R130 million for trains that cannot run

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) signed a R130-million deal to lease locomotives for Shosholoza Meyl trains despite warnings that its railways were too dilapidated, according to a report from the Sunday Times.

The long-distance service resumed on 15 December 2021 in an attempt for Prasa to capitalise on demand during the festive season and holiday rush, after being suspended for almost two years since March 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But little did travellers know they would suffer a cumulative 90 hours of delays across 22 trips, due to cable theft and vandalism of railway infrastructure along the lines the trains travelled along.

Over 600 passengers were left stranded, in some cases for days.

Several of them told the Sunday Times they had to endure “unbearable stench” as the delays had led to the trains running out of water for flushing toilets. Travellers were transferred to buses to get them to their destinations.

A highly-placed source at the agency told the newspaper the company was now stuck with the locomotives for the remaining duration of the 11-month deal.

That means it would amount to irregular and fruitless expenditure.

Prasa would not reveal the name of the company running locomotives and blamed the issues on Transnet’s infrastructure.

Interior of Shozoloza Meyl train

While Transnet has previously acknowledged widespread vandalism on its lines, the declining state of Prasa’s own infrastructure has also been the subject of numerous reports over the last few months.

The closing of stations and suspension of services during the Covid-19 lockdown resulted in cable theft and vandalism at unprecedented levels.

According to a report from rail journalist David Williams, around 66% of Prasa’s 3,000km above-ground electrical cable network had been stolen or damaged by mid-2021.

Stations have also been ransacked, with thieves making off with roofs, cables, tracks, and even ripping out tiles, as shown in a collection of photos taken by David Edwards.

The deal for the running of the Shozholoza Meyl trains was finalised only days after the Prasa group CEO Zolani Matthews was axed, after he had supposedly failed to disclose his dual citizenship.

That led to the State Security Agency (SSA) denying him security clearance.

Matthews had allegedly been reluctant to sign off on the deal after Prasa’s own Mainline Passenger Service (MLPS) warned that the infrastructure was not ready to handle the trains.

He has taken Prasa to the Labour Court over his suspension, alleging that the company had not followed its disciplinary code with the manner in which he was suspended.

He also took issue with the speed with which the SSA had handled the security clearance matter.

“In a space of less [sic] than 10 days, I was charged, suspended, investigated and summarily dismissed.”

“My purported dismissal is baseless, and I will challenge it in this application,” Matthews said in his application to the court.

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R130 million for trains that cannot run