OPINION | SA's rail system is broken. This is how it happened, and how to fix it

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The rail sector in South Africa has been brought to its knees, despite the country having the best rail infrastructure in Africa. How did this happen? Nolwazi Tusini sat down with three industry leaders from the railway sector to find out. 


It's early morning and throngs of anxious workers wait at a dilapidated platform for a delayed train that may never arrive, train stations look like ghost towns with gutted brown dust where railway tracks used to be, burning trains, a president stuck in an overcrowded train for four hours on a journey that should have taken 45 minutes, overwhelmed ports brought to an effective standstill.

These images expose the state of South Africa's railway system which has been described as "in crisis", "inefficient", "deteriorating" and, by Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula's own admission in relation to the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), "broken". 

Metrorail's slogan, "Getting South Africa to work", is fitting not only for passenger rail, but the sector as a whole. Efficiently moving people from their homes to their places of work then back; and also moving goods to their various destinations is essential to ensuring the country "works".

The rail sector is central to this aim, and yet in South Africa it has been brought to its knees, this despite the country having the best rail infrastructure in Africa. How did this happen? I sat down with three industry leaders from the railway sector to find out.

Pulane Tshabalala Kingston is the founder of the Mirai Rail Corporation, a South African-based sub-Saharan rail solutions provider and technology company. Its primary focus is rail health as well as the refurbishment of coaches and supply of components. Her involvement in the sector is rooted in her belief that rail, as part of an integrated transport system, is a critical catalyst for the continent's socioeconomic development.

Gwen Mahuma, the founder of Mahuma Investment Holdings, an investment company with interests in the steel and concrete sector, found herself in the rail industry through infrastructure investment and realising infrastructure is inextricably linked to an efficient railway system.

She has since built one of the biggest black women-owned businesses supplying the rail sector with custom made steel and concrete products.

Zimkitha Zatu, a chartered accountant passionate about developmental financing, began her fated journey in rail through her first job funding rail clients at the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).

As an accountant enamoured with not just debits and credits, but also manufacturing, it was natural she would end up founding Mathupha Capital, a leading transportation infrastructure solutions provider.

Contrary to "getting South Africa to work" the rail sector is keeping South Africans from work and the country's goods from the market. How did the sector get into the dire situation it finds itself in? 

Pulane Kingston: When analysing why the South African railway sector finds itself broken, we have to look at the sharp and worrying decline in the use of the country's vast railway network as a mode of freight and passenger transport.

Transnet had a "good story to tell" between 2012 and 2018 when it experienced an unprecedented spike in the movement of freight to 201 million tons (MT) in 2012, marking the beginning of a year-on-year increase in tonnages culminating in a peak of 226 MT in the 2017/18 financial year. The year ended March 2020, saw a steep drop in these numbers with Transnet only moving 212 MT. Currently, the agency is moving 1 MT a week less freight, compared to the previous best years of performance, equating to approximately R1 billion per month in lost revenues.

And when you look at Prasa, you see a similar trajectory where in the 2009/10 financial year when, excluding World Cup numbers, the agency had 634 million passenger trips.

These volumes have since plummeted to a meagre 140 million for the year ending in June 2020.

This dismal performance can be attributed to poor maintenance practices, a lack of investment in infrastructure and severe operational challenges - exacerbated by years of unstable leadership and grand-scale larceny.

Gwen Mahuma: SA's rail sector has been decimated because of the insufficient investments in the sector which has led to ageing infrastructure due to little or no maintenance, replacement and refurbishment.

Outside of this, I would say that we have to urgently focus on the alarming increase in vandalism over the years as the most pressing issue facing the sector.

While state agencies have communicated their efforts to protect vulnerable rail infrastructure, we are yet to feel the impact of these efforts as stakeholders in the industry. Added to this, I must also highlight what seems to be a culture problem within the state agencies.

To give a simple example, sometimes it takes weeks to receive an email response from parastatal rail operators as a supplier. If an organisation struggles with managing something as basic as emails, how can they then tackle more complex issues plaguing the sector?

