South Africa Urgently in Need of Integrated National Rail Policy – Chris Hunsinger MP

“The soaring unemployment rate and necessity of rail as a catalyst towards creating an enabling economic environment, connect opportunity and bridge historic apartheid spatial wrongs should provide adequate and urgent incentive”- Hon. Chunsinger

Chris Hunsinger MP, the Shadow Minister of Transport  at the Parliament of South Africa,x-rays the past,present and the future of South African railway system,proferring  informed solutions to a sector the South African government is struggling to reform and upgrade.


How will you describe the state of South African railways?


Hon. Hunsinger: Let look at the past to assess the present. 

“Railway is calculated to be of immense benefit and the enterprise is certain to return ample remunerative profits…”; although somewhat tweaked to disguise the origin as 1845, most will agree that this is still true even for today.

So also, the reply to initiator and Chairman of the then Cape of Good Hope Western Railway, Harrison Watson; by the then Attorney-General of the Cape Colony, the Hon. William Porter: “Please do not to associate me (Porter) with a venture of this kind.” These circumstances led to the Cape of Good Hope Western Railway not going ahead with its planned railway. 


Eventually in 1860, not Cape Town but Durban, could lay claim to be the place of where the first Rail Track was built. Pulled by oxen, a definite two-mile travel by rail was indeed undertaken, the first in South Africa. 


Little more than fifty years later, all railways in South Africa finally became a unified state-owned railway system in 1916 when the Central South African Railways, the Cape Government Railways and the Natal Government Railways were all merged by an Act of Parliament introducing the first successful formation of a National Integrated Railway Structure,a development that took just over hundred years. 

Since 1860 until today,nearly 30 different entities of authority can be identified as being in control of rail in South Africa. Point is that little has changed in the basic need of transporting people and freight, but in relation to the ideas of “how” rail should be run ,harmony seldom reaches the first hill. 


A heritage of different rail gauges, low speed and low axle load, the inability to renew outdated equipment, operational inefficiencies, etc. has resulted in generally low performance on the one hand and under-utilised assets on the other hand. This poses a challenging cross-rail intersection of much needed reform amidst declining support in commuter and freight. 


By comparison though, South Africa has long been ahead of Europe in coupling systems through the AAR coupler which was developed in the United States at the end of the 19th century. Fact remains, long-distance passenger and freight rail-travel has declined in South Africa in favour of road by truck, bus, taxi and car as only alternative. While many commuters still use Metrorail for their daily commute in the major cities, nationally, only half of South Africa’s 36,000 km of track is being fully utilised with 35% of railway track carrying no or very low volumes. 

Most rail-tracks in South Africa resemble the 1,067mm Cape Gauge track-width which was selected in the 19th century to reduce the cost of building tracks across and through the mountains found in several parts of the country. In between, numerous 19th century 2-foot narrow gauge width rail-track can be found & with the introduction of Gautrain in 2012 the 1,435mm standard gauge rail-width was introduced, combinedly presenting serious network integration issues. 

Between 50% to 80% of the rail lines in South Africa are electrified and different voltages are used for different types of trains. Most electrified trains run 3000 V DC (overhead); this is used primarily for the Metrorail commuter lines, and has been in use since the 1920s higher voltages (25 kV AC and, much less frequently, 50 kV AC (both overhead)) have been used for heavy duty lines (which also require more sleepers per km) primarily used for the transport of iron ore and introduced during the 1980s. 

Burning of trains, a phenomenon which sadly remains part of rail management still reigns with over R600-million in the Metrorail train fleet being lost,a staggering 71% of the total, or R451,6million, taking place in Cape Town. During the period from May 2015 to August 2018, a total of 149 carriages were destroyed, even more vandalised and damaged. 

As a result, we have experienced a serious decline in rail commuter numbers, with Metrorail’s count of paying passenger trips dropping from 543 million in 2013/14 to 269 million in 2017/18. Infringement notices and directives issued by the Railway Safety Regulator have soared in recent years attributing 70% of manual train authorisations to cable theft and vandalism, faulty signals & -tracks. 

These conditions which seriously impact on train schedules and in Metros where Metrorail operates approximately 2200 trains and over 2.4 million commuters per day affecting a labour force, family life and the economy reliant on being on time at work, school and home. Concerns about rail safety have also increased in recent years. Four people died and 620 other commuters were injured when two trains collided near Pretoria’s Mountain View train station in January this year while on 4 January 2018, a passenger train operated by Shosholoza Meyl collided with a truck on a level crossing at Geneva Station between Hennenman and Kroonstad, in the Free State Province. The train derailed and seven of the twelve carriages caught fire, leaving 21 dead and 254 injured. 

What policy decisions should be taken to advance the sector?

Hon. Hunsinger: Implementation derived from policy direction seem to get jammed up in the executional assignment and follow-through. Commuters on the other hand want three basic service delivery returns against paying for a ticket, and they are:Safe, On time & Clean Trains. 

