South Africa’s railway system is approaching total collapse due to the theft of electrical cables, vandalising of tracks and signalling equipment, and the complete stripping down of station buildings.
That is according to a new report titled “Why there are so many trucks on the road and so few trains on the tracks” compiled by experienced rail journalist David Williams for the Brenthurst Foundation.
Williams claims that around two-thirds of above-ground electrical cables on the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s (Prasa’s) network of 3,000km has been stolen or broken.
With such a substantial portion damaged or malfunctioning, much of the rest of the system also becomes useless, Williams said.
Engineers estimated that restoring this infrastructure into working condition would cost about half a million rand per kilometre.
The engineers also told Williams that one team would take 15 years to repair the damage.
According to Sunday newspaper Rapport, only 11% of passenger railway lines in Gauteng are currently serviceable. In KwaZulu-Natal, this figure stood at 30%.
The theft has been exacerbated by the cancellation of security contracts following a report from the Public Protector that found they were corrupt.
The problems extend into South Africa’s freight rail infrastructure, with Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) previously reporting that more than 1,000km of copper cable had been lost on its network between January and October 2021.
The theft picked up pace during the Covid-19 pandemic when fewer security guards could secure Transnet infrastructure.
According to its published cable theft statistics, more than 33.5km of copper cable was stolen in the past week (3-10 December 2021), while 47 suspects were arrested concerning incidents of theft and vandalism.
The total cost of these losses amounts to billions of rand.
The theft has also forced Transnet to cancel hundreds of scheduled cargo transporting trips, at a substantial cost to the entity and its customers.
The situation could lead to the complete collapse of South Africa’s rail network, once considered among the best in the world.
To prevent this, transport minister Fikile Mbalula recently announced several measures to protect Prasa’s infrastructure.
One of these is the construction of “impenetrable” and “vandal-proof” concrete walls along identified rail corridors and around substations.
These walls will be up to four metres high and reinforced with security fences and CCTV cameras.
In addition, Prasa was set to appoint 5,000 security guards through private security companies during November to help protect the infrastructure.
Several factors have contributed to the decline of South African rail.
The Brenthurst Foundation believes one big mistake was the government’s early 2000s decision to separate goods trains from passenger traffic, which previously mostly used the same tracks.
“This created major operational, safety and accountability problems that had not existed before,” the foundation stated.
There has also been widespread corruption and mismanagement at rail transport agencies like Prasa.
One of the best examples of this was the case of Daniel Mtimkulu, who served as Prasa’s chief engineer for five years.
In 2015, Prasa discovered that Mtimkulu had faked his doctorate following a report in Beeld that the paper could not verify his claims that he had a degree from a German university.
Mtimkulu had been responsible for designing the Afro 4,000 diesel locomotives that turned out to be too tall for South Africa’s railway infrastructure.
While the decline of South Africa’s railways has accelerated in recent years, it can be traced back as far as the 1980s.
That is when criminals started seeing opportunities to strike after the previous government amalgamated the 16,500 members of the highly-effective Railways Police with the South African Police in 1986.
That decision was taken to bolster forces to clamp down on increased violence in the build-up to the dismantling of Apartheid.
Subsequently, Cabinet approved a dedicated Railways Police unit under the SAPS Protection and Security Services Division on 11 June 2003.
However, a restructuring process in the SAPS was approved on 8 December 2010, and, subsequently, Railway Police—including the National Mobile Train Unit—were moved to the Visible Policing Division. A Gautrain Unit was established in 2012.
The reformed Railway Police remains diminished from its 16,500-strong force in the 1980s.