City Press 28 June 2020

Commuters are in for a rough ride next week as they face not only a hike in taxi fares, but also the possibility of being unable to use the country’s trains.

With the new taxi fares set to come into effect on Wednesday nationally, people were hoping to use trains as an alternative mode of transport, given that rail lines were set to open on Wednesday as well. However, they may be in for a rude awakening, City Press has learnt.

In November, the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) terminated security contracts without having any contingency plans in place. This move could come back to haunt the agency after an increase in crimes such as the theft and vandalism of railway infrastructure occurred during lockdown.

As a result, commuters may well be left stranded on Wednesday.While Prasa has proved to be compliant with social distancing regulations, its ability to meet its technical responsibilities – particularly with regard to whether trains will be able to resume operations as planned – has been called into question.

City Press has reliably learnt that Prasa was unable to move trains as part of a simulation exercise on two of Gauteng’s lines earmarked as part of Metrorail’s select rail operations from July 1. This is because much of the infrastructure related to the powering of trains, such as overhead cables, has been either vandalised or stolen over the past three months.

Vandalism on trains

Insiders at Prasa confirmed that the agency had experienced costly incidents such as the torching of its trains, theft and vandalism, which included stripping trains for metal. Cable theft had escalated during the national lockdown, they added.

While other modes of public transport were permitted to resume operations at the beginning of June, albeit under strict Level 3 lockdown regulations, rail operations were delayed. Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula attributed this to the state-owned rail agency not being ready to open.

Last month, the minister was quoted by News24 as saying: “We continue to work closely with Prasa in assessing each line and have put measures in place to achieve an acceptable level of readiness. The revised target date is now July 1 on the Pretoria to Pienaarspoort; Cape Town to Simon’s Town; East London to Berlin; and Port Elizabeth to Uitenhage lines.”

Recent developments have raised further doubts on whether Prasa will be ready to ferry commuters on Wednesday as planned. City Press has seen pictures of missing overhead cables, and has been informed by technical staff and train drivers alike that even railway lines in some areas in Gauteng have been cut at sporadic intervals and stolen.

City Press has also learnt that Prasa was unable to successfully move trains out of Naledi station in Soweto and Pienaarspoort Station in Tshwane as part of a simulation exercise, which was supposed to be conducted this week, to check on the readiness of its rolling stock.

The train cannot move because the overhead power cables were stolen.Replacing those cables is not like replacing a globe. I am afraid commuters have been given false hope because it will take a miracle to get trains moving on those two routes.

Source at Prasa

“The train cannot move because the overhead power cables were stolen,” said a source at Prasa. “Replacing those cables is not like replacing a globe. I am afraid commuters have been given false hope because it will take a miracle to get trains moving on those two routes.”

The extensive losses incurred as a result of the theft and vandalism of railway infrastructure has been widely attributed to Prasa’s termination of security contracts which were found to have been irregular. While the agency was praised for its decisive action, not having any alternative security plans in place has proved to be problematic.

‘Irregular’ security contract

Prasa staff are questioning why the rail operator did the right thing by terminating what it termed “irregular” security contracts – yet left its infrastructure vulnerable and open to criminal activity.

Said one employee: “Things went from bad to worse as no security was on site. Then the lockdown was implemented and trains were no longer moving. Criminals now had a field day on our railway lines, which had little to no patrols at all.”

Prasa neither denied nor confirmed the infrastructural and technical issues that might tamper with the planned resumption of train services on the abovementioned routes.

Prasa is scheduled to resume a limited service on corridors and lines that Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula will announce next week

Makhosini Mgitywa, Prasa spokesperson

On being asked whether Prasa was confident that everything was on track for Wednesday, the agency’s spokesperson, Makhosini Mgitywa, said: “Prasa is scheduled to resume a limited service on corridors and lines that Minister Mbalula will announce next week.”

Mgitywa confirmed that there had been an increase in criminal incidents which had affected infrastructure: “Prasa has, in the past several months, seen attacks ramped up on our infrastructure through theft and vandalism.”

Regarding the agency terminating security contracts without having a contingency plan in place, Mgitywa said: “Prasa has recently terminated a number of security contracts after they were found by the Office of the Public Protector and the Auditor-General to have been irregular.

“We have been working with the SA Police Service to enlist their assistance in securing the infrastructure, while emergency procurement processes have kicked in to secure new service providers.”

Sabotage and theft

Meanwhile, Prasa staff suspect sabotage is at play with regard to the spike in theft and vandalism cases.

“For instance, the Naledi to Joburg line was not part of initial lines announced by the transport minister, but the staff was recently asked to start work on that line and get it ready for operations to resume,” said a Prasa insider.

“It was clear that Naledi was now being added because the infrastructure was still intact there. Then suddenly, just a few days before the simulation exercise was to be held, overhead power cables were stolen. So, the train could not move out of Naledi station for simulation purposes on Thursday.”

Mgitywa echoed these sentiments, saying the damage to Prasa’s infrastructure had amounted to “billions of rands”.

“It is clear that these are acts of economic sabotage involving some security companies and some Prasa employees,” he added.

It will be bad news for commuters if train operations do not resume on July 1 – the day the country will see a capped taxi fare increase of R7 nationally.

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