The same needs in basic terms can be argued for freight carriage. Equally, the demand for freight carriage services are nearly the same. Given the fiscal challenges due to a declining South African Economy, increasing unemployment and less favourable financial lending options efforts to streamline policies relevant to reform should be prioritized. An example is the split between TRANSNET (freight) and PRASA (commuters) as separate entities using the same Rail Track, Stations, Platforms, Locomotives & Signal Equipment; all belonging to the same Government; yet cross-invoice each other in excess of R1 billion per year. 

With a variety of legislative and policy documents of various rail initiatives launched over the years by different stakeholders, these have undoubtedly led to uncoordinated objectives in the utilisation of rail infrastructure. As a result, the rail sector has existed in the absence of an over-arching rail policy in the form of a Green and National Rail Policy Paper which should be prioritised and finalised without delay due to crucial economic benefit linkages. 

The soaring unemployment rate and necessity of rail as a catalyst towards creating an enabling economic environment, connect opportunity and bridge historic apartheid spatial wrongs should provide adequate and urgent incentive. Policy direction should be focussed at reform essentials like the rebalancing the disproportionate differences between rail and road market shares. Also applying enabling interventions like selected regulation to promote freight rail.

 The purpose and  structure of State-Owned Entities (SOE’s) should be reconsidered with for instance all Safety Regulators being grouped together directly under The Department of Transport instead of having to compete for income thereby hunting for tariffs and levies should instead be protecting commuters and freight to the benefit of consumers. Private sector participation in infrastructure and rolling stock should be encouraged with subsidised routes to Industrial Development Zones (IDZ) like Saldanha and East London, to solve  the impasse of too much investment backlog and  too little funding ability. 

Having the lowest energy consumption of all transport modes, rail is well-positioned to substantially reduce overall energy consumption despite increasing its volumes.

Despite the cost of repositioning rail which some believe would be too high for the South African economy to bear, the cost of not changing current trends in unbalanced modes of road vs rail-based transport might exceed all cost. The inevitable dependency on expensive and polluting fossil fuelled road transport should be avoided at all cost in favour of reform-essentials aligned to advantages of transport running on renewable energy and a thriving economy because of progressive mobility policies. 
Is the present South African presidency getting it right in the railway sector?

Rail has contributed substantially to South Africa’s foundational development but presents huge challenges in its current form to remain relevant and a preferred mode of mobility. The scope of challenges varies from conversion complexities of spatial planner’s struggle to fix disparities caused by the effects of apartheid to structural changes needed to modernize rail for future needs – a volatile environment often contested by resettlement issues, petitions and protests.

 Closer to “the Command Centre” of decision and  policy, unfortunate recent episodes of corruption, bid-rigging and state capture in the rail sector; concerns about consequence management and little evidence of decisive action against perpetrators dominate recent opinion & debate. Overarchingly, the rail sector finds itself at a most difficult stage, a “cross-roads” intersection in need of serious reform. 

Near to all long-distance passenger traffic has declined seriously; from equal to global heavy volumes haul to 3rd place in iron ore with 6% and 5th place in coal with 5% of the respective global markets. While ageing infrastructure, inadequate availability of specialised technical skills and deteriorating rolling stock is accepted as a hindrance of progress, the lack of security for passengers and freight, inefficient operations and grimy facilities are seen as manageable tasks which are disregarded.

 In a statement at the end of May, United National Transport Union (UNTU) said that The National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) had to grant the union permission to strike because negotiations for improved safety of railway employees had “reached the end of the road”. The absence of equitable road pricing has benefited road transporters relative to railways and further eroded Rail’s ability to compete effectively. The absence of an over-arching National Rail Policy postpones strategic departure from the current intersection of reform. 

While a regained sense of urgency might trigger departure from this current state of reflection at the intersection, greater economic benefit would be derived from collaboration with competing transportation modes instead of departing with a mission to succeed against other modes. Choice of mobility type remains a decisive component as mechanism of economic multiplier versus limitation and narrowed access and participation.Integral reform-essentials which will allow for adequate economic recovery with Rail as economic driver require a policy direction of devolution in authority for city led growth and local managed control, cities and regional governmental structures that manage rail service delivery needs locally.
Progressive rail policies and future-fit rail-governance-thinking underpin strategies to address socio-economic development, job creation, how to eradicate poverty, unemployment, inequality and under-development. The needed recovery plan should also include a strategy to attract professional skills, expertise and job seekers and to establish local manufacturing plants which will create job opportunities, provide rail engineering capacity & skills that went lost in recent years. 
While trains have always been powered by steam and voltage, the direction of rails and who benefits from them have always been; & still are; driven by politics and politicians.  Favour or fate, this near global feature of railway application has not missed South Africa and  inevitably revisits us during current stages of development and certainly will again visit us in the future. 

In this regard, having had four Transport Ministers in just three years does not help; neither does it do our reputation good when 13 new locomotives are advertised for auction due to a disastrous R3,5 Billion deal to source new locomotives that were unfit for South African lines. 

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