Prasa tells Parliament it must shift R7.5 billion to fix trains

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  • The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa told Parliament that it plans to refurbish up to 400 train coaches in the next five years.
  • To do this, it has asked that National Treasury permit it to shift funding from its capital expenditure to its operational budget.
  • The agency said it managed to get its personnel numbers up from a low of 2 000 in 2020 to 4 922.

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) told Parliament that it would need around R7.5 billion over five years as it works to refurbish up to 400 passenger rail coaches around the country and get them back in fully functional condition.

However, Prasa is not coming to the legislature or the National Treasury with a begging bowl to ask for more funding. Instead, it is asking National Treasury for permission to shift funding from its capital budget to operational expenditure to accomplish its ambitious goal.

Prasa has been hobbled by ageing infrastructure, restrictions on regular maintenance during the hard lockdown, and the cancellation of irregular security contracts, which allowed theft and vandalism of infrastructure to run rampant with impunity.

A Prasa delegation told Parliament's Select Committee on Transport, Public Service and Administration, Public Works and Infrastructure on Wednesday morning that it had developed a plan to restore coaches, repair the network and keep the new investments safe from crime.

New lines of hope

Prasa board chair Leonard Ramatlakane said while it took a long time for the agency's leadership to get to this point, it was grateful to Parliament for the goodwill it extended as the entity got its house in order in this area. He said the entity would introduce new stops before year-end.

"We are continuing going forward. Sometimes we may seem slow in terms of movement, but if you all know the train rail business well, it is a hard business, and you will understand it has a long lead time period.

"But I can say to you that our promises in 2022 are now materialising as Mabopane is online and we are working on the Cape Town Central Line and riding a train from Cape Town to Nyanga should happen in September this year and that Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha should be added on in December," said Ramatlakane.

READ | 'Don't vroom past me to Godongwana,' Mbalula tells City of Cape Town

Coach cash

CEO David Mphelo said out of 46 corridors under Prasa's care, a great deal of stock has not been maintained or refurbished. He said 400 coaches need to be refurbished in the next five years, and the rail agency hopes to use this to create youth jobs in response to President Cyril Ramaphosa's call for economic opportunities.

"We want to recover the limited service as it is, address deficiencies and get it running as we go along. That is why there is limited service recovery because part of the full service of signalling and takes us longer to rebuild signalling. Getting this to be automatic will take us a long time, but we are doing that," said Mphelo.

Mphelo said out of 40 corridors experiencing challenges, just 18 were functional. He said Prasa had identified 10 priority corridors that needed immediate intervention, with four in Gauteng, four in the Western Cape, and another two in KwaZulu-Natal.

"We have seen that the movement of our people in Gauteng will be between Pretoria and Johannesburg. We need that entire backbone corridor, which talks about connecting commuters and jobs. This is why Mapobane and Mamelodi are a focus, but for end to end, we need to connect Park Station to Kaalfontein," Mphelo said.

He said while the first phase of refurbishment in the Western Cape was coming in July to add the new blue trains to the Retreat line, KwaZulu-Natal had no new trains yet but is being managed in the context of the recent flooding.

Mphelo said Prasa also planned on investing R1 billion towards addressing theft and vandalism over the next three years but warned that this is unlikely to be enough. "We want approval to shift R6.9 billion from capital to operational spending. We need to get Autopax out of business rescue," he said.

Security spending

DA MP Tim Brauteseth asked the Prasa delegation if it would consider using drone technology to improve security on its corridors, as its headcount for security personnel fell so sharply in a short time.

READ | Mbalula to companies: Help us improve SA's rail system

Mphelo said the rail agency would work on a hybrid model of insourced and contracted security personnel. A private company working on the Mabopane line was already using drones for security purposes. He said the capacity to expand this was being built internally, he said.

African National Congress MP Mandla Rayi asked how far Prasa was with getting the 3 100 security personnel the entity had committed to appointing last year.

Mphelo said Prasa had managed to get back half of the security personnel capacity that it had before the cancellation of the contracts that caused a severe drop in numbers. He said staff numbers were also recovering from the blow dealt by the hard lockdown of 2020.

"As far as the security scenario, in my presentation to another select committee, we had around 10 000 boots on the ground at our peak, both insourced and outsourced. When we cancelled the contracts, this was depleted to 2 000. We then had to quickly get the 3 100 we talked about.

"I am happy to announce that we have employed all 3 100 which took our internal capacity to 5 100. We have had the Covid-19 impact, which affected that number. We now sit with an insourced capacity of about 4 922," he said.

Mphelo said with R7.5 billion over five years, each coach should cost between R3 million and R4 million to repair. He said Prasa had capital for specific projects and would ask the National Treasury for permission to transfer that capital to operational costs.

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