport Jeff Radebe informed him that he should report for work at what was then the SA Rail Commuter Corporation (Prasa’s predecessor) that Monday.

The immediate tasks there were to prepare for the World Cup, speed up transformation and build bridges with stakeholders such as hawkers and commuter associations.

Now a new challenge awaits from some quarters, such as the municipality of Cape Town, which has interpreted a clause in an act of Parliament giving municipalities a say in the regulation of the public transport system in its jurisdiction, to mean it has authority over Prasa.

“The act says the municipality must plan an integrated system. This means that Cape Town must say to us what their needs are and we must plan operations in line with their plans.”

The other reason Montana does not agree with their interpretation is simply that “they cannot afford it”.

“The railway system is based on the cross-subsidy principle. No single municipality can generate the investment requirements to run such an operation. A single train can cost up to R16 million.

“We employ 3 000 people in Cape Town. Those people have medical aids and pensions. Will they also take them over? Will Cape Town stop investing in things like sewerage systems to pay for these things?”

Of all the things Montana has achieved, he has one regret. He never got to play for his beloved Kaizer Chiefs.

“People look at me and don’t believe it, but I was not only a scorer of goals, I used to dribble a lot.”

The path he has chosen has had its rewards too. “I’ll be bold to say that this business has given me so much experience and so much knowledge that nobody can take from me. I have been given such a huge opportunity that I don’t think there is a business that I would not be able to run.” Some might say he has just been Lucky.

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