Zimkhitha Zatu: I concur with the view decades of neglect in maintaining rail infrastructure has led to a breakdown of the railway system. In addition to this the monopolistic state of the rail industry, where Prasa and Transnet have exclusive control of the country's railway network, has created inefficiencies and led to a lack of response to market and customer's operational needs.

This results in an over-reliance on the state's balance sheet to fund maintenance backlogs and a lack of competitiveness - which would drive efficiency.

And I can't not speak about rampant corruption and the fact that it has led to a breakdown in procurement systems and the downright theft of funds which should have been directed towards rail infrastructure.

One of the devastating impacts of corruption is the flight of skilled professionals and a difficulty in attracting key skills to the rail sector. 

So how do we rehabilitate the rail sector and build a world-class railway system?

ZZ: It is imperative for Transnet and Prasa to allow more players to participate meaningfully in the sector through a policy framework that establishes public-private partnerships (PPPs) and allows fair use of the rail infrastructure. They simply cannot do what needs to be done alone.

The sector also needs to stop being reactive and begin to leverage technology and innovations from across the globe which can give real time data about the performance of your network, information related to signalling and detect security issues as they happen. Technology also offers opportunities for alternative revenue streams such as installing internet fibre on the overhead of the rail network and selling it.

GM: We need to become a society that implements. The policy papers and ideas exist, but the challenge is that what is said and what is done are unrelated. There is a Green Paper published by the Department of Transport in 2015, which spells out what needs to be done in order to revitalise the rail industry and it has not been properly implemented.

Skills development in the sector must be accelerated. Change management is also crucial. People must be educated to understand the importance of rail and the impact it has on job creation, ease of movement of goods and people, and ease of trade between cities and countries which has a domino effect on the GDP. 

As a society, we need to understand how important rail infrastructure is to our lives as a whole. 

PK: We must focus on the right things, such as aggressive investment in infrastructure and an almost exclusive focus on operational efficiency, underpinned by technology, in order to build a world-class railway system. It is also important to have a system that is safe, dynamic, agile and responsive to customer requirements.

It goes without saying that sound and ethical leadership is non-negotiable in rehabilitating the sector, and I am delighted that both Prasa and Transnet seem to finally have stable leadership that is committed to move beyond the levels of corruption we have seen in the past.

More broadly, I would urge the government to assess the potential for private sector partnerships (PSP) to support infrastructure investment in line with the PSP Framework. 

You are all clearly deeply invested in South Africa's development. Why do you believe an efficient rail sector is South Africa's best prospect to foster economic growth and create jobs?

GM: Rail infrastructure is the backbone of any country and is crucial for development and growth. The sector traditionally provides tens of thousands of jobs. Affordable and reliable transport is critical for the smooth running of any economy, whether it's transporting people to work or transporting goods for trade.

ZZ: Rail has been found globally as an essential causal agent of development for any country - especially in developing countries. As an accountant, I care about efficiency and the bottom line. Rail is the most efficient and cost-effective way to move goods and people. It's also the most green way to do it, as it has the lowest consumption and emissions.

An effective rail network therefore makes your goods more competitive for sale and makes the country more competitive globally, because investors will give their money to countries that have infrastructure in place to support their investments.

PK: Quite simply, the railway sector, as part of an integrated transport system, is the engine room of the economy and the key to creating jobs and unlocking a better life for all. Without being able to efficiently move freight and people to and from the market, it is impossible to foster economic growth.

With the African continental free trade area, this becomes even more critical given the opportunity we now have to build African economies rooted in decolonial trade routes that disrupt historical routes created to extract from the continent instead of developing it.

Outside of the complex and technical machinations, the rail industry is fundamentally about people - about whether they can live lives of dignity where they are not exhausted from unnecessarily long commutes, impoverished by expensive transport and expensive goods or unemployed because of lagging economic growth.

Trains have a rich history that is unquestionably stitched into the fabric of South Africa's past, rail is necessary to helping us overcome our current economic challenges and will be an integral part in creating a better future. Writer Lidudumalingani once irreverently asked: "When Jesus is here, will he use a train to get around?" Certainly not today, but I hope, with visionaries like Kingston, Mahuma and Zatu, possibly in the near future. 

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