Hundreds of thousands of commuters in the Western Cape will be without rail transport on Thursday afternoon following a surprise temporary suspension of the rail service.
Shortly before the afternoon commute, Metrorail announced its trains across the Western Cape were temporarily suspended with immediate effect due to "Eskom disconnecting traction supply".
"Eskom declared Metrorail a priority user at the start of load shedding and a cut of traction power is unprecedented," it said in a statement.
"Given the devastating impact of Eskom’s action in the Western Cape, urgent discussions between Eskom and Prasa executives are underway to find a sustainable solution without further impact on commuters."
In a short notice, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said Eskom had cut electricity supply to three Prasa substations.
He was due to address media at the Cape Town train station on Thursday evening.
Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa spokesperson Makhosini Mgitywa said that Eskom had disconnected power to Metrorail as a result of an overdue payment of 34 days.
"Prasa was not aware of Eskom’s action as the rail agency was in constant contact with the power utility regarding the account. Eskom wants Prasa to pay within 14 days of receiving an invoice, which is currently practically impossible. This point has been raised with Eskom, and Prasa will reiterate it as we engage them further."
Prasa said the process to make a payment was underway. It was optimistic that power would be restored soon.
"We also wish to assure affected commuters and other stakeholders that, while Prasa is facing a cash-flow crunch, it is however not bankrupt," said Mgitywa.
Prasa continued to engage with Treasury in an effort to have its capital expenditure converted to operational expenditure.
Metrorail said the loss of power across the region meant that the usual operational alternatives, such as electronic/manual authorisation and diesel locomotives, were not available.
Own alternative transport
"This means that no trains will be operating for the remainder of today."
All stations would be closed on Thursday afternoon and no single/return tickets were being sold.
Trains stuck in sections would be taken to depots and commuters on trains would be assisted to the nearest station.
It advised commuters on Twitter to make use of their own alternative transport.
Acting regional manager Raymond Maseko appealed to commuters to be patient.
He said the human impact was substantial.
"On average 590 000 commuters use our trains each weekday to get to work and back."
In his budget speech in Parliament on Wednesday, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced a R13.2-billion cut in public transport spending over the next three years, mainly on allocations to Prasa and the public transport network grant.
"The reduced allocation to the agency is mainly due to underspending in previous years, which resulted in huge cash surpluses," he said.
"The agency is expected to ensure that critical investments are made to stabilise Metrorail."
The City of Cape Town has been fighting to take over management of the rail service.
National Treasury deputy director general Mampho Modise recently said, while outside proposals for Prasa and Metrorail’s passenger rail network around the country to be managed at a municipal level were worth consideration, the Department of Transport and Prasa’s administrator, Bongisizwe Mpondo, would be given an opportunity to fix operations.
"In a perfect world, devolving passenger rail operations down to municipalities would be a good idea, but for now the department is dealing with operations and management, so we might want to give them a chance to get to the bottom of that," said Modise.
- Additional reporting by Khulekani Magubane